By Danielle Sendou Ringgit
Besides its picturesque and Instagram-worthy views, Sambas, West Kalimantan is also home to an intricate and delicate tradition of songket-making.
Songket, a hand woven fabric in silk or cotton with gold or silver thread is a traditional luxury item often worn during formal occasions in Malaysia, Indonesia and Brunei.
In Sambas, songket-making has always been synonymous with the Malay community since the reign of its second sultan in 1675, Raden Bima or also known as Sultan Muhammad Tajudin.
Some argue, however, that songket-making has been around since before the Sambas sultanate, during the Hindu time period, which makes the tradition more than 400 years old among the Sambas community.
In the olden days, songket weavers were usually women, but today it is not uncommon to see male songket weavers.
Making our way to Desa Semberang which is about 15 minutes’ drive from the central town of Sambas, we met a husband-and-wife team of songket weavers; Bunjamin, 55, and Rusmini, 50.
Making songkets since 1978, the husband and wife duo have garnered more than 30 years’ experience making songket from scratch to the final product.
Starting from scratch, Bunjamin would first prepare the thread used to weave the songket cloth.
For this process, he would roll the threads into a big bundle and later arranges them to make out a piece of cloth on a wooden platform.
It takes Bunjamin about two weeks to prepare the threads before handing it over to his wife, Rusmini for creating the motif on the cloth at her wooden weaving loom.
A time-consuming and tedious process, one needs to be constantly alert to prevent making any mistakes so that the motif would come out perfectly when done.
According to Rusmini, it would take her about a month to come up with a complete product.
Not far from the residence of Bunjamin and Rusmini, is another songket weaver, Masnita Husni, 45, who has an impressive songket collection of various colours and designs.
With more than 30 workers under her, Masnita showed an impressive collection of songket of every colour as she began to take out a massive collection of songket and had them laid down out.
As Masnita began to bring out more and more of her songket collection for us to admire, she said that her songket can be available in two forms – a lighter songket and a heavy one.
The lighter songket which she called ‘Jepang’ is made from Japanese cotton while the heavier one is called ‘songket kristal’.
While both are different in term of the weight and the thread used, Masnita said that both can be used to make dresses for the ladies. Aside from that, songket can also be seen embedded on male clothing such as traditional Malay shirts and songkoks.
Having been in the songket business for 25 years, Masnita is constantly being updated with the latest trend. According to her, nowadays, most prefer colourful songket rather than those with a single colour.
Intricately designed that it glitters when it catches the sunlight, another unique thing about songket Sambas is that it is hand woven with golden thread or ‘bannang ammas’ in Sambas, which gives it its shimmering effect.
These days however, golden thread is difficult to find as well as expensive, and so most resort to using bennang from Jepang (Japan) or India, where according to Masnita she can purchased from Sambas town.
“For Sambas songket, the most popular pattern would be the bamboo shoot motif,” explained Masnita as she continued to pile out more of her colourful songket collection which now began to form a mini glittering mountain.
Meaning behind the motif
Known as ‘suji bilang’ among the Sambas people, the bamboo shoot motif is triangular-shaped, long and tapered.
The bamboo shoot motif is said to have three main meanings.
Inspired by the shoot of bamboo shoot plant that will keep on growing, bamboo shoot motif is used to remind the people to keep on moving forward.
Aside from that, the motif is also used to remind people to think straight and forward. Like a bamboo shoot, they should continue growing straight and tall.
Lastly, the motif is also to remind the people not to be arrogant once they have reached a higher level. Imitating the bamboo shoot, it should always bend a little when it has grown tall, signifying humility and modesty.
Having been in the songket-making business since 1978, Bunjamin said that songket making is no longer widely practiced among the younger generation.
“The younger generation now… they are curious about it but they are not really interested in learning how to make it as the process is very long and tedious,” he said.
A tradition as old as time, it would be a shame to see the songket-making tradition fade away as not only the tradition itself is a unique practice among the Sambas community but it also reflects their culture, tradition and the values they hold dear.