Weaving Tales on a Songket

 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 

 
 
 
If the songket were a novel, its gold and silk threads would be the sentences that narrate the life and times of the people of Palembang — the South Sumatran city where the baroque brocade is still traditionally hand woven on a loom.
 
As a legacy of the Sriwijaya Empire — a kingdom that dominated Sumatra between the sixth and 13th centuries — the songket recounts the halcyon days of kings, queens and courtiers.
 
“The songket, which originated from the Sriwijaya Empire, was originally worn by members of the keraton and not by commoners,” Bahsen Fikri, who runs the Fikri Songket Boutique in Palembang, said.
 
“The weavers were court members as well. They made the songket cloth as souvenirs for palace guests,” he said, adding that these days people usually wear the cloth on their wedding day.
 
Likewise, the symbols weaved on the songket chronicle the transformation of Palembang from a trade city frequented by Chinese seafarers to the capital of South Sumatra.
 
“One of the first ever songket motifs, called ‘Naga Bertarung’ [Fighting Dragons], feature the Chinese symbol of dragons,” Fikri pointed out.
 
Songket manufacturers have kept up trade with China, but nowadays it is to purchase imitation gold thread as substitutes for the real gold-encrusted thread once used in the days of yore.
 
“That’s why we buy weathered, old cloth, which we unravel to pull out the gold-embedded threads.
 
These intact gold threads are then rewoven with new silk threads,” Fikri said.
 
Cloth woven with real gold thread, however, is sold dearly at Rp 50 million (US$5,550) or more per piece and are only made-to-order. Meanwhile, the humbler pieces of songket made of silk and imitation gold thread carry a price tag of around Rp 1.5 million upward depending on the quality of materials.
 
“The motif also influences the price,” Fikri said, adding that the motifs have evolved as well to stay relevant with contemporary fashion. Fikri chose to fuse songket brocades with batik prints as well as tie-dyed, or jumputan, prints. Another noted songket manufacturer, Zainal Arif, chose to redesign rectangular pieces of songket fabric traditionally worn as sarongs and sashes into cocktail dresses.
 
“The design is essential in appealing to those outside [Palembang]. Every year, we come up with new color, design and motif trends,” he said. The songket also speaks of the somber divisions within society. Although the songket fetches millions of rupiah, the weavers of the cloth are paid a pittance.
 

Weaving Songket

 
On average, weavers earn between Rp 300,000 and Rp 500,000 for each cloth they weave. “I get paid Rp 300,000 for each sash,” Fikhri, a 20-year-old weaver, said. He added that he worked on his loom for about seven hours a day to fabricate at least one piece of brocade in a month or two.
 
“I do almost all of the work myself from spooling the thread, stretching the thread across the loom to weaving the pieces of thread,” he said as he adroitly slid a hook horizontally under two layers of thread stretched vertically like strings on a harp. Shop owners contend that the income of the weavers lies in their own hands, literally.
 
“It depends on the person,” Bahsen Fikri said. “If the weaver makes three pieces in a month, that’s [a payment of] Rp 1.5 million.” The discrepancy between the artisans’ fees and sale prices comes at a time when the government is beating the drum on developing the creative sector as income generators for regions.
 
“We envision that, in the future, South Sumatra will increasingly grow on the basis of the richness of their history as well as their cultural creativity and innovation, in addition to their abundance of natural resources,” Tourism and Creative Economy Minister Mari E. Pangestu said during a recent visit to Palembang. She was in the city — famous for its fish cakes in vinegar sauce or pempek — to inaugurate the Sriwijaya International Expo 2011 held on the sidelines of the 2011 SEA Games.
 
The expo was organized to promote local culture as well as to accrue tourist rupiahs from the game delegates streaming into the city.
 
“I hope [the people of Palembang] enjoy the economic impact of local and foreign tourists’ visits,” the minister said. Songket shop owners pointed out that they have seen roughly a 100 percent rise in sales as SEA Games delegates, officials and athletes fill up the city’s hotels and sporting venues.
 
The minister herself, who said she was a great fan of the cloth, bought a couple of songket cloths from a shop to add to her collection of around 20 pieces.
 
“Visitors mostly buy souvenirs like shirts, hats and dolls because their prices range between Rp 10,000 to Rp 200,000. The songket cloths are expensive,” Bahsen Fikri said. The multiplier effect big events have on regional income has also led the government to try to boost meetings, incentives, conventions and exhibitions (MICE) in 14 regions, including Jakarta, Bali, Medan and Yogyakarta.
 
Unfortunately, promoting Indonesia as a convention destination has its problems since many government agencies, including local administrations, were unaware of the potential of hosting conventions as a means to “increase people’s welfare and develop a region”, he said.
 
As a result, there was a lot of immigration red tape that deterred visitors from coming, in addition to the lack of tourism facilities such as hygienic food centers. Therefore, the government plans to formulate standards that regions have to fulfill to be a suitable convention destination.
 
“We want to inform the stakeholders of the economic potential of conventions since convention tourists spend more than normal tourists,” he said.
 
The South Sumatra administration has targeted the Sriwijaya International Expo to bring in at least Rp 450 billion during its nine days of operation.
 
“We do hope people from outside Palembang keep coming because strictly depending on Palembang itself [for sales] is quite hopeless,” Bahsen Fikri said.
 
Unfortunately, promoting Indonesia as a convention destination has its problems since many government agencies, including local administrations, were unaware of the potential of hosting conventions as a means to “increase people’s welfare and develop a region”, he said.
 
As a result, there was a lot of immigration red tape that deterred visitors from coming, in addition to the lack of tourism facilities such as hygienic food centers. Therefore, the government plans to formulate standards that regions have to fulfill to be a suitable convention destination.
 
“We want to inform the stakeholders of the economic potential of conventions since convention tourists spend more than normal tourists,” he said.
 
The South Sumatra administration has targeted the Sriwijaya International Expo to bring in at least Rp 450 billion during its nine days of operation.
 
“We do hope people from outside Palembang keep coming because strictly depending on Palembang itself [for sales] is quite hopeless,” Bahsen Fikri said.
 
Source: The Jakarta Post – November 25, 2011
 
Photo: The Jakarta Post
 
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