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Intricate: Songket fabrics can take days, weeks or months to create. (Wan Ulfa Nur Zuhra)
Salbiah arranges threads on her loom. Her 70-year-old hands send the shuttle back and forth, and the precious Batu Bara songket develops slowly, as the weft creeps up the warp.
The woman has been weaving Batu Bara songket since she was a child. Even today, she still weaves beautiful songket every day, though her speed lessens year by year. Salbiah is among the oldest weavers in Padang Genting village in Batu Bara regency, North Sumatra.
But weaving is not just a task for old women. Housewives and young girls can also be seen making songket along a row of houses on Jl. Besar Kampung Panjang.
Weaving has always been a special skill of the women in Padang Genting. Almost all the women in the village can weave, from teenagers to the elderly. It is an extra source of income for women, something they can do alongside taking care of the household.
Skilled: A woman weaves Batu Bara songket in Padang Genting village in North Sumatra. (Wan Ulfa Nur Zuhra )
Although traditional weaving has been important in Batu Bara for hundreds of years, surprisingly few people are aware of the existence of songket, or at least where it comes from.
“It’s hard to expect people even in North Sumatra to know much about Batu Bara. Many locals are probably not even aware of it. But who doesn’t know about ulos?” said Azhar, a weaver and dealer in the fabric.
Azhar reckons people know a lot more about ulos (a traditional piece of Batak cloth worn thrown over the shoulder) than Batu Bara. When people talk about traditional textiles from Medan or North Sumatra, they almost invariably mention ulos, though Batu Bara songket is much more fine and delicate, and harder to come by.
Fadlin, a lecturer at the cultural sciences school of the University of North Sumatra, wrote a thesis on Batu Bara weaving for his Master’s degree at the University of Malaya. He became interested in the subject in 2005, when there was a popular movement in Malaysia interested in all aspects of Indonesian weaving. As an Indonesian, he was asked to do research on Batu Bara and spent the next four years completely wrapped up, perhaps both literally and figuratively, in songket.
Historically, Batu Bara songket was the “power suit” for the king of Malaya and his court. The colors of the cloth were associated with the level of the bearer in the social hierarchy. Yellow was the highest degree and only used by the king.
Since 1946 when the Malayan Union was established and the Malaysian monarchy effectively disappeared and since Indonesian independence, great social changes have overtaken both countries. There is no restriction in the use of Batu Bara songket anymore. Anyone can wear whatever color they prefer.
The cloth is still mainly worn by ethnic Malays, but Bataks are also beginning to wear it, especially on special occasions, notably weddings, when it is often combined with traditional Batak cloth.
Preserved: Traditional fabrics line the shelves of a store in North Sumatra. (Wan Ulfa Nur Zuhra)
Nobody knows when Batu Bara cloth originated, but the first literary reference to the fabric is found in John Anderson’s Mission to the East Coast of Sumatra from 1823.
Salbiah has a very old piece of songket with a rare pattern called sejubilang. It is a kind of sampler of woven motifs embroidered on fabric and is hundreds of years old.
She does not know for sure how old it is, but the sejubilang cloth was obtained from her grandmother and has been handed down from generation to generation. It is the one and only sejubilang in Batu Bara.
But weaving skills are not confined to older people: the young still learn the skill from their parents. Nuridho is the youngest weaver in the village. At 14 years old, she can weave as well as an adult and is able to complete a 2 square meter piece of cloth in just six days.
Because she is still in school, Nuridho usually weaves from 2 to 6 p.m., but begins at 10 a.m. on holidays. She makes Rp 100,000 (US$10.50) a month from her work and uses the money to pay for school because her parents cannot afford to.
Looking at the skills of the young weavers in the village, Azhar believes that Batu Bara songket will survive. “What we need is better promotion and more publicity,” he said.