AT the crack of dawn, some 17 young women take their place behind wooden looms in a little workshop in the south of Kuching to weave some of the finest songket in the world.
Camaraderie and music accompany intent eyes and nimble fingers as these girls work diligently through the day. This is the Sarawak arm of Royal Terengganu Songket (RTS); its other workshop is in Terengganu and the brand has a showroom in Bangsar, Kuala Lumpur.
Royal Terengganu Songket was created by Yayasan Tuanku Nur Zahirah, a foundation set up in 2007 under the royal patronage of the Queen to preserve local heritage craft while improving the livelihood of artisans such as these weavers.
“Our goal is to keep the cottage industry alive,” says RTS textile and design director Dr June Ngo, who is also the deputy dean of the Faculty of Applied and Creative Arts at Universiti Malaysia Sarawak and a PhD holder in songket crafting.
It was in this neat little shoplot that one of the youngest weavers in the group, 19-year-old Sukma Kipli (who goes by the nickname Tania), produced the piece that won the Silver Prize in the Brocade Silk Metallic Yarn category at the Asean Silk Fabric and Fashion Competition in Bangkok in July.
The winning piece was a sampin (a short sarong) with a baroque and traditional Malay songket motif, woven in cream and brown filament silk. It was made in the traditional way by weaving an assortment of coloured metallic threads into the cloth with a traditional embroider.
“The award came as a surprise to us since the girls have been trained to weave for less than three years,” Ngo says.
The criteria for judging were evenness, design and pattern, neatness, colour, creativity, concept and workmanship.
Indonesia, Laos, Myanmar and Thailand also took part in the competition, which was organised by the Queen Sirikit Department of Sericulture, Thailand, and serves to establish a culture of cooperation in the technical and marketing aspects of the art among Asean countries.
Making songket is an intricate process where only about 8cm of fabric can be woven in a day.
The sampin is commonly worn by men over a loose pair of pants from the waist to the calves. Intricate gold borders line the sides, giving the cloth an exquisite edge.
A weaver’s story
Like many of her peers in the workshop, Tania comes from a farming village in the interiors of Sarawak.
Haltingly, she tells me about her life and the simple decision to follow her sister two years ago that led her to venture out from her familiar surroundings to this job in the city.
Tania’s older sister, Ramlah Kipli, now the workshop supervisor, was weaving songket on her own for sale at Kraftangan Malaysia exhibitions. Her labour was fruitless and after eight long months without income, Ramlah met Ngo at an event.
“Madam (Ngo) offered me a job as a weaver under the Yayasan. Along with a few other young women like myself, I was the first generation in the current pool of weavers under the Yayasan. To date, I’m the oldest weaver in our little community,” explains Ramlah, 30.
At that time, Tania’s dreams of becoming a nurse were put on hold as her family did not have the means for further education. Her next best option was to join her older sister as a weaver in the city. Despite forgoing her own dreams, “this has been very fulfilling in a way I didn’t expect. But if I landed a scholarship for a nursing course, that’d be a different story,” she says with a shy smile.
As I speak with the team in the workshop, it becomes clear that winning the award – or spinning yarns for songket – is a team effort. Ngo comes up with the concept, which is then meticulously translated into a design on graph paper by the textile designer, Ong Wan Fen. Working off the design, the weaver then transfers it to the material. Not a thread can be out of place or the quality of the piece will be compromised.
“Everything we do in the centre undergoes a systematic process from origination to the end product as we lead a very niche market,” Ong says.
Ngo is more than the boss at the centre – she is also a mentor to these young women, playing older sister, mother and teacher to them in the absence of a strong and positive role model when home is so far way. Ong, who works with them on a daily basis, is their next constant.
“What these girls do is amazing, They are gifted, quick learners who work hard with a good attitude,” Ngo says, adding that the organisation ensures that the girls are well compensated for their work and enjoy benefits of overtime payment, annual increments, bonuses and EPF contributions.
“We even have an outreach programme for weavers who are single mothers in Terengganu. We’ve built comfortable work spaces for them and buy songket from them,” Ngo explains.
Finished goods are shipped to Kuala Lumpur and sold in order to sustain the Foundation and staff weavers. As we discuss the financing for the RTS centre in Kuching, its plea for support from the Government is evident.
“We do our best for these girls and we truly have their best interests at heart. Our long-term goal is to have RTS stabilise to a point where it’s self-running; that these weavers may fulfil their potential as artisans and be more financially independent.
“Ramlah has just purchased her first car and that, to us, is the focal point of the success we’ve had with this organisation.”
Article originally appeared on Th Star Online.