Palembang's brocade endures test of time

The fine textures and unique designs of Palembang songket, woven designs embellished with elaborate brocade, have earned nationwide renown and become favorite souvenirs of visitors to the city. 

The classy textile artifacts of historic value are widely believed to come from 35 Ilir, a subdistrict in the South Sumatra capital of Palembang. 

Many people are unaware the older pieces actually originated in three villages: Limbang Jaya, Tanjung Pinang and Tanjung Laut in Tanjung Batu district, Ogan Ilir regency in South Sumatra. 

In these three neighboring villages, located 60 kilometers south of Palembang, a one-and-a-half-hour bus ride from the capital, thousands of women rely on weaving and brocade for their livelihood. 

In 35 Ilir subdistrict, only a few dozen artisans engage in this handwork business. 

The head of Limbang Jaya village, 33-year-old Muslim, said old and young village women alike are skilled at weaving and hand finishing songket while the men work as blacksmiths. 

Limbang Jaya is home to 2,020 people or 425 families. 

"Our brocade and weaving artistry has been handed down through the generations, with women of all ages making their living at it," he told The Jakarta Post in his home. 

"Even primary school girls can weaving and embroider our cloth." 

The high dependence on handcrafted textiles and the widespread popularity of the products have helped the tradition survive the test of time. 

The adorned fabrics produced by skillful hands are of high quality and much sought after in various circles not only from South Sumatra cities but also from as far away as Jakarta, Medan in North Sumatra, Riau and Lampung. 

Demand for Palembang songket, which designs rely on a spectrum of motifs, is usually high just before the fasting month of Ramadan, the Idul Fitri celebration and the wedding season. 

Apart from the superior items produced, the home industries also turn out reliable artisans. 

Quite a number of young girls from the three villages go on to work at larger handicraft firms in other cities like Palembang where their skills can get them a higher wage. 

Some families who moved to other places, such as Lubuklinggau in Musi Rawas regency, have replicated their businesses in their new homes, often recruiting workers from their original villages 

Village products are usually sold to middlemen at prices ranging from Rp 1 million (US$90) to Rp 2.5 million for high quality fabrics and up to Rp 800,000 a piece for ordinary ones. 

But some songket weavers choose to sell their decorated cloths directly to Palembang's handicraft shops and galleries in 35 Ilir subdistrict. 

"The prices depend on the types of thread and motif textures. If the gold thread is of the crystal type, with motifs in fine textures employing silk, the price might exceed Rp 1 million," said songket maker Salnah. 

The Ogan Ilir regency administration has proactively taken measures to promote product quality and marketing, such as providing training in skill and management as well as encouraging participation in various national exhibitions. 

"The government will continue to assist the handicraft community in all respects like training, capital and various regional and national trade fairs," said Rahman Rasyidi, an employee at the Ogan Ilir trade office. 

Hoping to avoid depending solely on the government, local artisans have also sought ways to raise their own capital. 

For example, two years ago, hundreds of villagers from the three producing areas formed a group to take out a loan from a private bank. 

"We hope everything goes smoothly so we can pay back the loans. The aid must in no way be used for consumption purposes," Muslim said. 

It takes two weeks to finish an embroidered piece and a scarf, according to Salnah, a 50-year-old embroider who has been on the job for over 25 years. 

Apart from producing their own cloth, many women also make the pieces for middlemen for certain fees. The fees range from Rp 400,000 to Rp 700,000 for high quality products and Rp 250,000 for ordinary ones. 



Palembang songket brocade has a long history spanning the entire period from the Kingdom of Sriwijaya to the Sultanate of Palembang Darussalam. 

Palembang veteran artist Mir Senen said embroideries constituted one of the many valuable things inherited from the glory of the Sriwijaya era. 

The typical feature inherent in Palembang brocade is the glow of gold thread worked in symmetrical patterns. 

The decorated pieces, locally called sewet, are usually worn by women who wrap the cloth to hang from the waist in combination with the scarf called kemban. 

The fabrics are woven with silk thread. The fabric is also suitable for men who often wear traditional tops and tanjak, head coverings, to match. 

In wedding ceremonies, the gilt cloth is normally worn along with head ornaments. 

With their uniquely fine textures and stylish look, the motifs are also quite different from those found in other regions. 

"For the people of Palembang the motifs have various meanings and historic merits. They may be seen as ancestral inheritance, as dowries, as traditional wedding attire or even as valuable collections of families," Mir Senen said. 

He said Sriwijaya Kingdom, which flourished from the seventh to the 11th century, served as a cultural gateway for other countries including Portugal, India and China. 

"The influence of Indian and Chinese cultures remains in the decorative motifs of Palembang brocade, particularly in the use of red and golden hues," he said. 

There are several types of songket: * Sewet Songket: A hip wraparound for women, which usually goes with a scarf. Its cloth is entirely covered with brocade embellishment. This embroidered piece is normally worn in wedding ceremonies. * Sewet Tajung: Used especially by men, it is called Gebeng. The other version is Tajung Rumpak or Tajung Bumpak. For women, this cloth is referred to as Tajung Blongsong. Sewet Tajung is woven by selectively working in golden thread. * Sewet Pelangi and Jumputan: As the name implies, pelangi (rainbow) has a wide variety of gorgeous patterns. Its fabric comes from silk thread whose special dyes will not fade and is traditionally made. It has a smooth and soft surface that can be gripped as a lump. 

Jumputan has flower motifs that look like being pinched in the process of boiling, so that they become beautiful and attractive in finished forms. * Sewet Peradan: It is also called Sewet Prada. The woven fabric is treated with a golden dye especially for coloring clothing. The piece subjected to golden coloring is usually one using fine material and having elegant motifs.
Source:Khairul Saleh, , The Jakarta Post, , Tanjung Batu, South Sumatra | Mon, 01/05/2009 11:05 AM | Potpourri