Much documentation is still hazy about the origins of the songket fabric and weaving techniques. Several theories were written by historians in an effort to narrow down songket weaving point of origin. Songket weaving was introduced into the Malay Peninsula by the influx of Indian and Arab traders between the thirteenth centuries to sixteenth centuries through the port of Malacca. Songket fabric was said to have brought in during the Malacca Sultanate Empire period when trade to the Malay Peninsula was at its peak during the fifteen centuries. The materials such as silk threads and looms necessary for weaving were brought along by traders from India, China and the Arab world and the West, via India. Indian traders brought in the first primitive backstrap loom and along with it the use of cotton. Although later the backstrap loom was replaced by the simple frame loom, still in use today.
This theory is supported through the writings of Duarte Barbosa, which described the fine silk and brocade worn by the rich in the famous city Malacca. He goes on and describe the Malays and their attire “… the most distinguished among them wear short coats which come half way down their thighs of silk cloth – in grain brocade (songket?) – and over this they wear girdles; at their waist they wear daggers in damascene- work which they call crus (keris)…..”.(the book of Duarte Barbosa)
Up to the 16th centuries, trading in textile was also active in the east coast states of Kelantan and Terengganu. In contrary to the theory of origin via the port of Melaka, Kelantanese believed, historically, songket was brought in through the north, via Cambodia and Thailand, and then came down via Patani, to Kelantan and then to Terengganu. The effect of Siamese domination in the Malay Peninsular states became evident when study the ‘gigi yu’ motif of the bamboo shoot (pucuk rebung) which resembles the Siamese flames.
However, in Terengganu, it is believed that songket weaving came from India through the Sumatran during the time of Sri Vijaya. The Sumatran origin is most likely to be accepted due to several reasons still evident today. Facts shows most weavers are found in Terengganu today then anywhere else in Malaysia, while fine pieces of songket still being produced in Aceh, Sumatera, resembles greatly to the old songket pieces kept in local textile museum in Aceh.
Ever since songket weaving known to exist in this country, the industry developed mostly in the eastern states of Kelantan and Terengganu. In Kelantan, the weaving industry sat mostly in the villages around Kota Bharu. Historically, the weaving of kain tenun was found in Langgar. Kain tenun is plain handwoven fabric without any usage of gold motifs or pattern found in songket. Kain tenun was used during the reign of Che’ Siti Wan Kembang (1610-1677). It was during the reign of Long Pandak (1794- 1800) in Kota Kubang Labu, songket weaving existed in the surrounding village of Gerung, Tumpat.
When the reigning centre changed, then songket weaving began to spread in Kampung Laut and Kampung Atas Banggol. During the reign on Sultan Mansur (1890-1900), songket weaving industry was then developed in Kampung Penambang, which is about 4 km from the town of Kota Bharu.
In Terengganu, the weaving industry was developed around Kuala Terengganu, mainly in the Losong area of Kampung Losong Datuk Amar, Kampung Losong Panglima Perang, Kampung Losong Sekolah and Kampung Losong Masjid. There were also existence of songket weaving in the beach side villages such as Kampung Banggol, Kampung Kuala Ibai and Chendering. Evidently songket weaving existed in and Kampung Losong Masjid. There were also existence of songket weaving in the beach side villages such as Kampung Banggol, Kampung Kuala Ibai and Chendering. Evidently songket weaving existed in small villages in north of Terengganu, especially along the journey towards Kelantan. In Terengganu, songket weaving was believed to expand during the reign of Sultan Marhum Janggut or Sultan Mansur (1726-1793). As the story goes, the master weaver known as Wan Sharifah had taught her skill in kain cindai weaving to her granddaughter, Hajjah Ngah Taib. The Sultan had wanted her to weave a kain cindai, by which she had produced using some additional technique of ‘sungkit’ which is to pick and insert gold threads during the weaving process to form motifs. The gold motifs of traditional flowers stood out from the fabric, a variation from the kain cindai. This technique of embroidery was then used in all woven fabric for the Sultan and his royalties. Even some new motifs and patterns such as ‘teluk berantai’ and ‘jong sarat’ were developed specially for His Highness royal costumes.
Kain Tenun Pahang was believed to originate from Riau or Sulawesi and brought into Pahang during the sixteeth centuries. Further research done by Dr. W. Linehan in 1722, stated that Orang Besar Bugis, Tuk Tuan, that resided in Kampung Mekasar Pekan had improved the silk weaving industry. Not much was written on the history of kain tenun Pahang although its development only began in 1904, Tengku Ampuan Mariam, who has special interest in weaving took over the development project. In 1960, a few weavers were sent to Terengganu for training to become master weavers and teach their skill to local Pahang girls. From there, the weaving industry of kain tenun Pahang started to gain public interest.
Songket’s rich and luxurious fabric demonstrated the social structure of the Malay elite. The symbolism of thread colors to signify the status and title of the Court has been in use since the period of the Melaka Sultanate during the reign of Sultan Muhammad Shah (1426 – 1446, Sejarah Melayu). White gold thread was the colour of the ruler, yellow for the crown prince, blue or violet for the prime minister and so on. Sultan Muhammad Shah himself preferred to be dressed in ‘Malay Attire’ as he refused to emulate foreign clothing.
The royal court weavers would produce individualized motifs often created by the royalties themselves. This rich textile was transformed from a mere form of attire into a canvas for individuality, personal triumphant, and was regarded as a symbol of prestige not only within the court arena but on an international stage. In the past two decades, kain songket has been introduced into a wider audience of culturally conscious wearers.
Songket has never been famous for tailored clothing due to its limited width and its owner’s sentimental value in his precious songket. Songket remained limited in use under these circumstances alone.
Songket wearer master the skill of warping, folding, pleating or draping around the waist, shoulder or head in order to achieve the desired part of a ceremonial costume. The songket must also be folded properly so that certain part of the structure is placed properly on the body.
Songket is traditionally used by the Malays as a ceremonial garment in untailored style of clothing called sarong or the shorter knee-length sarong, commonly called sampin worn around the waist over the traditional malay attire, baju melayu. For a complete wear, the sampin is accompanied by sashes (to secure the clothing around the waist) called bengkung and a horned head-dress or destar (tanjak or tengkolok).
Muslim women wear their songket sarong with either a kurung or a kebaya, two garments possibly from Arab source. Their sarong are seldom sewn but professionally folded and pleated and then sealed by sashes around the waist. Songket are also worn as shawls. It is draped around the shoulder and worn together with the sarong. It is often used in ceremonial occasions such as to welcome a new daughter in-law to her husband’s house (sambut menantu) .