A DELICATE piece of heritage fabric like the songket is the result of many months of skilled handloom weaving by expert craftsmen who learnt the art from their ancestors.
While heritage fashion enthusiasts will not mind the wait to get the best piece of songket, a technology boost is definitely needed when it comes to production on a big scale.
At Ara Borgstena, making songket via mass production is its forte.
Combining modern techniques of loom and software, the company can commercially produce 3,000 metres of songket fabric in two weeks with unique traditional Malay motifs such as bunga melur and bunga pecah lapan — which still makes the songket authentic but reinterpretated with a contemporary touch.
Located in Jenjarom, Kuala Langat, Selangor, Ara Borgstena was founded in 1992 as a joint venture between Ara Heights Malaysia and AB Borgstena Textile of Sweden, a pioneer in circular knitting technology and one of Europe's leading automotive fabric designer and manufacturer.
The songket innovation has been a collaborative effort between Ara Borgstena and the Faculty of Applied Science, Universiti Teknologi Mara (UiTM), Shah Alam since 2005.
“The idea to make songket with a variety of designs using modern techniques of loom and software came from Professor Dr Jamil Salleh of the Applied Science Faculty, UiTM. He is behind the development of the double-sided songket.
“Ara Borgstena is responsible for its commercialising phase,” says Ara Borgstena general manager Mohamad Pauzi Zahudin.
The invention, with its intellectual property right patented under UiTM’s Research Invention Business Unit (Ribu), improves traditional, handmade songket using what is termed jacquard technology.
The songket pattern is designed with grids using EAT-Design Scope Jacquard software which is later fed to the jacquard machine for the weaving process. On average, four 2.3 metre-wide songket fabrics are produced per hour.
“Besides speed, one striking difference between our songket and traditional songket is that our songket fabrics do not have the coarse, floating stitching called loop underneath, a feature commonly found in handmade songket.
“Using jacquard technology, the stitching technique enables the loop to be tucked in and forms a neat and soft surface underneath, making it more pleasant to wear,” says Pauzi.
Apart from being able to make various shading effects, production of reversible or double-sided songket is also possible.
“Each piece has the same pattern outside and inside, which means that one can wear it both ways,” he says, adding that the songket fabrics are made of polyester threads.
“Besides being able to incorporate customised corporate logos into the fabric, we also use traditional songket motifs,” he adds.
The textile company’s first songket production was in 2007 when it supplied kain samping, featuring the daun sirih motif, to Kraftangan Malaysia staff.
The company later embarked on an aggressive marketing campaign in 2010, supplying kain samping to government agencies and boarding schools as well as convocation robes for institutions of higher learning throughout the country.
“Our songket materials are categorised into low-end, mid-end and high-end grades and are mainly meant for government agencies, schools and universities.
“Besides kain samping, neckties, shawls, lapels and robes, our songket fabrics are also turned into corporate gifts, souvenirs, fashion accessories and home decoration items such as throw pillow covers and kufi art.
“We also make songket to be turned into picture frames, framed art pieces or table runners for hotels,” says Mohamad Pauzi.
He says British fashion designer and icon Dame Zandra Rhodes also transformed Ara Borgstena’s songket fabrics into a unique collection of day and evening wear at London Fashion Week in 2015.
The Zandra Rhodes 2016 spring/summer collection was the result of a creative venture between the designer, Kraftangan Malaysia and the British High Commission with the aim of promoting Malaysian textiles, specifically songket and batik, to the global market.
In designing heritage-based material such as songket, a thorough understanding of its basic anatomy, features and elements are crucial, says senior designer Normalia Abdullah, one the three designers at Ara Borgstena.
“We make sure that traditional songket design elements and motifs are featured in each piece.
“A songket has three parts, namely the kepala (head), badan (body) and kaki (foot). We need to understand the anatomy, philosophy and the art of songket-making so that all three parts are present. We have to place the design accordingly and see how it can be improvised or translated during the actual weaving process.
“Research is crucial. It is something we cannot compromise on,” she says.
With books and the Internet as her main source of reference, Normalia says the traditional Malay songket motifs used are pucuk rebung, tampuk manggis, bunga melur and bunga pecah lapan.
“These traditional motifs are at the core of each design but we improvise and stylise them to make the outcome more contemporary,” she says.
Improvisation is also present as there is the need to make the design more practical for the weaving process, says Normalia.
“Some designs, such as those that integrate a corporate logo, for instance, cannot be produced exactly due to the weaving process.
“Improvisation helps tackle that issue,” she adds.
The mindset and perception of customers are among the toughest challenges when it comes to factory-made songket, says Mohamad Pauzi.
“People always like to compare between traditional handmade songket and factory-made ones.
“There are also people who accuse us of trying to compete with traditional songket, which is not the case at all. Our competitors are those imported, mass-produced songket fabrics from Pakistan, India or Indonesia,” he says.
“Why then do we do it? Well, when we make songket, we always make sure that heritage is preserved. We design and make high quality pieces with traditional motifs and features which people can relate to or which reminds them of their culture and roots.
“Rather than competing with local players, we support the local songket and textile industry by giving customers another songket alternative,” he adds.