Floating Threads by Judi Achjadi

Floating Threads is devoted to explaining and illustrating the rich variety of supplementary float weave techniques – commonly known as songket – that are used to decorate cloth.

This is the first truly encyclopedic survey of Indonesia’s least known and under-appreciated textile art. The book does not feature batik or ikat but only the enormous range of songket cloths produced in every corner of the archipelago from the 19th century to the present.

The songket technique involves the insertion of decorative extra “floating” threads in between the wefts as they are woven into the warp threads that are fixed to the loom. Since the supplementary decorative wefts may pass over or under several warps at a time, instead of over and under one at a time as is usual with plain weave, they are said to float. It is these floating threads that create motifs on a foundation of plain weave.

The extra threads are inserted as part of the weaving process, but not necessarily in the making of the cloth. If they were to be pulled out of the weaving, there would still be a piece of woven cloth. The technique is therefore described as supplementary (additional or extra) weft weaving. In some cases, the result can resemble embroidery. The English term for cloth woven with supplementary wefts is in fact brocade.

Songket is originally a Malay term not found in many local vernaculars spoken by Indonesian ethnic groups who use other terms to describe the same supplementary weft weaving technique. The floating thread technique is known as songke in Manggarai, Flores, and Bima, Sumbawa, while the Karo Batak call it jongkit. People in Ternate, Maluku, call it suje, while the Buginese in South Sulawesi call it subbi and arekare. It is known as pilih in West Kalimantan, the home of the Iban Dayak.

The variety of the archipelago’s songket is astounding – from the strong Islamic influence evident in the silk and gold songket of Jambi, to the cotton sarongs of the Kaur people of Bengkulu that are covered in tiny bits of mica that twinkle like stars on a dark night to the detailed plant life and sekar malam patterns depicted on Balinese fabrics and gorgeous old tatibin textiles whose makers did not survive the massive Krakatau eruption of 1883. The most famous songket of all are the sarongs produced by the peoples of Indonesia’s southeastern islands. In some regions, such as West Sumatra, there is such a strong emphasis placed on songket cloths that they are synonymous with the culture. Here the range of styles of gold-threated cloths is so vast, and they are so essential to tradition, that their survival is assured.

In the ceremonial life and ritual performances of Bali’s aristocracy, gold-thread woven songket has played a huge role. There was a time when a married Balinese woman was considered imperfect if she could not weave a piece of cloth and would even be punished for this shortcoming in the afterworld. First introduced by migrants from East Java’s Majapahit kingdom, the weaving technique reached its apogee in the state dress of the 16th C. Klungkung court, Bali’s golden age of artistic creativity.

After many of Bali’s royal families were annihilated in puputan ritual suicides in the early 20th C., court restrictions and monopolies no longer prevailed. Royal cloths, which were already being made outside the palaces, became available to anybody who could weave or afford them. Today, it’s not unusual to see ordinary Balinese bridal couples, young men and women at tooth-filing ceremonies and even village women carrying offerings of food to temples wearing expensive and sumptuously decorated songket.

The primarily full-color photographs in this coffee table book are an integral part of the story. One wonders where the publisher found all of these rare and exquisite fabrics and pieces of clothing? The answer is that the book’s editors scoured the world for rare masterpieces. The “Publisher’s Note” lists all of Indonesia’s national and provincial museums – from Jakarta’s Textile Museum to Ambon’s remote Museum Siwalima – as well as prestigious international and private museums and institutions in Europe and North America.

Close up details allow the reader to examine the remarkable skill and patience that was required in the weaving processes in which weavers would spend six months to a year on a single piece of cloth. One remarkable photo shows a whole assembled loom with partially woven cloth and funky loom parts still in it. Anthropologists are able to work out the weaving technique that was used just by studying these parts.

One can make out in the old black and white vintage photos of somber, unsmiling Sasak, Batak and Moluccan weavers working ramshackle looms, that the women themselves are wearing priceless, irreplaceable fabrics. A few stained and tattered specimens found in private hands are so rare that they are the only ones in existence. The nation’s provincial museums were established after 1950, when some textiles like the pinatikan of North Sulawesi and the kalumpang of West Sulawesi were no longer being produced.

Modernization is an essential way to keep weavers interested in plying their trade. There will always be a weaver who will go beyond craft-production to the level of fine art. The final chapter “Looking to the Future” includes songket patterns that are increasingly being used in the interior design and home furnishings industries. Check out the striking room dividers interwoven with gleaming gold and silver threads and the handsome chair and sofa upholstery woven very tight to make for a stronger fabric. The production of these new experimental forms, which have come on the market to replace old styles that have fallen out of favor, are as important as historical fabrics because their production assures the continuation of textile traditions.

Floating Threads is a well-researched and beautifully illustrated volume that updates and greatly expands our knowledge of what is happening in the textile arts of the archipelago today. This large format book is one of the most enlightening studies of the extraordinary skills of Indonesian weavers yet published and a major contribution to our appreciation of the  mind-blowing scope of Indonesian textiles.

Floating Threads: Indonesian Songket and Similar Weaving Traditions by Judi Achjadi, BAB Publishing 2016, ISBN-978-602-720-8506, hardcover, 300 pages, dimensions 23cm x 26cm.


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