From the 7th to 11th centuries CE (AD) Palembang was considered the capital of the Indianised Mahayan Buddhist Kingdom of Sri Vijaya, which at one time dominated much of S-E Asia.

In the Palembang region women traditionally wove songket on a body tension loom in their home. The predominant ground colours were deep reds and purple blues, but now cerise and greens have been included.

When gold was plentiful in the area, pure gold was exported to be extruded into fine filaments, spun into fine gold thread and then returned to Palembang.

Before World War II (1939) special songket textiles were woven in 14 carat gold thread. Since then import restrictions have made that unavailable. Now when weavers are producing special textiles they unravel and reuse gold thread from old sarongs.

Traditionally the high quality gold thread used for the finest textiles was stamped with a gold heart, “jantung” and cloths woven from it were called “songket jantung”.

Palembang Songket
Modern songket from Palembang

Palembang songket were traditionally seen as family heirlooms handed down from generation to generation.

Marriage proposals came with a kain songket from the intended groom to the bride’s family, together with:
a set of sarong and selendang (shawl) for everyday;
another set for the wedding ceremony;
a third set for formal occasions.

On the birth of a child, the father’s family gave:
a shoulder cloth, selendang, to serve as a baby carrier;
a square scarf to cover the baby’s head during the traditional hair cutting ceremony.

Motifs have been influenced by old Mughal cloths, especially in the lattice patterns. Some motifs have special connotations:

  • bunga melati – jasmine: purity and courtesy
  • bunga mawar – rose: good luck
  • tanjung flower: welcome
  • pucuk rebung – bamboo shoots, which may appear at the ends of Palembang shoulder cloths and at the top of some sarong. These are symbols of fertility.

Songket are differentiated further:
where the ground is almost completely concealed by heavy gold thread patterning: kain lepus;
where weft ikat is included: kain lepus limar;
where ikat motifs are further embellished with embroidery: songket tawar berakam.

Palembang Songket
Sylvia Fraser-Lu, “Handwoven Textiles of South-East Asia”, OUP, Singapore 1988

cf Cita Tenun Indonesia. “Tenun”, KITLV – Jakarta, Jakarta, 2010
Sylvia Fraser-Lu, “Handwoven Textiles of South-East Asia”, OUP, Singapore 1988
Mattiebelle Gittinger, “Splendid Symbols, Textiles and Traditions in Indonesia”, OUP Singapore, 1979
Robyn Maxwell, “Textiles of Southeast Asia, Tradition, Trade and Transformation” , OUP Australia, 1990
Rodgers, Anne Summerfield and John Summerfield, “Gold Cloths of Sumatra”, KITLV Press,
Susan Rodgers, Anne Summerfield and John Summerfield, “Gold Cloths of Sumatra”, KITLV Press, Leiden, 2007