Reviving Minang’s Old Embroideries: Sumatra

Indonesia’s traditional fabrics are being increasingly abandoned for various reasons, including the popular belief that they are less-than trendy attire and the scarcity of such classic cloths.

Only a small number of indigenous textile pieces are kept in several world museums, antique shops and by individual collectors as Rahmayanti explains.

This phenomenon is being experienced by Minangkabau songket or embroideries in West Sumatra and other regions in Sumatra, Java, Kalimantan, Sulawesi and Papua. Only those with keen interest and high appreciation have the drive to revive and preserve local craftworks. Still, it depends on the availability of funds because research, supply of materials, training and production need financing. Several foreigners have undertaken such projects.

Among those foreigners working to preserve traditional fabrics are Bernhard Bart, a Swiss national, who did some research on Minangkabau songket in West Sumatra; Dutch priest Jacques Maessen, who founded Yayasan Komunikasi Budaya Seni (Kobus), an art and culture foundation promoting the Dayak Iban community’s Sintang cloth weaving in West Kalimantan; and French cultural anthropologist Genevieve Duggan, who for 13 years has delved into Sawu (Savu) woven fabrics in areas between Kupang and Sumba Island.

At home there are Iwan Tirta, who preserves Java’s batiks, and fashion designer Thomas Sigar, who has reproduced Bentenan woven material from Minahasa, North Sulawesi, with only five original pieces now left and kept in world museums, as well as one in the Indonesian National Museum in Jakarta.

Bernhard Bart, a retired architect who visited West Sumatra in 1996 for the second time, took a deep interest in Minangkabau embroideries and was determined to further study the traditional craft.

“I wish to do something beneficial at my retirement age,” said Ben, as Bernhard Bart is known in West Sumatra.

“Minang songket works are the most refined in the world and their motifs represent lofty social values,” said Ben, who at the end of November exhibited revitalized works of Minangkabau songket in Jakarta, along with a collection of embroideries from the West Sumatra State Museum, to show embroidery enthusiasts how genuine old versions of songket really look.

Ben photographed various motifs of Minang songket during his tour of different countries to observe embroidery and weaving products. He visited weavers, collectors and dealers of antique goods as well as museums. It was during their 1996 visit that Ben and his wife Erika Dubler were magnetized by the old embroideries of Minangkabau.

They were fortunate to meet an artist couple, Alda Wimar and Nina Rianti, at the West Sumatra Cultural Center in Padang. Alda was a Radio Republik Indonesia employee engaged in the center’s activities and Nina a traditional singer in a famous dance troupe, Gumarang Sakti. Nina asked if Ben had any plan for the thousands of old songket pictures and offered the idea of reproducing the embroideries. ErikaRianti Songket Studio, named after Ben’s and Alda’s spouses, was set up two years ago especially to revitalize these craftsworks.

The motifs recorded in photos were translated into technical patterns by computers for further printing. When Ben visited Laos around 1996 and 1998, he observed the weaving method applied there and was inspired to adopt its pattern-heddles technique, which functions as a means of motifs storage and therefore facilitates songket making, regardless of length and design intricacy. So far, West Sumatra has developed karok or heddles only as a means of thread sorting.

Sadly, the Minangkabau region has no more weavers who can reproduce old motifs due to limited knowledge and the high degree of technical difficulty in classic embroidery making. But in 1996 Ben met Rohani, who was then 76 and the only weaver from Nagari Tanjung village, Sungayang district, capable of using the old Minang technique to weave Tanjung’s typical Kain Basah Hitam embroidery fabrics. With Ben’s motivation, Rohani taught her two grandchildren this technique.

In 2000, Ben started having the pattern-heddles or karok motif technique applied by Rohani’s grandchildren. In 2002 the reproduction of Minangkabau’s old-pattern embroideries was tried out. Now ErikaRianti Studio has six weavers aged 17 to 26.

“The beautiful songket of the olden days should be preserved,” said Ben with enthusiasm, though the gold thread, known as Macao thread (formerly derived from Macao), has to be imported from India, Singapore, China and France, also with China’s silk thread.

Minang songket reproductions range in price from Rp 9 million (US$990) to Rp 20 million, which is considered appropriate because they come out of research, appreciation, interest and pride, besides signifying the artistic grandeur of the Minang ethnic group.

“Don’t be surprised if the prices may be tens of millions of rupiah. Even paintings cost a lot of money. We’re thinking of revitalizing Minang songket instead of producing for the rich,” said Nina Rianti. In fact, ordinary Minang embroideries cost between Rp 1 million and Rp 5 million per set (a sarong and shawl).

ErikaRianti Songket Studio is now under the management of Nanda Wirawan, Alda’s daughter and also Ben’s adopted child. An environment engineering graduate, Nanda carries on Ben’s work such as transferring motifs to computers to enable pattern identification for further weaving.

At this stage, the studio’s reproductions are dominated by Koto Gadang embroideries. “So far Pandai Sikek songket products have been more popular so that they are almost known as West Sumatra’s songket. Koto Gadang embroideries have now proven to be a lot finer. After the fires in Koto Gadang in 1879 and 1880, traces of its songket were lost. Fortunately, Koto Gadang embroideries were taken by the Dutch for their elegance so that they could be recovered from world museums, antique shops and private homes in Bukittinggi,” explained Alda.

In his tour Ben found some Koto Gadang songket pieces in Museum der Kulturen, Switzerland, Fowler Museum, Los Angeles, U.S., all belonging to the 1900s, and in Adityawarman Museum, Padang. He wished to return old motifs from certain regions to their original places, like the patterns of Koto Gadang, Nagari Tanjung Sungayang and Pandai Sikek, Tanah Datar regency.

Minang embroideries are packed with symbols of philosophy of life. “Songket sheets virtually speak for themselves. The Balah Kacang (split peanut) motif, used by leaders on the head, means that leaders should uphold justice,” said Sativa Sutan Aswar-Arryman, a founder of the Minangkabau Heritage Foundation and a researcher at the Wastraprema Traditional Fabric Lovers Association.

According to him, Minang traditional cloths meet the requirements for Muslim women. “In the Minang community, people’s behavior as demanded by the local customs conforms to religious norms, as reflected among others in women’s attire, covering the main body parts,” added Sativa, who is engaged in songket making promotion in West Sumatra.

Another motif is Itiak Pulang Patang (ducks return home in the evening), meaning that one who leads a group becomes a model of his or her followers. The other sense reflects Minang people’s homebound journeys after trying their luck in other regions.

“Such patterns serve as a reminder of norms of good conduct and constitute a manuscript of philosophy in the land of Minang in symbolic forms,” said Alda Wimar, who also probes into the meanings of embroidery motifs.

Exact copies of embroidered sarong (73.5×140 cm) pieces and shawls (54×179-200 cm) of Koto Gadang or Pandai Sikek origin with elegant, fine and richly designed old motifs are now available in two types: balapak (woven with gold, silver and silk thread covering the whole sheet) and batabua or batabur (woven and decorated with gold, silver and silk thread like the stars in the sky).

The revival and preservation of classic Minang songket deserve praise and can hopefully rekindle the grandeur of Minang society. In this way, the present generation will recover its own mirror amid the diverse values of globalization, so that the nation’s cultural heritage will never be lost.

Those interested in the craftsworks can contact Erika

Songket Studio
Jl. Angkasa Puri II No. 43
Tunggul Hitam, Padang, West Sumatra

(phone 0751-461752


Rahmayanti, Contributor, Jakarta