These days almost everything we wear is made and dyed chemically. Hundreds of millions of metres of synthetic textiles are made each year and natural fibres are increasingly rare. So it’s refreshing to find a project at our doorstep that celebrates natural hand-loomed fabrics and vegetable dyes.
Threads of Life has been working with traditional growers, weavers and dyers for over 20 years. Their work has played an important role in ensuring that traditional regional weaving and dying techniques have not been lost as the country rapidly modernises and artisans drift away from their crafts.
“Since 1998, Threads of Life has been developing its natural dye skills in collaboration with the indigenous weavers we work with across Indonesia,”says Threads of Life co-founder William Ingram. “We learned to dye with indigo, Morinda-red, and other traditional colours for three reasons. First, in order to determine that we were indeed buying natural dyed work. Second, to discover where the transmission of knowledge between generations had broken down and facilitate revitalisation of traditions. And third, to support sustainable cultivation and use of the dye plants.”
Their new project Farmer to Fabric produces hand-woven cotton scarves and shawls in a luscious palette of indigo and cinnamon brown. This is cloth that supports traditional practices of harvesting hand-spun cotton and hand-loom weaving, coloured with natural dyes made from sustainably cultivated and harvested plants, processed with all natural and non-polluting methods and generating income for local Indonesian farmers and artisans. Every step of the textiles’ process is either certified as environmentally sustainable or can be demonstrated to be.
The project is based at the integrated Threads of Life centre which brings together a garden of dye plants, a research lab, dying facilities and workshop space for weekly batik classes and monthly events which are open to the public. (www.threadsoflife.com/workshops).
The project came about to address social changes at the grassroots. “One of the biggest social problems we see in our partner communities is male migration for work. This leaves women weavers as single heads of households, and limits the amount of time they can spend weaving,” William told me. “To help keep families together, we are paying the husbands to stay home and cultivate more dye plants for us.
The chemical-free cotton has been grown in central Java on small-holder garden plots mixed with other crops for hundreds of years. Now that local demand has fallen, Farmer to Fabric provides a market that encourages the growers to keep producing it by purchasing the finished, undyed textiles.
The home-grown cotton was spun by hand and woven into traditional dimensions; this system is being honoured by the project to maintain the stories of the cloth. Seser is a loosely woven coarse cotton (50 x 175cm), a sayut is a more densely woven cotton with macramé ends, 60 cm x 3m, and a jarit is 80cm x 3m. The shorter pieces can be used as shawls, scarves or tailored into blouses/jackets and the longer pieces can be used for cushion covers and home décor.
Indigo for the project is grown and made into a dye paste by farmers in Java, Flores and East Bali. Threads of Life’s study of indigo cultivation and teaching of dye paste making began with an applied research project funded by the Australian Centre for International Agricultural Research. All the indigo now grown for Farmer to Fabric – about 20 hectares – originated from cuttings of a single Strobilanthes cusia plant.
While this species is from the Himalayas, it is non-invasive and both shade and elevation tolerant in Indonesia. William has been developing indigo supply chains across the country, both for the Bali centre’s needs, and to supply weavers making traditional cloth for the Threads of Life gallery, many of whom run out of indigo during the dry season.
The red/brown dye is a traditional one derived from the bark of a mangrove tree (Ceriops tagal). The bark comes from an 80,000 hectare Forest Stewardship Council (FSC)-certified forest concession in Papua. In this carefully managed project, other mangrove species are harvested for wood pulp and the Ceriops bark is a by-product.
The dying process is complex, lengthy and requires great skill. Extracts of both dyes need to be made a month before they are used to fully develop the colour. The brown dye must be cooked in a copper pot. The textile is washed before dying to prepare the fibre, then submerged and stirred in a dye bath of the desired colour saturation. It takes about four hours of intensive work to dye each piece, and great care must be taken to ensure that the long cloth absorbs the colour evenly.
In order for the indigo to adhere to the fibre, it must be chemically reduced in the dye vat to remove the oxygen. Commercially, this is usually done with sodium dithionite (‘hydro’ in Indonesian), a very caustic chemical. Threads of Life uses the traditional reducing agent of palm sugar instead, acquired from farmers in east Bali who tap coconut trees for it.
After dying, the textile must be washed. Instead of using commercial soap, the project makes its own pH-neutral soap from community-sourced candlenut oil for use in the scouring and finishing processes.
“A lot of water is used in the dying process,” William explains. “We have a closed water system. Nothing leaves the dye centre, the used water is recycled in the dye garden. At all stages, we are developing transparent and accountable supply chains and production processes.”
The end result of all this experience and skill are beautiful lengths of natural cotton certified through the chain of custody from farmer to fabric as environmentally sustainable.
Naturally these textiles are in limited supply. Currently they can be purchased from the Threads of Life shop on Jalan Kajeng in Ubud.
For more information on Threads of Life’s remarkable work across Indonesia, visit www.threadsoflife.com.
By Ibu Kat
Copyright © 2019 Greenspeak
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Ibu Kat’s book of stories
Bali Daze – Free-fall off the Tourist Trail and Retired, Rewired – Living Without Adult
Supervision in Bali are available from Ganesha Books and on Kindle