Visiting the textile villages of Eastern Flores Indonesia is really best done, as there is only a small local ferry system in this area visiting just a few ports. A number of villages can be visited that are clustered on the various islands where dyeing, spinning, and weaving cotton fibers is still done with dyes made from natural ingredients, with cotton spun by hand, to create textiles woven by hand on hand made looms. The dyeing however is an exceptional traditional village industry with dye recipes handed down from mother to daughter to create the many colors of the fabric of life in this area of Indonesia. It was thrilled when visiting several villages in Eastern Indonesia in the Eastern Flores Archipelago to see, first hand, the making of natural dyes and the dyeing process used to color these hand spun cotton strands.
We learned that all of the dyes are generally now and always have been made from ingredients found in the surrounding landscape, as the only resource available to these village people for the last number of centuries and still today. Many of the women in the villages in Indonesia in the Eastern Flores and Alor Island areas are still making various dyes to dye strands of cotton as they have been for centuries.
Cotton is grown and harvested in Indonesia and the women in the villages work the cotton bolls, so that the cotton bolls are seeded, carded and spun by hand into cotton strands for weaving. Either the strands are dyed various colors first or are tied with dye resistant natural fibers such as raffia to create Ikat patterns in the cotton strands, to then be dyed.
The predominant color used for the natural dyes is blue with various shades of blue created from the locally grown indigo plant. Natural indigo dye for the various shades of blue is created by a fermentation process over low heat, usually in a pot over a small wood fire. The indigo plant is mixed with natural madder from the roots of a low growing ground vine, grains, and soda ash, made from the ash of leaves. By slowly cooking all together in a pot on low heat while gently stirring, a sludge of oxidized indigo is created on the bottom of the pot, which is strained and used or dried and stored as dye cakes to be used at a later time. When dyeing, the indigo blue color is adhered to the cotton strands by drying the strands each time after repeated dipping to allow the color to oxidize in the air for permanent color affixation.
The color red is created by crushing the bark of the Marinda tree in water to extract a red pigment called morindan. Unlike indigo blue, which is a fermentation process, dying red requires a mordant to be combined with the morindan to affix the color to the strands of cotton. A mordant requires oil, tannin and aluminum salts and in Indonesia is often created with an oily solution made out of the candle nut, a tannin made from local plants, and aluminum salts made from the powdered leaves and bark of certain trees that grow in Indonesia at a very high level. For use in the lowland villages, the powdered leaves and bark of these highland growing trees must be acquired in trade.
Yellow dye can be created by pounding the turmeric root with water in a mortar with the end of a small tree trunk or pestle. Green dye can be created by pounding leaves with water in a mortar for a fresh green color created from the chlorophyll. Neither of these dyes produces a color that is steadfast and both the yellow and green cotton strands dyed from dyes made in this manner will fade in a short matter of time.
To create a more permanent yellow dye, the bark from the mango tree, jack fruit tree and heartwood tree are pounded to create a more durable yellow color. This dye can then be mixed with an indigo blue for a more permanent green color.
Whatever the method the women in a particular village choose to use, this fascinating and still traditional industry of cotton dyeing can be seen firsthand in various villages in Indonesia.
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