Sunday, January 29, 2017

Bali Dye Garden -- Blues and Browns

Ooh! A dye garden!

Dye garden, Bali
Dye Garden, Ubud Bali
In Ubud, Bali, I spent an afternoon visiting a dye garden. Dye gardens are rare. Very few people use natural dyes these days, and only a few of those who dye grow the plants they use. So the dye garden was a treat!

This dye garden, run by Threads of Life, provides dyes for local natural dyeing and for teaching about dyes. The dyes, dyed cloth and things made from the dyed cloth are sold at the Threads of Life store in Ubud. The garden is frequently used for natural dyeing workshops (see upcoming workshops: link).

The dye garden's signs were very helpful and  Made Maduarta very kindly showed me around, even though it was during the Galungan holiday and officially the garden was closed. I thank William Ingram of Threads of Life for arranging to get me there despite the holiday.

Dye gardens that you see in botanical gardens are mainly educational, with a patch of madder, a weld plant and a clump of woad. This garden was a working garden. That was immediately evident because important dye plants were growing in profusion. A mass of leaves, not just one neatly-presented plant. In the photo below, the "weeds" surrounding the tree (labeled Jatropha curcas) are dye plants. Those leaves are dyer's knotweed, Persicaria tinctoria, which produces indigo. Botanically it is in the family Polygonaceae, related to docks and sorrels. Dyer's knotweed is an annual, native to Vietnam and southern China, that has been a major source of blue in southeast Asia for easily 2,000 years. Since the 4th century, dyer's knotweed was the main source of blue in Japan, so it is also called Japanese knotweed.

dye plants
Jatropha curcas surrounded by dyer's knotweed
Below, this second "weed" running all around the tamarind's stem is another indigo-bearing plant, assam indigo, called rum in Assam, these names coming from India. In Malay, it is tarom siam. Its scientific name is Strobilanthes cusia, in the acanthus family, Acanthaceae. It is a spreading perennial native to southeast Asia (Vietnam, Thailand, Malaya) but so long in cultivation that if it started in just one of those places, it is impossible to know now. Like dyer's knotweed, this is a "local indigo" for the people of Bali. Assam indigo production was a major industry in southern China for hundreds of years, providing the blue for the traditional shibori (color kept out by tying) and batik (color kept out with wax) of the diverse minority groups living in southern reaches of China. (See photos way down below).

Assam indigo
Assam indigo all around the tamarind.
Bali is justly famous for exquisite batiks. I imagine that when the dye workshops are over, the beds knee-deep in indigos when I visited will have been cut and the plants will be regrowing. The sea of indigo-bearing leaves in my photos are a rich resource for the dyers.

Dyeing with plants requires quite a bit of material. Much of a fresh leaf is water and cellulose, the dye molecules are a small percent of the mass. One fills a large pot (imagine 5 gallons) with leaves, shoves in a few more leaves, heats the water and when the process is done, has dye enough for two dark or four lightly-dyed skeins of wool or maybe three yards of well-dyed cloth. The profusion of leaves seen in the photos and adjacent areas outside my photographs gave me a visceral feeling of happiness: one could dye well with all those leaves to work with. 

soga tegeran, Maclura cochinchinensis
soga tegeran, Maclura cochinchinensis
The garden, as the signs in the photos indicate, grew other dye plants. Some of those, although producing great dye, did not look robust enough that I would want to harvest much dye from them. That included a dyer's mulberry, Maclura cochinchinensis. 

Maclura cochinchinensis was an Asia dye plant that I had wanted to see. The genus Maclura is a group of eleven plants within the mulberry family (Moraceae) found scattered around the world. Three at least are great dye plants: Maclura pomifera, Osage orange, native to the U.S. midwest (see blog post link), Maclura tinctoria, called old fustic or dyer's mulberry, native to the American tropics and an important dye in pre-aniline European dyeing (blog post: link).

And here was the other important dyer's mulberry, Maclura cochinchinensis, called  soga tegeran or kayu kuning! You can mainly see the trunk in the picture: it is a shrub or small tree which can grow as a vine. It is native to Malaya and Indonesia, and areas northward from eastern India to southern China. Like Osage orange and old fustic, the dye is in the heartwood, in this case especially the roots, although stems and branches contain dye as well. It is slow growing, a character shared with Osage orange: 10-15 years are needed to get a plant big enough to yield dye. It is consequently very susceptible to over-harvesting. It produces an excellent light-resistant, color-fast dye, yellow if mordanted with alum, golden when combined with turmeric, red combined with sappanwood and will make green when overdyed with indigo. Its real importance, though, is because in Bali, the rest of Indonesia and Malaya, it was essential to soga-batik, the finest of Indonesian batik, which had blues, browns and whites. In combination with other barks, powdered soga tegaran formed rich brown dyes, which in a paste, were applied to cotton cloth, dyeing it without needing to destroy the wax resist that protected areas not to be dyed.

One of the things Threads of Life's dye studio has been working on, with gratifying success, is sustainable dye production, for example using leaves and young stems of soga tegeran to produce the dye, since the plant can much more readily replace those than large roots.

two-color batik, Ubud Bali
Two color (blue, brown) batik, from Ubud, Bali
(courtesy of Sheron Buchele Rowland)
In addition to dyer's knotweed and assam indigo, the garden grew one of the species of Indigofera (pea family, Fabaceae) which produce indigo. I did not get a usable photo of Indigofera leaves (only of the sign, alas) and so I send you to Google (link) to look at the finely divided leaves of Indigofera tinctoria, the classic indigo. This plant was probably originally native to India. It was the source of blues that tantalized Europe for centuries. (Tantalized because it was such a great blue, much more intense than woad (Isatis tinctoria) but only small quantities of indigo reached Europe before the 17th century). Other species of Indigofera are found in Africa and tropical America. If it was used historically in Bali, the plants were originally imported to Bali to be grown for dye.

Chinese indigo-dyed cotton
Chinese indigo-dyed cotton,  bought in Dali, Yunnan
Pattern from shibori (tie-dye) technique.
Curiously, despite being in quite different plant families, the chemistry of the blue dyes from different plants is very similar. Unlike most other natural dyes, indigo is fermented in anaerobic conditions. The leaves are fermented (partially rotted to release the dye molecules) in water. The bath is made alkaline (basic) underwater (therefore, in the absence of air) which creates a water- soluble dye. The fibers to be dyed are very gently immersed in the dye bath, trying not to add any air. They are left underwater until the dye penetrates and binds to the fibers, and then lifted out of the water. The fibers come out of the dyebath pale or greenish but the dye quickly reacts with the oxygen in the air, turning the dyed fibers blue. (Pictures of process link or link or video  none beginning with leaves).

Batik: above, before dyeing, below after dyeing with indigo.
The brown is the wax resist that protects the  fiber from the dye.
When the resist is removed, the piece will be blue with curvy white stripes. 
Batik selectively covers sections of the cloth with wax (called a resist) and applies dye. The complex batiks go through several dye baths changing what is covered by the resist to make intricate patterns. Cottons and other plant fibers (note that wool and silk are animal fibers) are difficult to dye but have for a very long time been widely used in Asia. Indigo is one of the few natural dyes that colors plant fibers well. Batik techniques put complex, sophisticated patterns onto hard-to dye cloth. All across tropical Asia, fancy batik methods were developed long long ago.

batik, David Bali
Balinese Batik by David Bali (slightly out of focus)
Each shade of blue in the batik above represents a different step, applying wax resist and dyeing. See some finished examples from the studio of David Mendoza whose workshop we toured (David Bali link). Below is a very simple batik, the wax applied with a stamp (tjap)
batik, Bali
Batik by David Bali, courtesy of Sheron Buchele Rowland
Multiple colors require multiple dye baths--you don't just work with the big pot of indigo, you have to make a brown dye pot, often from three different barks, adjusting the resist that protects the cloth from the dye at each step. The traditional colors of Balinese batik represent the colors that natural dyes produce on cotton, a strong blue easily, browns from barks, and reddish brown, gold and nearly black from careful management of dye materials and pH.

Coming back to admiring a dye garden filled with indigo-bearing plants, the dyers will gather fresh leaves, ferment the leaves, remove the leaves from the dyebath, adjust the pH and then are ready to start dyeing. Very different from dropping dry powdered indigo into water.  Natural dyers who work with concentrated dried indigo harness the same basic chemical process, but it takes a whole lot less time and is less subject to unpleasant surprises. Commercial dyers often make classical blue denim with synthetic indigo these days, but even then, it’s the same chemical process.

drying batik, Wuzhen, China
drying batik, Wuzhen, China
The use of synthetics reflects how very far we have come. People wanting to dye their own cloth can buy aniline dyes, very bright and predictable. Or dyers can dye cloth with concentrates made from plants and other natural products, significantly reducing the time and effort of a dye project. Or natural dyers can sometimes buy dried leaves, flowers, roots or bark and process those into a dye. Or, finally, dyers may grow or gather the plants they dye with. At one time (before the mid 19th century) the dye was responsible for at least half the cost to a piece of cloth--the above steps toward dyeing ease show you why brightly colored cloth was so expensive historically. 

Natural dyeing is a relatively rare hobby. Most temperate zone botanic gardens don’t go to the trouble to get and maintain tropical dye plants. The ones shown here would have to be kept in the conservatory and the space there usually goes the more widely recognized plants such as bananas (link) and cacao (link), wonderful plants of course. Which is why I was so delighted to see three indigos, one I'd never seen before, and the dyer's mulberry! Wonderful to see plants that I had only read about.
dye garden, Ubud Bali
dye garden, Ubud Bali

(More about the dye garden and dyeing cottons in Asia in future post.)

Comments and corrections welcome.

References and for more information: 
"Batik" New Brittanica Encyclopedia link
Cardon, D. 2007. Natural dyes. Archtype publications, London.
David Bali, contemporary Balinese design (David Bali link)
Making Batik. (The paragraph on colors oversimplifies, because most of the browns, reds and yellows were made from mixtures of plants)  overviewsteps

Kathy Keeler, A Wandering Botanist

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