Sunday, June 28, 2020

Bali Dye Garden--Fiber Plants of Tropical Asia

On a trip to Asia, I visited Bali and had the opportunity to visit the Threads of Life Dye Garden in Ubud. They grew dye plants of the region and taught traditional dyeing, maintaining and sharing local cultural history. I wrote about their dye plants previously (blues, yellows).

garden path, dye garden Bali
Threads of Life Dye Garden. Ubud, Bali

The signs were very good, explaining how the plants were used--as dyes or mordants or in traditional dye mixes. But other plants in the dye garden were none of these, but rather traditional sources of fiber for various types of weaving. 
One important lesson for me from that garden was how different textile traditions in Europe and Asia are. Traditional dyeing in Europe featured wool, a readily accessible animal fiber that dyes well. Temperate Asia had animal fibers--goats, sheep, and more--but tropical Asia typically did not. Silk, an animal fiber that dyes brilliantly, goes back thousands of years in Asia, but was and is too labor-intensive and expensive to be worn by ordinary people. Tropical Asians wove everyday cloth out of plant fibers, and the dye garden showed some of the widely used ones.

cotton plant with boll
cotton plant

Cotton is cool. If you are from places too cold for it to grow so that you've never seen cotton bolls on the plant, watch for them! Cotton imbeds its seeds in that lovely fiber, so while I can relatively easily spin from the dry pod with only my drop spindle, scaling up requires picking the seeds out. The cotton gin (invented in 1793), mechanically removed the seeds, and allowed larger scale production which reduced prices, the beginning of the widely available cotton cloth we have today.  

There are native cottons, Gossypium species (mallow family Malvaceae), all over the world, but the length of the fibers in their seed pods varies. If you've ever tried spinning say, cat fur, you know longer fibers are much easier. The long staple ( staple = the fiber of cotton or wool considered with regard to its length and degree of fineness.) cottons that produce our modern cotton are New World species. Asia has cottons, but they are pretty short staple. They made fine, almost transparent cotton cloth which was not suitable for working in. The spread of American cottons has of course changed that.

Asians worked with available fibers. The fibers from plants of the nettle family, Urticaceae, are long and flexible and have been woven by cultures all over the world. The best one in Asia is ramie, several species of Boehmeria. Ramie makes a pure white, lustrous, very strong fiber which, woven into garments keeps its shape, dries quickly, and resists mildew. But it isn't much used for cloth because a lot of processing is needed to separate the fiber from the surrounding plant material. Those characteristics, are why plant fibers (other than cotton) are uncommon in clothing today; much more effort to get the fibers than from wool or synthetics. In addition most plant fibers have other issues, ramie for example is somewhat brittle, so tricky to spin, and hairy, very annoying to weavers. You find it blended with other fibers or where strength is important (fishing nets). 

leaves of ramie
ramie leaves (Boehmeria species)

The dye garden also grew a plant I never thought of as a fiber source, snakeplant, mother-in-laws-tongues, Dracaena trifasciata. (Long in the genus Sansieveria, it has been moved to the genus Dracaena, asparagus family, Asparagaceae). Various species of snake plant have been used for fiber all over the Old World tropics. Some places they  know it as bow-string plant, reflecting one of its important uses. But the white, lustrous, soft fiber has also been woven into ropes, mats, and coarse fabrics. Attempts to build an industry have never been successful, currently because sisal (Agave sisaliana) is similar but with longer leaves and easier extraction of the fibers.

snake plant leaves
snakeplant, Dracaena

We see snakeplant in pots in offices since it is hardy under difficult growing conditions. Knowing it is used for cloth, now I want to cut the leaves out of those pots and see how it handles as a fiber. I have not bought some and grown it for myself because it is toxic to cats, and one of my cats assumes that every plant was brought into the house for her to chew. 

Beyond the plants I saw in the dye garden, an online search found that the fibers kenaf and roselle are species Hibiscus (H. canabinus and H. sabdariffa respectively), Indian hemp is in the milkweed family (Apocynum cannabinum), and sunn hemp is a pretty legume (Crotalaria juncea, pea family Fabaceae). The south Asian fiber source I particularly liked is Manilla hemp or abaca, from a banana, Musa textilis (banana family, Musaceae). The plants above are Old World and there are others I haven't seen. In addition, many strong fibers are produced from New World plants, in particular sisal and other species of Agave (Asparagus family, Asparagaceae).

Manilla hemp, a banana
Manilla hemp, Musa textile
the petioles of the leaves are used as fiber

My family traditions are from northern Europea, where the historic plant fiber was linen (from flax, Linum usitatissimum, flax family Linaceae). When I dug deeper I found they also made cloth from nettles (Urtica species, nettle family, Urticaceae) and hemp (Cannabis sativa hemp family Cannabaceae). None of those are the same as the plants available in tropical Asia, so it was wonderful to see these to-me-exotic plants whose fibers I knew about. Maybe, some day, I will make the opportunity to process and weave or braid those fibers.

Comments and corrections welcome.

For the record, almost all plant-derived fibers are bast fibers, which are durable, nonliving fibers in the phloem that help support the plant (link). The nonfibrous plant material has to be rotted and scraped off, a process called retting, to make a useable fiber. Because of their strength, bast fibers are used for cordage of all sorts but are generally too coarse or too expensive to process to be major sources of cloth, though linen maintains a niche market.

The Editors of Encyclopedia Britanica. 2009. Ramie. Encyclopedia Britanica online. link  (Accessed 6/23/20)
Sansevieria Thunb. (PROSERA) Plantnet  link  (Accessed 6/25/20)

Kathy Keeler, A Wandering Botanist

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