Photo by Anissa S. Febrina
Dying to try out some do-it-yourself dyeing? You don’t have to look too far: The plants around us are gifts from nature to help us color our clothes.
Turning to nature was exactly what Kehati Award winner Sancaya Rini did when she was trying to figure out a way to color her batik scarves without polluting the ground with hazardous chemicals from synthetic dyes.
She turned to the leaves of her mango tree, to the shells of Jakarta’s native stink bean jengkol and to the skins of rambutan.
These are all paints on Mother Nature’s artist’s palette that we tend to overlook beside the convenience of synthetic dyes.
Rini takes a wide silk scarf, wets it under the tap and then dips it several times into a bucket of yellowish brown water – colored by mahogany bark concentrate – and voilà! A scarf the color of tea – a color that will not fade – is ready to hang in the sun to dry.
In a country rich with traditional textiles, which have their roots in eras long before the advent of synthetic dyes, it is unfortunate that the art of natural dyeing is dying.
It was not until recently that people started to look for natural alternatives to the artificial chemical dyes that are increasingly polluting groundwater.
According to Batik Info, each day around 400 batik workshops in Pekalongan, Central Java, produce a total of about 50,000 cubic meters of wastewater contaminated with nonbiodegradable synthetic dyes. Rodhamine B, one of the main chemicals in synthetic dyes, threatens both the natural ecosystem and human health, as it is believed to be carcinogenic.
As the costs of building wastewater processing plants are high, researchers are campaigning for industry to switch to using natural dyes that can be produced from plants available right here, in our surroundings.
“See this peel from the secang tree [Caesalpinia sappan]. It can produce a rich variety of colors, depending on what we mix it with,” Rini says, pointing to silk scarves dyed in colors ranging from bright magenta to soft salmon pink.
For small workshops like Rini’s, the switch to using natural dyes is an easy one. “I order jengkol shells from the vegetable vendor in the market, and simply pick leaves from trees in my backyard,” she says.
A kilogram of mango leaves, for example, is boiled in 10 liters of water until the color seeps into the liquid. The fabrics are dipped or soaked in the liquid as many times or for as long as needed to get the desired hues.
Everything comes together naturally, as Rini says: “Natural dyes work best with natural textiles. That’s the way nature works.”
And there is always an element of surprise in the work of nature. One dye will have different results from another, she adds.
As an antidote to mass-produced textiles, the one-of-a-kind characteristic of naturally dyed fabrics has a very special quality: No two pieces are alike.
One can experiment with anything found in nature, which offers a lot of possibilities, given the range of material on hand.
Photo by Anissa S. Febrina
Natural dyes – coloring obtained from chlorophyll, carotenoid, flavonoid and quinon – can be put into four categories, ranging from those whose color will fade quickly, such as curcumin, to those whose color will become stronger over time, such as alizarin and moridin.
When fabrics are soaked in dyes with mordants – substances such as certain types of acids or mineral salts that combine with the coloring matter to fix it more firmly – the fibers absorb the pigments more deeply, meaning the color lasts longer.
The chlorophylls in algae can also be used as a natural dye, according to Susanto, a researcher at Semarang’s Diponegoro University. Four types of algae that can be used are Rhodophyceae, Phaeophyceae, Chlorophyceae and Cyanophyceae.
Alginate produced from brown algae such as Sargassum filipendula and Turbinaria can also serve as a textile emulsifier, helping to preserve the color of a fabric, says BPPT researcher Jana Tjahjana Anggadiredja, adding that both species contain between 8 and 32 percent alginates.
Mangosteen, a tropical fruit native to Southeast Asia, is another source of natural dye. Its skin is a potential source not only of natural dye, but also of raw materials that can be processed into cosmetics and vitamins.
The Agriculture Ministry is currently supporting efforts to process mangosteen skins domestically, while still allowing the fruit to be exported without the shell.
Indonesia is currently the second largest producer of the fruit with an annual production of around 62,000 tons from a total plantation area of 10,000 hectares. Some 35 percent of the harvest is exported.
According to Tati Sukarti, a researcher at Bandung’s Padjajaran University, mangosteen shells can be used to extract natural dyes in red, violet and blue shades.
Achiote, or annatto (Bixa orellana) is also among the species used for natural dyeing. The skin of its seed contains the carotenoid pigments bixin and norbixin, and it is also safe for food coloring.
Photo by Anissa S. Febrina
The use of natural dyes could help cut costs by 5 to 10 percent, according to the Industry Ministry’s director for textiles and garments small and medium enterprises (SME) Joni Tarigan. Unfortunately, there has been little attempt to develop natural dyes into accessible materials for commercial textile industries.
Before the rise of synthetic dyeing in the mid-19th century, Indonesians and many others around the world relied on natural dyes as their only source of coloring. The oldest known dye in the country is perhaps indigo leaves, known locally as tarum or tom.
Currently, batik foundation Sekar Jagad is promoting the use of indigo in the craft village of Imogiri.
“The market potential for naturally dyed batik is huge. And it is also a way of being more environmentally friendly,” says Sekar Jagad activist Suliantoro.
The denim that we know today was once dyed with indigo. The plant itself has been used in Java since the 5th century, according to historian Awaludin Nugraha.
During the Dutch colonial era, when indigo extracts became an international commodity, indigo plantations were among the cultuur stelsel priorities, especially in Bagelen in Central Java and West Java’s Cirebon, Majalengka and Kuningan.
During its heyday, there were more than 7,000 hectares of indigo plantations in Cirebon, the second largest production center in Java, processed in 235 factories, Nugraha reveals. The number had more than doubled from the beginning of mass indigo cultivation in the early 1830s. The area accounted for almost a quarter of the island’s total indigo production.
But just seven years later after its peak, indigo production started to decline as plantations switched the focus to cultivating rice, whose price was steadily rising on the international market. In 1864, indigo production was stopped completely.
Living in a country with a wealth of natural wonders is indeed a blessing. If one only cares to look, that is.
Photos by Anissa S. Febrina
Sources of natural dyes
Achiote tree (Bixa orellana): yellows and oranges
Indian red wood (Caesalpinia sappan): magentas and pinks
Tea (Camellia sinensis): yellows
Soga (Ceriops tagal): dark browns
Indian albizia (Albizzia lebbekoides): yellows and light browns
Jengkol (Archidendron jiringa): oranges
Sugar palm (Arenga pinnata): warm browns
Indigo (Indigofera arrecta): bright to dark blues
Mango (Mangifera indica): various shades of green
Yellow flame tree (Peltophorum pterocarpum): browns
Mahogany (Swietenia mahagoni): reddish browns
Source: Prosea and Kehati