Wednesday, 17 September 2014

Helping women revive natural dye-making traditions

Some of the naturally dyed yarns produced by the village women.
In Indonesia, hand-woven and dyed textiles play an important role in the spiritual, social and economic aspects of life. These textiles are worn in ceremonies, traded, bartered and given as wedding gifts. They are made by women, with the traditions passed down through generations. Increasingly these textiles are produced using synthetic dyes. However, new research is encouraging women to revive their natural dye-making traditions, and increase their incomes in the process.
An ACIAR-funded project in eastern Indonesia is supporting the development of integrated agroforestry and non-timber forest product systems. The project partners include government researchers and non-government organisations, including a Bali-based fair-trade organisation—Threads of Life—that uses culture and conservation to alleviate poverty in rural Indonesia.

William Ingram, founder of Threads of Life, discussing dying with Halena Kase at Bosen.
Threads of Life works directly with over 1,000 women in more than 35 cooperative groups on islands from Kalimantan to Timor. The proceeds from sales of the textiles help weavers establish cooperatives, manage their resources sustainably, train younger generations, and keep their traditions alive while alleviating poverty. Threads of Life staff also teach the members of the cooperatives simple business skills, as well as how to manage and protect the plants used in dye making.

Under the ACIAR project, with the support of Threads of Life and the project researchers, women in the village of Bosen, East Nusa Tenggara, are reviving their ancient traditions of making natural dyes for use in weaving to enhance their livelihoods. Since the project started a year ago, the local researchers introduced the Threads of Life staff to the potential opportunities around the Bosen village study site. Women in this village were practising weaving but they had made the transition to using synthetic dyes. Only the older women in the village could remember which local plants had been used to make dyes and what the traditional practices were.

Margarita Liukae reducing indigo dye.
When we visited Bosen during the project’s annual workshop in August 2014, the local women were making a purple dye from the plant Indigofera—a plant that’s been traded around the world for centuries. Interestingly the genus Indigofera is widely distributed with local species occurring in Indonesia and Australia. However, the most commonly planted species in Indonesia is Indigofera tinctoria, which originated in India and was brought to Indonesia in the 19th Century. 

The plants, which are nitrogen fixing, are grown in the village gardens and the leaves are then used to make the indigo dye. Following soaking and partial fermentation, lime is added to reduce the indigo and make it more colour fast.

Halena Kase using the indigo to dye threads for weaving.
By reviving and adopting the traditional dye-making processes, and then using these dyes in their textile weaving, the women of Bosen are receiving up to four times as much for the textiles as they did when they used synthetic dyes. The project staff are supporting these activities and researching how the natural dyes can be made more uniform and colour fast.

By Tony Bartlett, ACIAR’s Forestry research program manager

More information
ACIAR project FST/2012/039 – Development of timber and non-timber forest products’ production and market strategies for improvement of smallholders’ livelihoods in Indonesia, led by World Agroforestry Centre

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