Indonesian Textile Arts
Natural Dyes

Most of the natural blues, reds, blacks, purples, and browns on traditional Indonesian textiles derive from two vegetable dyes: indigo blue, from the shrubs Indigofera tinctoria and suffruticosa, and morinda red, from trees in the genus Morinda. With patience and skill, master dyers carefully manipulate each ingredient in a dye recipe and each step in the dyeing process to obtain bright, muted, energetic, or quiet colors.

Cornelis Ndapa Kamang, Lambanapu, Sumba

Dyers crush the root bark of morinda trees and wring it in water to extract a red pigment called morindin. Morindin does not adhere to cotton without a mordant, a combination of organic compounds that binds the color to the thread. A mordant requires oil, tannin, and an aluminum salt, chemicals that occur naturally in particular forest plants. Secret mordant recipes have been passed down from mother to daughter for generations.

Squeezing color from crushed root bark, Loo Neke, West Timor

Most mordants start with an oily solution made from candlenuts (Aleurites moluccana) mixed with water filtered through wood ash. Many wild plants contain tannin; each dyer adds her local favorite to the mixture. The aluminum salt comes from the powdered leaves and bark of trees in the Symplocos and Xanthophyllum families. These trees grow mostly at high altitudes. Lowland dyers get the leaves they need through trade.

Natural dye ingredients

The more slowly the mordant and morinda dry, the stronger the final red will be. The East Sumbanese slow the process by leaving mordanted threads out overnight to take the dew, and shading them by day. In Kalimantan, Dayak weavers gather together, mordant threads, and ask the blessing of the gods and ancestors with a ritual called ngaos. Watch a ngaos in the Threads of Life film, ’’Fabric of the Forest.’’

Women pounding dye ingredients, Sintang, Kalimantan

Dyers repeat the morinda process over and over to achieve depths and variations of red. The East Sumbanese like vibrant reds that ring with vitality. The Lio-Ende people of Flores dye their threads in morinda up to ten times, then dip them in a hot solution made from sappan-wood (Caesalpinia sappan), which deepens the red to a distinctive earthy brown. Mordanting and dyeing can take a diligent dyer two years.

Ita Yusuf boiling threads in red dye, Ndona, Flores

The nitrogen-fixing indigo shrub thrives in poor soils. An indigo dyer collects great armfuls of indigo leaves and soaks them in water to release a blue dye called indican. When the dyer removes the leaves and adds ground limestone or burnt seashells, the solution turns yellow-green. At this stage, the dyer can immerse threads in the vat. Upon exposure to air, the indican oxidizes, and the threads turn blue.

Threads dyed with indigo leaves

Most weaving and dyeing takes place during the dry season, long after indigo plants have died. To store indigo, the dye-maker aerates the yellow-green solution throroughly, until a blue sludge of oxidized indican settles at the bottom of the vat. This concentrate can be stored as paste, or dried into cakes. Months later, the dyer can mix the concentrate with water and lime to make a new vat of dye.

Straining indigo paste, Seraya, Bali

The weavers of Tenganan, Bali, make their own red dye, but a cultural taboo requires that no indigo work be done within the village. For centuries, Tenganan has sent half-finished dye lots to the neighboring community of Bugbug, where one family has come to specialize in indigo dyeing. The Sumbanese believe that if at any time a man enters the indigo dyeing hut, the color will not take.

Margareta Meo, Bajawa, Flores

Repeated indigo dyeing produces a very dark blue that never reaches a true black. To make black, some weavers add tannin plants to their indigo vats, or overdye indigo with tannin and iron. The black mud in Rindi, East Sumba is particularly rich in iron and other minerals. Weavers in Rindi soak threads in mud-holes to obtain an even, colorfast black.

Participants in a funeral ceremony, Sumba

Colorfast greens and yellows are very difficult to produce. Turmeric root (Curcuma domestica) contains a vivid yellow that fades quickly in open air and sunlight. Pounded leaves make beautiful chlorophyll greens, which also degrade quickly. More durable yellows can be extracted from combinations of mango bark (Mangifera indica), jackfruit wood (Artocarpus integra), and Maclura cochinchinensis heartwood. These dyes can be combined with indigo for a stable, colorfast green.

Threads dyed with turmeric root

Every year, Threads of Life’s partner organization Yayasan Pecinta Budaya Bebali (the YPBB Foundation) conducts hundreds of experiments at its Bali dye studio. YPBB’s researchers test plant varieties from throughout the archipelago in countless combinations as they explore and document weavers’ knowledge. With help from the studio, communities are rediscovering their ancestors’ dye processes, sharing techniques across ethnic and geographical boundaries, and learning to manage their dye resources sustainably.

Teresia Sasi, Oenenu, West Timor