Katharina Paba is one of the only weavers in Bajawa, central Flores, able to make the ceremonial beaded Lawo Butu textiles used by a female clan elder in the inauguration ceremonies for a clan house or ancestral shrine. She was one of the first weavers Threads of Life worked with back in the late 1990s, and every time she completed a Lawo Butu we would have to join her for a ceremony in the windowless inner room of her clan house while she asked the ancestral spirits for permission to sell the cloth.
She is a master indigo dyer. Behind her house is the shed with her indigo pots, and behind the shed are fields full of the Indigofera tinctoria she grows. When we first met her, she told us that the vats were not always behind the house. In the mid-1980s, the village’s dyers performed a ceremony, allowing them to move their dye sheds from their traditional place in a bamboo grove by a river to more convenient locations behind their houses. We had often shown interested in visiting the old site, but Katharina had always declined to take us, saying, “It’s such a long way from here! Hours by foot!”
Fast forward twenty years and we are again working in Bajawa, this time on the cultivation of a shade-tolerant species of indigo, called Strobilanthes cusia, by bamboo farmers working with Indobamboo and the Environmental Bamboo Foundation. At the end of a meeting of project partners last week, we were all driven to a new nursery so that we could each symbolically plant some bamboo and have lots of promotional pictures taken.
As we neared our destination, we drove right past Katharina’s house, turned downhill on a new single-track cement road, and ended in a bamboo grove by a stream. Walking further downhill along the stream, towards the nursery, I stopped at a bridge: having noticed how brown the water was with tannins leached from the fallen leaves of the bamboo grove, I started excitedly taking pictures of the water.
When the head of the village who had been walking with us asked me what I was doing, I asked him in return whether this was where the community’s indigo vats had once been. Once I had explained I knew Katharina and the recent history of local textile production, he confirmed that indeed this was the valley. I asked him what the colour of the textiles dyed here had been, and he said black. Indeed, all antique natural dyed pieces from Bajawa are blue-black, whereas the work of Katharina since we met her in the 1990s has been a magnificent cobalt blue. We had always speculated that the water available in the bamboo grove would be tinted with tannins that would darken the indigo dye, and now I was seeing it firsthand.
David, the village head, said there were still a number of weavers in the village, though none used indigo anymore, and nobody would grow the traditional Indigofera on land where they could grow more profitable vegetables. As we planted our bamboo cuttings in the nursery I wondered whether we could grow the Strobilanthes under the grown bamboo for these women to use.
After the photo call I dropped in on Katharina as we left the village. In December she nearly died from diabetes and, though she is now quite frail, she is eager to teach what she knows of the community’s natural dye tradition to a new generation while she still can. It is our hope that we can use the first indigo paste made from the Strobilanthes we are growing with farmers in Bajawa for an indigo workshop where she can pass on what she knows to the next generation. First, we will do some experiments with bamboo leaves, to see whether water coloured by leaf tannins can produce Bajawa’s historic blue-black dye when used throughout the indigo process.