Threads Of Life

Sustaining Natural Dyes

Natural Dyes1

The Dyer's Art

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 Indigofera 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 colours.


Morinda Red

Dyers pound 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 colour to the thread. A mordant requires oil, tannin, and an aluminium salt, chemicals that occur naturally in particular forest plants. Secret mordant recipes have been passed down from mother to daughter for generations.


Oil Mordant

Most traditional mordant recipes start with an oily paste made from pounded candlenuts (Aleurites moluccana) mixed with an alkaline water filtered through wood ash, essentially making a soap. Many wild plants contain tannin; each dyer adds her local favourite to the mixture. The aluminium salt comes from the powdered leaves and bark of trees in the Symplocos and Xanthophyllum families. In eastern Indonesia these trees grow mostly at high altitudes and lowland dyers get the leaves they need through trade.


Mordant Ageing

The more slowly the mordanted yarns 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.


Red Dyeing

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.


Indigo Extraction

The nitrogen-fixing indigofera shrub thrives in poor soils. An indigo dyer collects great armfuls of indigo leaves and soaks them in water overnight to release the precursor of the blue dye. When the dyer removes the leaves and adds slaked lime made from burnt limestone or seashells doused with water, the alkaline solution turns yellow-green. At this stage, the dyer can immerse threads in the vat. Upon exposure to air, the dye oxidises and turns blue, dyeing the threads.


Indigo Dyeing

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 thoroughly, until a blue sludge of oxidised dye settles at the bottom of the vat. This concentrate can be stored as paste, or dried into cakes. Months later, the dyer can make a new dye vat by mixing the paste or powder with water to increase its volume, with slaked lime to increase the alkalinity, and with certain roots and bark as sources of sugar that act as a reducing agent. With reduction and oxidation being opposite chemical processes, the indigo is first reduced to make it soluble, then penetrates the yarn upon dyeing, and then is oxidised in the air to make it insoluble and bound to the fibre being dyed.


Indigo Taboos

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 neighbouring community of Bugbug, where one family has come to specialise in indigo dyeing. The Sumbanese believe that if at any time a man enters the indigo dyeing hut, the colour will not take.


Black Dyes

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 over-dye indigo with tannin and iron. The black mud in Rindi, East Sumba, is particularly rich in iron and other minerals. Weavers in Rindi soak tannin-dyed threads in mud-holes to obtain an even, colourfast black.


Yellows and Greens

Colourfast 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, colourfast green.


Saving Dye Practices

Every year, Threads of Life’s partner organisation the Bebali Foundation ( conducts hundreds of experiments at its Bali dye studio. The Bebali Foundation’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.



The Bebali Foundation’s Plant Mordant Project offers natural dyers around the world a unique opportunity to avoid mordants produced by industrial processes and make reliable colors 100% from plants. Powdered leaf from Symplocos trees can replace alum in conventional natural dye recipes and produce some exciting new colors. Natural dyers already chose plant dyes over synthetic dyes because they are aligned with their values, and the Plant Mordant Project offers an opportunity to extend the expression of these values by also using a plant-sourced mordant.

At its source, the Plant Mordant Project builds partnerships for sustainability with rainforest communities and indigenous textile artists in Indonesia. Through its sourcing and sales of Indonesia’s traditional plant-sourced dye mordant, the Bebali Foundation ( alleviates rural poverty and empowers women, saves rainforests, and supports the traditional textile arts. The Bebali Foundation brings to this project a decade of experience in the fields of conservation, indigenous culture, and rural livelihoods, while its partnerships with the Royal Botanical Gardens at Kew and the Indonesian Forestry Department, and its funding from the Ford Foundation bring world class scientific rigor and accountability.


Offering High Quality Natural Dye Production

We offer designers the opportunity to make natural dyes by natural processes, with time-tested, colourfast traditional Indonesian dye recipes using sustainably sourced dye plants and plant mordants, and without synthetic modifiers. All our work is by-hand, from the scouring, through the dyeing and finishing. We can work with any commercial fibre that will take the dyes we use, including handspun handwoven cotton sourced from communities we work with, and fabrics sent to us for dyeing. View our studio profile PDF here.

Farmer to Fabric Products

These are the pieces we make in our production dye studio to showcase our values, skills and colours. Many are of handspun, handwoven cotton sourced from communities we work with. There is also meterage of cotton, linen and silk, and everything is made to the same exacting standards and integrity with which we fulfil our commercial orders.

Indigo Vat Dyeing

To achieve tones of indigos we have dye vats of varying strengths. The dye paste we use in these vats is processed and supplied by farmers we have trained in Central Java, east Bali, and central Flores who grow Strobilanthes cusia, and in Timor who grow Indigofera tinctoria.

Instead of using sodium dithionite, our indigo vats are reduced with unrefined palm sugar that is sourced from farmers in east Bali.

FACT: 100 m2 of planted Strobilanthes cusia in Flores produces 200 kg of fresh leaves per year which becomes 50 kg of indigo paste which dyes 25 kg of yarn or cloth.

Ceriops tagal Dyeing

A Forest Stewardship Council (FSC) 100% sustainably certified forest concession in Papua supplies the Ceriops tagal bark extract that we use to achieve rich red-brown earth tones. Instead of using industrial alum, this Ceriops dye is fixed with a plant-mordant of fallen Symplocos cochinchinensis leaves collected by community harvester groups we have established in Flores.

Mud Dyeing

Mud dyeing is perhaps one of the oldest fiber coloring processes. It is practiced around the world, and in Indonesia is found in Timor and Sulawesi. In the studio, pre-dyeing with Ceriops tagal prepares the fiber with a rich tannin. Adding the water from washing rice before cooking to an iron-rich mud causes fermentation that creates iron sulphate. Dyeing the Ceriops-colored fibre in the mud creates tannin-iron complexes that are black.

Soap Making and Waste Water

Avoiding polluting detergents, we make our own pH-neutral soap for use in our scouring and finishing processes with candlenut oil (Aleuritis molucanna ) sourced from a weaving community in Timor. We have tested our waste water and its pH, organic matter (from the dyes) and soap contents make it acceptable to use on the land. We collect our washing water in a tank, allow it to settle, and then use it to irrigate our dye garden.


Traditional undyed Fabric lengths

In Central Java, we work with traditional weavers and farmers who cultivate white cotton (Gossypium hirstrum) and heirloom brown cotton and then make it into culturally prescribed lengths of hand loomed cloth. Traditionally, these lengths are decorated with batik and used for dress or in ceremony. The plain cloths, purchased by Threads of Life to maintain the farming and weaving practices, provide an exquisite base for the deep colors we achieve.

Symplocos Plant Mordant

Symplocos are aluminium hyper-accumulating trees the leaves of which contain 3% aluminium. Symplocos has been used by traditional dyers as a dye-fixing mordant across south and southeast Asia for at least 2000 years. The only remaining stands of Symplocos in eastern Indonesia are in endangered forests where providing sustainable incomes is vital to conserving ancient woodlands. The Bebali Foundation works with the Indonesian Department of Forestry and local forest communities to facilitate the sustainable collection and sale of fallen Symplocos leaves.


• Cloth that supports traditional practices of harvesting hand-spun cotton and hand-loom weaving

• Produced with all-natural and non-polluting methods

• Natural dyes made from sustainably cultivated and harvested plants, responsibly sourced in communities

• Generating income for local Indonesian farmers and artisans

Natural dye

Our Story
Since 1998, Threads of Life has been developing its natural dye skills in collaboration with the indigenous weavers we work with across Indonesia. We learned to dye with indigo, Morinda-red, and other traditional colours for three reasons. First, in order to determine that we were indeed buying natural dyed work. Second, to discover where the transmission of knowledge between generations had broken down and facilitate revitalisation of traditions. And third, to support sustainable cultivation and use of the dye plants.

One of the biggest social problems we see in our partner communities is male migration for work that leaves women weavers as single heads of households. To help keep families together, we have been developing a new agricultural market for dye plants by expanding our in-house natural dye capacity. Since 2013 we have been supporting/promoting the cultivation and sustainable harvest of select dye species beyond the needs of the local tradition as an income stream, which allows us to hand-dye artisanal volumes of fabric and yarn using natural dyes by natural processes.

Our Process is Our Ethics
We have focused on a palette of indigos and browns. To achieve these dye plants that contain these rich earth tones we have farmers in Central Java, east Bali, and central Flores growing Strobilanthes cusia, and farmers in Timor growing Indigofera tinctoria. Farmers in east Bali tap coconut trees for the palm sugar we need. A Forest Stewardship Council (FSC) certified forest concession in Papua supplies Ceriops tagal bark for beautiful shades of brown-red, which are fixed with a community-sourced Symplocos cochinchinensis plant-based mordant from Flores.

Our indigo vats are reduced with unrefined palm sugar instead of sodium dithionite, and our brown dye is mordanted with Symplocos cochinchinensis instead of industrial alum. Avoiding polluting detergents, we make our own pH-neutral soap from community-sourced candlenut oil for use in our scouring and finishing processes. Even our waste water is reintegrated, used to irrigate our dye garden. At all stages, we are developing transparent and accountable supply chains and production processes.

In Central Java we work with traditional weavers and farmers to sustainably cultivate white cotton Gossypium hirsutum and heirloom brown cotton which is made into culturally prescribed lengths of hand loomed cloth. Traditionally these lengths are batiked and used for dress or ceremony. Threads of Life purchases these cloths to maintain these practices and provides an exquisite base for the deep colors we achieve.

We can confidently certify that our chain of custody, from farmer to fabric, is environmentally sustainable and generates income for communities. Through our twenty years of research and experience as dyers, we have the expertise to know the quantities of natural resources required to produce dyes and ultimately a finished cloth. Furthermore, by working hand-in-hand with all farmers and communities, we have the trust and communication necessary to maintain these practices.

Ceriops Indigo


The Bebali Foundation ( works towards sustainable livelihoods for indigenous people across Indonesia, and does so through the textile and natural dye arts. It works closely with Threads of Life to help rural communities take advantage of the market access we offer, and its programs help our partner communities develop their independent businesses for growth, environmental sustainability, and cultural integrity.

The Bebali Foundation is an Indonesian non-profit organization that helps hundreds of weavers who live in remote, under-developed villages turn textiles, crafts, and other expressions of their local cultures into badly needed income in a way that is environmentally sustainable, promotes cultural integrity, and empowers women. The weaving communities we work with have provided the foundation with a “mandate” of issues that they want addressed, in three general areas: incubating community businesses, managing forests and natural resources, and nurturing traditional culture.

Incubating Community Businesses for the Rural Poor

Promoting investment, innovation, and entrepreneurship in a real market environment can empower women, get and keep children in school, and improve health by raising incomes and creating skilled jobs. Because these jobs often depend on aspects of culture that are unique and inseparable from their rural location, much of this growth stays in small villages. And because these businesses serve real markets, they sustain themselves without further aid or patronage.

Initiating Community Forest Stewardship and Forest Product Management

Sustainable businesses require sustainable resources. With botanical research and field workshops, the Bebali Foundation helps communities fully understand the resources they use and develop management plans that preserve their forests and raise their incomes. The growing Bebali Foundation herbarium collection forms a buffer against the loss of botanical knowledge in our partner communities. The foundation also facilitates dialogue with local governments in order to formalize community use of non-timber forest products.

Nurturing Aspects of Traditional Culture that Strengthen Contemporary Society

Communities fail to develop economically when their self-worth is undermined. Nobody becomes self-starting and empowered when being told by media, government and the outside world that their heritage and identity are backward and primitive. The Bebali Foundation aims to understand, engage with and support the aspects of a community’s culture and traditions that empower people, and work through traditional social institutions to help people take charge of their own destinies.

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