Dyes, Controversies

Natural Dyes? Commercial Dyes? Ikat Controversies

Naturally dyed threads hanging in “Threads of Life”
shop in Ubud, Bali

Natural dyes were once widespread in Indonesia and Malaysian Sarawak to color intricately beautiful ikat textiles. These natural dyes had rich semantic connections to local worldviews in many of Indonesia’s 300 societies and in Sarawak’s various Iban communities. The art of natural dyeing takes much time and patience, not to mention involving a detailed knowledge of the natural world of tropical trees and other plants. There are myriad ways to get different colors, depending on geography, botanical resources, local metal sources, and folk knowledge.

The places we studied in summer 2012 extract natural dyes from local plants. Crucial to the dye process, except when using indigo, is the mordant. The mordant in many Southeast Asian instances is a metallic salt that fixes the dye so the fibers of the thread will more easily take to the dye. The mordant also makes the color last; without the use of an appropriate mordant, a dyed textile will quickly fade in the sun. Natural dyes can be unpredictable but they produce a deep, rich aesthetic that cannot be achieved through the use of commercial dyes. But, the latter have largely taken over in Indonesian and Malaysian ikat production since their introduction in the late nineteenth century (in British colonial Malaya and in the Dutch East Indies).  Whether and why to maintain or revive natural dye use in Southeast Asian handloom ikat industries are controversial questions, ones with no precise right answers, as we discovered in our summer 2012 fieldwork. To introduce this complex topic we can start with discussion of the primary natural dye colors.

Bapak Pong showing loba and other
natural dyestuff.

The red dye is extracted from the root bark of the Morinda tree (also known as sunti).  Morinda can also produce yellow and brown dyes. The first step is to clean the yarn and open the fibers of the yarn using alkaline water. The dyer crushes the root bark and wrings it out with water, extracting the red pigment called morindin.

The oil process comes next. Oil comes from many plants, particularly candlenut. The dyer adds five other species of plants to the dyeing vat. The threads soak for three days. They are then rinsed and left in the sun to dry for a couple of weeks.

The next step is the dye bath, which involves the morindin and aluminum salt. The aluminum salt (called loba) comes from Symplocos trees. The most aluminum content is found in the dead, fallen leaves of this special tree. The threads need to soak in the dye bath for three days and must be dyed multiple times. West Timor weavers, for example, dye their threads 20 times to achieve a deep red/maroon.

The blue dye is extracted from Indigofera tintoria, Indigofera fruticosa, or Strobilantes. The leaves of these plants are soaked in water to extract the blue dye called indican. Lime, or calcium oxide (kapur, in Bahasa Indonesia), is added to produce a “cake,” (shown to the left) which can be dried and saved for future dye baths. The indigo dye bath is made up of the cake, lime, water, and sugar; it needs to be mixed thoroughly. The threads are soaked several times. When taken out of the bath, the threads are a greenish yellow. They are placed in the sun, and oxidation takes place, turning the threads blue.  Indonesian weavers in places like Sumba and the Toba Batak areas of Sumatra are especially enamored of blues for their ikats.  Black can be achieved by using indigo, too. Multiple baths are required in order to reach a profound black.

The colors of brown and yellow can be achieved through the same process to achieve red with a couple of alterations. Yellow is acquired when taking out the oil process and brown is acquired when the loba is omitted from the dye bath. Achieving these colors doubtless took many generations of folk scientific experimentation in pre-modern Southeast Asian villages.

 Indigo Dye Process: Indigo leaves, adding lime, mixing, soaking threads, and hanging threads to dry

Natural Dyes: Secret Knowledge

Morinda tree in “Threads of Life”
dye garden.

The natural dye process includes important cultural aspects in the different ethnolinguistic communities of Indonesia and among Iban societies in Malaysia. In Indonesia, different communities add a “secret” ingredient, making a recipe unique. These processes are passed down to future generations through oral tradition and emphatically are not to be shared with people from other communities. Integral to the process in places like Sumba and Flores (we found in interviews at Threads of Life) is praying to the tree or plant. Dyers (often older women) must build a relationship with the tree or plant and ask its kind permission to use its materials. Only then are the women allowed to use the plant or tree for dyestuffs. Disrespecting the powers and dangers of the spirit-plants can lead to a ruined ikat, or to calamities in the life or family life of the dyer. Sometimes, special registers of ritual speech are used to talk to the dye plants.

In “Why Do Ladies Sing the Blues? Indigo, Cloth Production, and Gender in Kodi”anthropologist Janet Hoskins explores the role of gender, secrecy, danger, and the indigo dyeing process in West Sumba in Kodi village society (1989). Men are not allowed to take part in indigo dyeing because it is believed they will become infertile. Women who are menstruating or who are pregnant are also not allowed to handle indigo dyes, which are charged with supernatural potency. Only women who are past menopause can handle the indigo dyes, for only they have the spiritual fortitude to withstand the “death forces” of the blue dyestuffs as those ferment in the stinky dyepot (whose smell is thought to be like the odor of a rotting corpse [Hoskins 1989: 144-145; 149-151]).  Natural dye processes in such Indonesian societies clearly are not straightforward secular undertakings.

Such women’s maturity and social weight, so to speak, are signified by tattoos on their forearms and calves. These dyer women serve as ikat experts, as midwives, and as the ones who prepare corpses for burial—all highly dangerous jobs in a spiritual sense (Hoskins 1989:  149-158 ). These activities are all tied to secret knowledge.

For the geringsing double ikat textiles of Tenganan, east Bali, the indigo dyeing process is especially exclusive. The dyeing is done only in one other village, a settlement called Bugbug.  This village is located a short distance up the east coast of Bali. Indigo dyeing is not allowed to be done directly in the Tenganan villages; it is controlled by specialist families in Bugbug who, again, do not want to share their dye knowledge with others.

An important step to the dye process of the Dayak and Iban peoples is the treading of the yarn, which is also called the “women’s war path.”  This also entails secret knowledge. In these societies, the men’s war path was once the literal one where men fought enemies and (in the past) took their heads as war trophies (Linggi 1998).  The women’s war path was the complementary opposite counterpart to this: a woman’s dangerous journey into the nine months of a pregnancy and her baby’s birth in the longhouse.  Analogous to pregnancy and birth was the Iban or Dayak weaverwomen’s journey through the many months needed to prepare and dye threads and then weave a large pua textile on the loom.  In the past, when men would return to the village after conflicts carrying the taken heads of their enemies, the village women would welcome the heads to the settlement by cradling them in pua ikats. Longhouse experts were the ones who could fully explicate these systems of binary opposition lore.

Conflicted History of Natural Dyes


Chemical dyes and chemically dyed yarn
at Tun Jugah Foundation.

The art of natural dyeing has long been an important aspect of Indonesian and Malaysian cultures, probably for many centuries, tracing back to pre-Indian contacts times. Dye knowledge extends beyond gender, danger, and secrecy. Not only do natural dyes provide alluring colors for masterfully designed and woven textiles: they also encode important and detailed scientific information about plants. Through ethnobotanical knowledge and expertise, indigenous communities have been able to classify plants and provide much information about their properties and uses (in some cases offering more complexity than the taxonomic system of modern-day science). Natural dyeing has undeniably contributed to the development of art and science thanks to these indigenous communities.

Natural dyeing does take a great deal of time, however. After the introduction of synthetic dyes in the late nineteenth century by Dutch colonial Indies commercial concerns, natural dyes became less popular in many islands. Synthetic dyes offered an alternative that was much less time-consuming and more predictable. Synthetically dyed textiles were more resistant to sunlight and frequent washing; aniline dyes provided a wide range of attractive and sometimes new colors. Of course, the aesthetic was not quite the same as with the natural dyes. It is also fair to say that the culture of natural dyeing was being lost to an extent in many regions. There were no special, rich processes or taboos tied to chemical dyes. Using the synthetic dyes was merely a technological, secular process, open to almost anyone, to boot.  Once aniline dyes arrived on the scene and began to democratize cloth coloration, persons who once controlled the secret dye processes and powers saw their power and prestige threatened

Not surprisingly, there were also health-related and environmental implications to the introduction of chemical dyes to weaving communities in Indonesia and Malaysia. The synthetic dyes can be dangerous to use and dyers need to take precautions when handling the toxic chemicals. Proper waste disposal is also a problem. If not disposed of properly, which is hard to do in remote, rural areas with little advanced technology, the waste can contaminate water supplies. Dumping synthetic dye run-off into rural rivers and streams can prove dangerous for flora, fauna, and humans nearby. Fish populations can die.

Nonetheless, the chemical dyes have largely taken over since about the 1920s. The majority of ikat textiles hanging in the street shops of Ubud, Bali are synthetically dyed. But, there are some select places that do sell naturally dyed ikat textiles. Some weaving communities retain some knowledge about natural dye processes and their associated worldviews.

In fact, in the last 20 years or so there has been a wave of nostalgia for the tradition of natural dyes in some Indonesian communities and surely overseas. But, it is questionable whether this longing for past traditions is demonstrated by the dyers and weavers themselves or is more of a Western demand for “authentic” and/or “green” art. This question can be explored through a closer study of Threads of Life (see also Case Studies of Two Ikat NGOs).

A Dye-Focused NGO

Threads of Life

Threads of Life (shop shown to the left) is a non-governmental organization in Ubud, Bali that seeks to revive traditional weaving and dyeing techniques and to empower weaver women in impoverished Indonesian communities in places like Sumba and Flores. One of the NGO co-founders, William Ingram, told us in summer 2012 that the goal of Threads of Life was to create an “economic model” that allows people to choose what cultural aspects they want to bring with them and which ones they want to leave behind. Threads of Life portrays the art of natural dyeing as an ancient and valued tradition that the people of Indonesia want to preserve. He cited an example. The 2005 Indonesian Indigenous Weavers Festival was organized by Threads of Life’s partner organization Yayasan Pecinta Budaya Bebali; funding came from governmental and private foundation sources. This festival included ninety-six weavers and cultural leaders from eighteen communities across Indonesia. These people were brought together by the Yayasan as experts on natural dyeing “traditions.”

One of the main foci of the festival was the esoteric knowledge needed to carry out the various natural dyeing processes correctly. Different dyers were asked by the festival organizers to share their dye knowledge so that other communities elsewhere in Indonesia might improve their own methods. Threads of Life created a DVD of the festival, called “The 2005 Indonesian Indigenous Weavers Festival: Strengthening Tradition, Custom and Culture.”

One of the most interesting parts of the festival was the envisioning of a future for the use of natural dyes by the conference participants. They were asked what they wanted weaving villages to look like in three to five years.  There was an overwhelming response for returning to original ways, especially in terms of dyeing. As the film portrays things, this festival gave weavers across Indonesia the chance to anticipate a fruitful future for these old weaving traditions. However, the Threads of Life NGO had a strong hand in encouraging this ideology of glorious old natural dye traditions in the first place.  It is also notable that the participants apparently did not want their dye knowledge preserved in a book or article that might have come from the festival.  The festival organizers were envisioning a kind of transparency of secret dyeing knowledge that dyer participants evidently did not share.

Threads of Life ties the benefits of natural dyes to the economic empowerment of village women, reporting that women weavers make 370% more using natural dyes than using chemical dyes once the NGO sells their ikats to a well-off international clientele. This may be true, but there are definitely some trade-offs, particularly concerning the great deal of time it takes to use natural dyes correctly. Synthetically dyed textiles take significantly less time to create and provide money quickly, which is why synthetic dyes are sometimes more economically viable for cash-strapped villagers. This leads to the question of whether weavers of Indonesia ikat textiles really do want to preserve the tradition of natural dyes for the sake of (supposed) cultural integrity and “ikat beauty.” Do they want to move away from synthetic dyes so completely?  Are commercial dyes “bad” in some fundamental way, as some of the internationalized green economies rhetoric would have it?

Studies have shown that in other Southeast Asian countries weavers use synthetic dyes for their own use and natural dyes to satisfy Western demand. In “Branding Authenticity: Cambodian Ikat in Transnational Artisan Partnerships (TAPs),” S. Falls, J. Smith, and students from Savannah College of Art and Design, USA, report that they studied organizations in Cambodia similar to Threads of Life (2011). The students were to pick a design for a “hol,” which is a Cambodian silk textile. The students insisted on the use of natural dyes while the Cambodian weavers, to the visitors’ surprise, encouraged the use of synthetic dyes. Both types of textiles were made. In the end, the American students could not tell the difference between the naturally dyed and synthetically dyed cloths. Competing constituencies and rival aesthetic systems are clearly in play here.

Threads of Life allows impoverished women weavers in places like Kalimantan to compete in the global market for the sale of ikat textiles using natural dyes as compared to synthetic dyes. Of course, there cannot be a market for such products without demand. Not only is there a demand for fine textiles produced by indigenous communities in Indonesia: there is also an international demand for “green” products, particularly textiles that use natural dyes.


Upscale, wealthier tourists and experienced art collectors are sometimes attracted to the mere idea of natural dyes. Some supposedly ethically conscious consumers in the West automatically attribute beauty, goodness, environmentalism, and an anti-industrialist mentality to the word “natural.” An ideology of “nature” dominates some of these global markets and art circuits today; this is called “green consumerism.” The example of the American students’ visit to Cambodia depicts how it is not the concrete, complex Southeast Asian aesthetics of natural dyes that rule the tastes of international consumers but rather just a vaguer, even romanticized idea of natural dyes and their purported goodness.

Furthermore, this ideology of nature also plays into the “authenticity” of such textiles. Tourists and collectors of art can relate authenticity to primitiveness. Natural dyes imply a “closeness” to nature, making textiles seem more primitive. Natural dyes, thus, contribute to the degree of authenticity that some well-off collectors and tourists ascribe to these ikat textiles, making the cloths more appealing, and more collectible—and more expensive.

 Pak Pong teaching us about natural dyes, Threads of Life dye studio.

 Dye pots and dyestuffs, Threads of Life shop, Ubud.

Threads of Life plays into this ideology of natural dye virtue and social consciousness. For example, when a visitor walks into their impressive and truly beautiful shop in Ubud, they are confronted with materials used for the natural dye processes (such as frames for the yarns, dyepots, and small baskets full of dried dyestuffs). This is an alluring marketing strategy that automatically makes the consumer more attracted to the textiles for sale, as these cloths are clearly being made with organic materials.

Threads of Life may seem as though they are completely for exclusive use of natural dyes, but they do exhibit a degree of flexibility. When talking to one of the co-founders, Jean Howe, we found this.  She relayed a story to us about a village in North Sumatra where weavers are more skilled in synthetic dye use than in the old ways. Threads of Life had, at first, pushed these Toba Batak weavers to use natural dyes to see what they could come up with but the Threads of Life staff discovered that they created much lovelier textiles using the synthetic dyes. Howe said that Threads of Life should be open to such change, which is reassuring.

Ideally, Threads of Life should experiment and find quicker, more efficient ways to use natural dyes. More research should be done trying to find more responsible and environmentally friendly synthetic dyes combined with sustainable development of natural dyes.  This might involve partnerships with the science departments of Indonesian and Malaysian universities.

The Future of Natural Dyes?

Symplocos plants in pots and loba in
packets, dye studio, Threads of Life.

An International Symposium and Workshop on Natural Dyes initiated by the United Nations Educational, Scientific, and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) took place in Hyderabad, India in 2006. Attendees included 700 researchers, artisans, craft promoters and representatives of non-governmental organizations from 57 countries. This conference upheld the role of NGO’s in developing and sustaining naturally dyed textiles and markets for these cloths and dyes. Furthermore, textile education was promoted, even at the college level. Particularly, courses dealing with environmental awareness and natural dyes would be most appropriate, conference-goers held. Concern was expressed over the scarcity of resources in some areas, which called for national regulation and management of natural resources as well as research that would look into alternative natural dyestuffs.

Threads of Life itself demonstrates this carefully modulated environmental consciousness by introducing sustainable practices of cultivating natural resources. For example, when one collects the root bark of Morinda, one must only collect it from one side of the tree at a time, allowing the other side enough time to regenerate. As well, due to increasing deforestation, today the Symplocos tree is harder to come by. Several years ago Threads of Life experimented and found that the most aluminum salt comes from the fallen leaves. A particularly rich Symplocos forest is found in West Flores. So, the NGO staff harvests the leaves there and manufactures the aluminum salt. Threads of Life then sends the aluminum salt in packages to weaving communities throughout Indonesia, helping them to continue to employ a high quality, much-needed mordant in a time of severe de-forestation in many parts of the archipelago.

Finally (the 2006 conference participants concluded), to further promote natural dyes in international markets, products should be marked with an eco-label or certification.  From the Hyderabad conference, one can conclude that natural dyes are not going anywhere. In many nations there is a strong desire to uphold the art of natural dyeing and to further develop it. As Bechtold et al wrote in an article in the Journal of Cleaner Production entitled “Natural Dyes in Modern Dyehouses – How To Combine Experiences of Two Centuries To Meet the Demands of the Future” (2003) a general one-bath dyeing process could be established for various natural dyes .  More acceptable fastness properties could also be achieved. Because of the dominance of synthetic dyes, natural dyes could not develop along with the technological modernization of textiles and the textile industry (in terms of changes of loom technology and so on).

Numerous synthetically dyed textiles in the Ubud marketplace
compared to a naturally dyed Threads of Life textile from Toraja.

More research needs to be done to discover more natural dye materials that can be effectively used in a one-bath dyeing process and that can be sustainably employed. Realistically, natural dyes will never dominate over the synthetic dyes in the Southeast Asian textile industry, but they will probably always be available as a specialized alternative. If village ikat dyers and weavers can gain more family income in the process, so much the better. Yet, these changes can have consequences for circuits of traditional cloth exchange, our next topic.


Bechtold, T., A. Turcanu, E. Ganglberger, and S. Geissler
   2003 “Natural Dyes in Modern Textile Dyehouses: How To combine Experiences of Two Centuries To Meet the Demands of the Future?” Journal of Cleaner Production 11 (5): 499-509.
Falls, S. and J. Smith
   2011 “Branding Authenticity: Cambodia Ikat in Transnational Artisan Partnerships (TAPs),” Journal of Design History 24 93): 255-271.
Hoskins, Janet
     1989  “Why Do Ladies Sing the Blues? Indigo Dyeing, Cloth Production, and Gender symbolism in Kodi,” in Annette B. Weiner and Jane Schneider, eds., Cloth and Human Experience (1989, Washington, DC: Smithsonian Institution Press), pp. 142-173.
Linggi, Datuk Amar Margaret
   1998  Ties that Bind: An Exhibition Catalogue of Ikat Fabrics. College of William and Mary, Muscatelle Museum of Art.
UNESCO International Symposium on Natural Dyes 2006-Final Report

For Further Reading

    Also very useful are the sections on natural dyes on the website of the NGO Threads of Life, at www.threadsoflife.com.  See also the excellent overview study, Dominique Cardon, 2007, Natural  Dyes: Sources, Tradition, Technology and Science (London: Archetype).