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Living Color, BISA Organic Batik - Pejeng Bali
Last modified: 2010-03-18 20:45:21

Whether you're looking at a hand-loomed ikat, batik sarong or tie-dyed shirt, Bali's textiles are spectacularly colourful.But those bright, clear hues come at a high cost to the island's environment.

Chemical dyes arrived in Indonesia over 100 years ago and quickly became popular because their colours were bolder than traditional plant dyes. Most of the textile dyes and associated chemicals used in Indonesia today are very harmful to the environment. Cheap, harsh chemical dyes, many containing heavy metals, are routinely flushed into Bali's waterways. This effluent, with its extremely high pH of between 10 and 14, quickly kills any fish or plants that come into contact with it. Settling ponds and neutralization techniques are expensive to put into place and maintain.

But a handful of environmentally-conscious Indonesians have stepped away from chemical dyes and embraced the arcane art of colouring textiles with locally-grown plant dyes.

Made and Iwan met over ten years ago when they were both in the batik and garment trade; Made was one of Iwan's customers. They soon discovered that they shared a deep concern about the effects of chemical dyes on Indonesia's fragile environment.

"It was a logical progression to start experimenting with plant dyes," says Iwan. "At that time there hadn't been any market research on the demand for non-chemical dyes, but we gambled that they would catch on within five years."

One Javanese and one Balinese, the two men shared a vision and became as close as brothers. They dedicated themselves to establishing protocols and tools for a palette of plant dyes using sustainable, locally available materials. Nine years of research revealed that most of the colours they needed could be obtained from the leaves of common plants, and four of those years were dedicated to standardizing the colours. The only colours that can't be obtained in Bali are red and blue. Red (extracted from sustainably harvested secang wood) and blue (indigo paste) are brought from Java.

Dying cloth by hand with natural plant dyes is a very time-consuming and labour-intensive process. Many textiles make between seven and 15 journeys (up to 24 for indigo) to the dye vat to obtain the desired colour saturation. The final hues are delicious -- tender peaches and reds, warm browns and yellows, delicate blues. The textiles are unusually soft to the touch and have a subtle natural aroma.

"Although roots and bark often give stronger colours, we only use the leaves", explains Made. "Harvesting bark and roots kills the tree. We wanted to find solutions that didn't harm the environment in any way."

Some of the leaves are dried and some are used fresh, either alone or in combination. After being cut small, they're boiled for about five hours to extract the colour. The cloth is then repeatedly dipped into the vat of colour solution until the desired saturation is obtained. Natural minerals are used as mordants to fix the colours. It's a long process. The studio, outside Gianyar, can dye 100 metres of cloth a day or 150 pieces of clothing. Although the solutions are non-toxic, a settling pond is used to ensure that all water leaving the studio is as clean as possible.

The studio dyes lengths of textiles and finished garments for clients, but also spins and weaves hand-loomed cotton, silk, wool and hemp fabrics to order. Five young women weave textiles here for interior design elements, and another ten looms in the nearby village pick up the slack. Off-cuts and scraps from Bali's garment factories are dyed and woven into sturdy upholstery fabric. The looms can produce cloth up to 50 centimetres wide and about two metres can be woven in a day.

"We do everything we can to recycle, avoid pollution, minimize the use of water and ensure that the dye materials we use are sustainable," Iwan points out. "Most of our clients are from the United States, Canada, Japan and France. Some ask us for certification but Indonesia doesn't yet have international certification for natural dyes. We'd like to pursue this but don't know how to go about it." So if anyone out there can help them with this, or wants more information on naturally dyed and woven textiles, please get in touch at (0361) 950906 or tarumnaturaldye@hotmail.com

Made and Iwan share a dream that sees Bali as an ecological model for Indonesia and the world, and as a centre for chemical-free dyeing techniques. One of their ambitions is to create natural dye powders of standardized colours, and solicit government support to encourage Bali's garment and batik industries to use natural dyes.

Fifteen minutes outside of Ubud, Tjok Agung Pemayun is probably Bali's leading indigo wizard. He's studied the plants and indigo dyeing techniques intensively for four years. An economics graduate, he worked as a financial controller for a Bali-based textile and garment manufacturer, where he learned the environmental hazards of cheap chemical dyes. Although his company used more environmentally-friendly German dyes and neutralized the wastewater, he still felt drawn to natural dyes. Today BISA, his studio in Pejeng, produces hand-blocked and hand-drawn batiks using natural brown and indigo dyes.

Indigo is a natural dye extracted from several species of plant. Most natural indigo is obtained from plants in the genus Indigofera, which are native to the tropics. In temperate climates indigo can also be obtained from woad another plant species. Natural Indigo is perhaps the oldest, dye known to man, used in ancient Middle Eastern, Mediterranean, Asian and African civilizations. India is believed to be the oldest center of indigo dyeing in the Old World, supplying indigo to Europe as early as the Greco-Roman era. In ancient times only royalty could afford to wear indigo-dyed clothing; some robes were literally worth their weight in gold. For the past 50 years, indigo has been the iconic colour of Levi's jeans covering millions of bottoms. Go figure.

Almost all the indigo used in the textile industry today (all those blue jeans) is synthetic. Most natural dyes are affixed with a metallic salt, in a two-step process. Natural indigo is fermented, then dyed in a process that affixes the indigo as it oxidizes in the air. Using natural indigo is a very long, resource-intensive process which accounts for the high cost of the finished product. Tjok Agung explains the process to me as we tour his dye vats.

"The chemistry of indigo dyeing is very complex and takes years to learn. Traditionally indigo is fermented before use, but I've developed another system where indigo leaves are composted for a month with microbes made from locally available materials. This creates a light, odourless indigo concentrate which is easier to handle and transport than the traditional paste. It's made into a paste later."

It takes 10 kg of fresh leaves to make one kg of indigo paste, and two kg of paste and many separate dippings to dye one square meter of cloth a deep blue. I began to get a sense of the intensity of the process. The indigo leaf is very small, and thousands are needed to dye a single sarong. His large dye vat starts with 200 kg of indigo paste and concentrate, and depending on how many meters are to be dyed and the depth of the desired colour, 10 to 20 kg more is regularly added. I ask Tjok Agung how he disposes of the effluent, but his system doesn't produce any waste because the water is constantly being replenished.

After much experimentation and research, Tjok Agung has imported seeds from different varieties of indigo plants from Thailand and Sumatra. Deeply concerned about environmental issues and sustainable livelihoods in Pejeng, he's already involved in several community projects. Growing indigo offers an opportunity for village farmers to benefit from a new crop while nourishing the rice fields. "The rice fields should rest or be sown in a different crop every two or three harvest cycles, but that hasn't been done here for a long time," he points out. "I'm encouraging farmers on my family's land to plant indigo between rice crops. Not only can they sell the indigo to me, but the fields benefit from the extra nitrogen since some indigo plants are legumes." He hopes to have 18 hectare of rice fields rotating indigo crops next year and has donated a piece of his land to the village to be used as an organic garden.

Pak Tjok has visions of complementary cottage industries revolving around naturally-dyed textiles in Bali. For example, one village would grow the raw materials, another do the wax work and a third do the dyeing. He already employs over 43 people at this workshop, and dreams that Pejeng, home to many of Bali's antiquities and its archeological museum, may some day become a tourist destination like Ubud. Tjok would like to see organic warungs and craft shops, with tourists visiting BISA to buy directly from the workshop.

Tjok Agung's indigo-dyed textiles are available only in Ubud through Macan Tidur on Monkey Forest Road, Indigo at Coffee and Silver near the Monkey Forest and the W Gallery for Conservation opposite Café des Artistes on Jalan Bisma.

For enquiries or orders, please contact Tjokorda Agung directly at picanida@hotmail.com.

Read more from Greenspeak: http://www.baliadvertiser.biz/articles/greenspeak/2009/living_color.html

Keywords: Indonesia, Living Color, organic, batik, Bali, BISA, Pejeng
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