January 21, 2011

Indigo Plant and Indigenous Textiles

Japanese ladies wearing blue indigo batik - Jakarta Post

 I suppose many of us would have learnt the word "indigo" when we first learnt about the colours of the rainbow in our primary school.

Indeed the word continues to be a very romantic notion for me all these years. A colour which is a part of our rainbow colours. But as I grow older I find this colour exceptionally soothing.

In terms of batik and Iban art of weaving it has a special meaning too. Read on...

The Plant : Indigo

A variety of plants have provided indigo throughout history, but most natural indigo was obtained from those in the genus Indigofera, which are native to the tropics. The primary commercial indigo species in Asia was true indigo (Indigofera tinctoria, also known as Indigofera sumatrana). A common alternative used in the relatively colder subtropical locations such as Japan's Ryukyu Islands and Taiwan is Strobilanthes cusia (Japanese: リュウキュウアイ. Chinese: 馬藍/山藍). In Central and South America the two species Indigofera suffruticosa (Añil) and Indigofera arrecta (Natal indigo) were the most important. In temperate climates indigo can also be obtained from woad (Isatis tinctoria) and dyer's knotweed (Polygonum tinctorum), although the Indigofera species yield more dye.

In the Iban language indigo is "tarum".

Its history
Use of the indigo began in India and dates from the 4th century BC. Dye was extracted from the stems and leaves making the indigo a useful and valuable plant. Even today, the dye of the indigo plant is used in various crafts and art projects. It is a dye used in Iban weaving (tenung) and in batik art in most parts of South East Asia.

What else is the indigo plant used for?
The indigo plant has been used in Eastern medicine to treat various health problems. However, in Western medicine it lacks scientific proof of having any real medicinal properties. The plant has been reported to help treat cancers, epilepsy, bronchitis, spleen problems and other medical conditions.

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My Indigo Plant in Sg. Utik in Kalimantan Barat. During this adventure of mine I interacted with many women weavers who are renown in their design and production. They grow their own indigo plants around their longhouse.

The word nila denotes dark blue colour and is applied to animals, plants and minerals according to their colour. Sanskrit authors speak of nila flies, birds, stones and flowers.
Actually this plant belongs to the pea and bean family and is therefore also a leguminosae.
Three other species are grown on a smaller scale: Indigo arrecta, Bengal indigo, Indigo suffruticosa, West Indian indigo, Vilaiti nil (Hindi), Shimaiyaviri (Tamil), Indigo articulata (the least important).

The plant

A living indigo plant in flower, growing in Kew Gardens.

Leaves - slightly hairy, separated into leaflets often opposite each other. It is the leaves that yield the blue dye, indigo. The plants are also grown as a cover for crops and as a fertiliser. The leaves of some species are fed to livestock. In fact many of the older Ibans who are found living in the Ulu Limbang area have been harvesting their own indigo for their home weaving of their pua kumbu. Younger ladies have been helping their old grandmothers in this dyeing method.

Flowers - in little clusters, with pea-like flowers.

Fruits - a pea-like pod. Indigofera is very large genus of about 700 species, distributed in topical and sub-tropical regions. Several species yield a blue dye.
More notes:

Tarum (Marsdenia Tinctoria, Indigofera) The indigo producing plant used by the Iban grows wild, but may be cultivated near a longhouse. It grows as a shrub to a metre high. It has light feathery leaves which are collected, punded, placed in a wooden trough, and soaked in water. To render the dye soluble in water, slaked lime (Kapur) is added to the solution. The yarn is completely submerged in the dye overnight, and then hung out to dry in the sun the following day. This drying process, after dipping, is necessary to oxidize the dye so as to form the indigo colour on the fibre.
Dyeing in the indigo solution (tarum) will produce black and diffierent shades of blue. The parts of the pattern that are to be dyed blue are untied and exposed to the solution. Shades of blue-black are achieved when yarn that has been previously dyed in engkudu is exposed and dyed in indigo solution. Thus during this stage of dyeing with indigo (narum) two colours may result. A white colour in the pattern is the result of excluding the tied portions from the engkudu and tarum dyes.
The raw yarn is treated with mordant prior to dyeing. The basic utensils required are a wooden trough (dulang), a wooden mortar and pestel (lesong alu), and a small coconut shell cup (tachu).
All the ingredients, which usually include ginger, salt, and oil are finely pounded in a wooden mortar, then are carefully mearued out - one coconut shell each, and put inside a wooden trough, where hot water is added; half-filling the wooden trough. The officiating master dyer (indu nakar indu gaar) and experienced weavers then plunge their hands into the mixture to stir the concoction. This is a test of their competence, and also offers them a chance to find an amulet (Pengaroh), which may miraculously appear in the mixture.
The yarn is dipped into the mixture, trodden with the feet, turned three times and it is then left in the bath for three days. During this time great care is taken to see that the yarn is well saturated. After the three days of soaking, the yarn is taken out and washed thouroghly in clear water, usually in a river. It is then stretched on a mat for twelve hours and afterwards hung on an upright frame and put on the outside platform (tanju) of the longhouse during the day time as well as at night for roughly sixteen days, so that the sun and dew may complete the process. Throughout, great care is taken to ensure that the yarn gets the right amount of sun, and that it does not get wet from the rain. This process of drying the yarn out in the sun during the day, and putting it on the outside platform (tanju) at night to be subjected to dew (ambun) is called ngembun ubong and the pua made from this yarn is called pua embun. The yarn is now ready for dyeing.
The ikat technique is one of the most widespread techiniques of patterning cloth in this region. It is a process by which designs are dyed onto the threads prior to being woven. The ikat technique may be applied to either the warp or weft yarn, but the Iban only employ the warp ikat. The patterns are produced by excluding parts of the web from dye by tying them with a dried fibre from a leaf known as lemba (Curculigo villosa) which grows in great abundance on old cultivated fields or rubber gardens near longhouse. Beeswax is used to coat the lemba strips for strength and waterproofing. This work is highly complex requiring great skill.
Before the tying process is done, the thread is unwound and stretched in the weaving loom to ascertain the length of pua to be woven. This is usually done by two women who sit in front of a weaving frame and continuously pass between them two balls of thread placed in containers made of coconut shells, to prevent the threads from twisting. This process is called ngirit ubong, (literally 'pulling the threads'). The threads are divided into strands of three to make one kayu, using two large rods (lidi). The threads are carefully counted to determine the number of kay used; this in turn would determine the pattern and the width of the pua.
The yarn is then taken out of the loom and fixed to the tying frame (tangga ubong), where another thread of a different colour is inserted into the divided strands (kayu ubong), to tighten them and to keep them in place. The large rods (lidi) are removed. A weaver then begins her tying process to create the desired pattern.
Using trips of 'lemba' coated with beeswax, the threads which are to remain white, or become black or blue, are tied, leaving the background part of the pattern exposed.

Sources: Wikipedia....

And when are you going to wear a blue pua jacket? or an indigo batik sarong with a beautiful kebaya? You will the queen of the night in the eyes of the discerning. Cheers.




Ann said...

Re: Gold in Bau.

I went to Bau lake. I was told the water is so poisonousness. Gold hunters may be like the old pioneers.

Sarawakiana@2 said...

Yes Ann...there are always troubles when people go crazy chasing after gold or other precious metals. Heard that the gold ores there are not really ores....from a geologist (former student of mine).
A Gold rush would make Sarawak rich....

MAC said...

An interesting report on indigo. As a textile collector I found the information useful. Thank you.

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