MY mobile phone vibrated. The text message read: “FINALLY! Come OK!”
It seemed like only yesterday when Erna Dyanty showed me her notebook with swatches of dyed cotton and scribbles in pencil describing the process.
That familiar glint of excitement returned to her eyes as she spoke about her passion for the project, an ongoing five-year project which looks at resuscitating the art and craft of natural dyeing, as well as seeking eco-friendly and sustainable solutions for the batik-making industry.
Last month, the recently-established Kuala Lumpur Natural Dye Association (KLND), where Erna is a volunteer researcher, and The Japan Foundation, Kuala Lumpur (JFKL), with the support of The World Crafts Council (WCC), held their inaugural exhibition — Batik: Exploring Natural Dyes.
RECOLLECTING LOST KNOWLEDGE
The manufacturing of synthetic dyes began in 1856. English chemist William Henry Perkin discovered and manufactured the first coal-tar colours but retired somewhat abruptly from the industry in 1874, just after the synthesis of alizarin, an organic compound that has been used throughout history as a prominent red dye.
However, it was only in the 1930s that synthetic dyes were introduced to Malaysian textiles.
Prior to that, batik fabrics were dyed solely by natural, mainly vegetable substances. The synthetic dyeing process was much simpler and faster than the natural alternative, causing the art of natural dyeing to languish.
There were earlier attempts at promoting natural dyes in batik-making as an effort to make the industry more sustainable and environmentally friendly.
In June 1999, at the International Ikat Forum organised by Society Atelier Sarawak, together with the Sarawak Museum and Tun Jugah Foundation, Kraftangan Malaysia was mandated to reinvigorate the art and craft of natural dyeing in Malaysian batik.
The World Eco-Fiber and Textile (WEFT) Network was established for this purpose and Kraftangan Malaysia’s academic unit, Institut Kraf Negara (IKN), played an active role in the initiative to revive this art.
IKN sent representatives to Kraftangan Malaysia’s Sarawak branch in Betong to learn the natural dye practices in pua kumbu-making.
IKN also worked with the late Dr Achmad Sopandi Hasan, an Indonesian natural dye specialist, who was then attached to Universiti Pendidikan Sultan Idris.
IKN made discoveries by working with native plants and applied the natural dyes to batik.
The exhibition by KLND has proven that the assumption that natural dye-based products are dull and uninteresting is a myth.
Unlike the natural dye colour palette produced by IKN, which was more subdued, KLND had vibrant coloured fabrics hanging on the wall.
Erna shares that “the magic in natural dyeing is in the water”.
Initially, she worked from her mother’s home in the suburbs and used filtered water for her experiments.
Apparently, the quality of water from the water filter is not good enough for the natural dyeing process.
After harvesting colour from sappanwood in Hulu Langat, she realised that the colour produced in Hulu Langat was more vibrant than the one produced at her mother’s home.
Just a 30-minute drive away from Kuala Lumpur, Hulu Langat remains blanketed with virgin forests. The flowing river provides pure water required for the natural dyeing process. Rainwater in Hulu Langat can also be used because of the lush hills and greenery surrounding the area.
THE JAPANESE CONNECTION
Sachio Yoshioka, the fifth-generation head of a 19th-century studio called Somenotsukasa Yoshioka (or Textile Dyer Yoshioka) which still employs traditional dyeing methods, revealed that some of the ingredients utilised for dyeing textiles in the Heian era (794-1185 AD) found their roots in Southeast Asia.
To be specific, there are records from 1,200 years ago that Japan used to import pinang wood (from the Areca palm) and cinnamon from Malaysia for use in dyeing.
The JFKL’s inclination towards this vanishing art form was sparked by Yoshioka in 2013 when they presented the documentary Murusaki: A Man Fascinated By Colour at the Borneo Eco Film Festival in Sabah.
The master textile dyer, Yoshioka, was brought back to Malaysia by JFKL in 2014, for an exhibition of his work and a 10-day research trip was organised to Kelantan, Terengganu and Kuala Lumpur to observe the local batik-making scene.
Yoshioka was concerned that the preservation of both techniques and plants used in fabric making were in bad shape.
He found out about the blog Erna had set up in 2014, documenting her research work with Raja Datin Paduka Fuziah Raja Tun Uda on batik sarong Malaysia and asked to meet her.
THE PROJECT BACKBONE
The meeting with Yoshioka ignited Erna’s curiosity and enthusiasm.
“How I wish one day I could learn from you but I have no background in fine arts or crafts. I can do art management because that is my background. If you give me a pencil to draw, I would probably kill myself drawing,” Erna voiced during her meeting with Yoshioka.
“Skills I can teach. If you need to draw or write, we can teach you. Passion is something we cannot teach,” responded Yoshioka, opening the doors to Japanese natural dyeing techniques. The project just took off from there.
Erna considers herself lucky as her family was supportive of her initiative and helped make the project a success.
Raja Fuziah, whom Erna is working with, also provided her with access to learning opportunities through WCC.
The natural dye workshop in Hulu Langat was also given to the research team. The team merely pays a small rental for use of the property. Erna’s supportive husband took time off to assist her with the production of natural dyes and the process of dyeing the fabrics, while her mother took on the role of feeding the team.
Erna sees the exhibition as just the beginning of the journey. “It’s a first step in a very, very long journey”, as she puts it.
If you wish to get in touch with the KLND to learn more about this initiative, email them at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Maryam Samirah Shamsuddin is a social entrepreneur who strives to preserve Malaysia’s batik heritage through design, fair trade and innovation. Follow her batik adventures at www.instagram.com/batikjunkie/