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Where’s Borneo?

Bangi Embol basket-weaves in the traditional Iban technique

Where’s Borneo?  I heard that question many times before leaving for Kuching to attend the International Symposium and Exhibition on Natural Dyes & World Eco-Fiber and Textile Forum (ISEND-WEFT.) Borneo, the third largest island in the world is located north of Java and is divided amongst three countries: Malaysia, Indonesia and Brunei.  The symposium was held in Malaysia, in the state of Sarawak, home to 40 sub-ethnic groups who’ve maintained rich textile traditions in ikat, songket, bark cloth, basket weaving, and supplemental weft sungkit.

The 5-day symposium “From Waste to Wealth” brought together 200 participants from more than 30 countries to share research findings, exchange success stories of in working with natural dyes, and discuss issues facing the economic revival of natural dyes and colorants.

A sampling of topics included research from Dr. Kim, Ji-Hee, Director, Museum of Natural Dye Arts, Daegu, Korea, who incorporated a fermentation process in the dye bath for plants with low color fastness.  Her best results with this process came from indigo, safflower, sappan wood and persimmon.

Ruby Ghuznavi, a champion in reviving natural dyes in Bangladesh spoke about her work through the World Craft Council in holding weeklong workshops for experts, who are then available as a resource to train others in their region in the use of natural dyes. A database of key individuals working with natural dyes, along with a survey of their methods, materials and best practices has been created for Asia.  Knowledge sharing between regions and countries has resulted in strong collaborations and improved results.

The organizers are expanding the database to include a roster of experts from other continents.  If you’d like to have your name included, please contact me, and your information will be included in the master database.

Weaver from Sumba attending the symposium

Other highlights of the symposium included 22 hands-on workshops in weaving, basketry and dyeing. Plants from around the world were brought to the symposium in carry-ons and backpacks to use in demonstrations. A professionally staged fashion show highlighting the work of 25 international designers translated traditional textile techniques and natural dyes into contemporary fashions.

Following the close of the forum, a small group traveled across Sarawak through the jungle to visit an Iban community at Rumah Garie Longhouse. The women weave Pua Kumbu blankets of ritual significance imbued with powers used in ceremonies from birth to death. Motifs are formed through the aid of ancestral spirits in dreams and include anthropomorphic, animal and abstract designs.

Our visit was planned to coincide with the yearly Ngar Ceremony – preparing the cotton thread with mordant through adherence to a ritual order of events. Only cotton treated with the mordant can absorb their primary dye, Engkudu (Morinda citrifolia), a deep rust color. We observed the third and most important day of the 10-15 day process. The woman with the highest status leads the preparation of the mordant bath and guides the ceremony.  Her skills are evaluated on how accurately she measures the right proportions of: wild ginger, ginger, oil extracted from kepayang nuts, palm salt, nipah salt, and grated coconut, each prepared in advance through cutting, chopping, pounding, sifting, boiling and roasting.

Cotton, which had been hanging on wooden hooks was lowered into troughs filled with half of the mordant. The women slathered the remaining mordant onto the cotton and then tread on the yarn to ensure absorption into the fiber.  Blessings are recited, songs are sung and the women and cotton are blessed with amulets to ensure a successful weaving season.  Women took night shifts to guard the yarn and to adhere to strict requirements regarding the amount of dew and night air permitted. Our group left by boat the next day with great respect for the community and a new perspective on weaving.

The next ISEND-WEFT symposium will take place in Taiwan in October 2013.
See more photos of the 2012 conference.

By Karin Hazelkorn