May 2018: Part 4 of The Lesser Sunda Islands trip/Dyes and processes for ikat.

This blog continues a report from my recent textile research trip to the Lesser Sunda Islands hosted by Sea Trek.

The technical aspects of textile production: common dyes, ikat preparation.

Dyes: Indigo and morinda

These are the two dyes that we saw consistently through the trip. Localised dyes have already been covered; in particular those wonderful colours found at Uma Pura on Ternate Island.

Let me say first up that this section was the most complex to sort through from my field notes. We saw dyeing at many locations. I will give an overview and then note any variations.

There are no exact measurements used. The dyers put in an amount according to their experience- a bit like a cook who knows how much of an ingredient is required. Sometimes it was also difficult to interpret the identity of a tree or plant. And perhaps, it might be handy to remember that perhaps like any chemist safe guarding a recipe and the edge to their livelihood, there is a secret ingredient that we are never told about. We’ve all known cooks that don’t share the total recipe.

This was our first experience of a dye demonstration in Flores. Having the materials and plants in a nearby garden labelled was very helpful. However it was the only place where this was done. For any of the unknown ingredients we had to rely on our guides ( Anastasia and Narto) who also may have had to interpret the word before identifying or spelling.

It should also be acknowledged that the dye processes are usually speeded up for a demonstration. Often each stage requires several days for each step and a number of days for drying in between.

These are the recipes as recorded. I make an effort to keep an open mind and record what I actually see and not what perhaps I would expect to see based on past experiences.

Reds are obtained from Morinda. These are the 3 basic ingredients but there were variations with additional material being added to both stages.

Stage 1: The first step is referred to as “oiling”. This makes the cotton fibre receptive to the dye. Candlenut is the main ingredient.

In Savu, where the soil is limestone, there is no candlenut growing.  The nuts of the Nita tree are used in a similar way. Sometimes additional ingredients are added. In reality the oiling may take up to a week with the yarn dried in the sun for up to 3 days before dying.  The yarn will be used dry for the dying process. In fact at no stage did we see wet yarn being used for any dye process.

Additional information:

At Bolok (West Timor) the bark and some leaves (perhaps) of the “delas/deras” tree was added to the candlenut. Delas is a local coastal tree. I couldn’t find its botanical name.

At Ledetadu (Savu), we were told that ash (from nitas), fresh nitas, garak,lonton flowers, water, turmeric and para leaves were pounded together.  This oil water was left for a week before adding the yarn. Then it was left for 3 nights in the liquid and left 7-8 months to dry before being used for dying.

Stage 2:

The morinda comes from the outer bark of the root. In Ndona (Flores) we were told that the oldest trees and the smallest roots provide the best colour while there is little difference in the colour according to the season. See also the morinda  both as sticks and shredded in the first image.

The morinda is shredded to make it fibrous. Water is added. (image from Bolok, West Timor) Before dyeing, the morinda matter is removed, leaving only liquid. Morinda on its own will not dye cotton. It must have something that makes the dye “stick” to the yarn or else it will wash out.

This other ingredient is loba (local name). It acts as a mordant or dye fixer. Loba is from a Symplocos tree and is known for its high level of aluminium. In some villages the men go into the hills and harvest it. Other villages that don’t have access to local loba, trade it. We saw bundles that had been bought in the market. It looked like a bundle of sticks and bark.

In West Timor to Sumba, it may be bought as a powder (blog 3 image) or nita nuts used instead. This tree is also high in aluminium. For western dyers we would use alum as a replacement.

The loba may be pounded with the morinda (Ndona). In Bolok, it was added as a liquid to a morinda dye bath. We saw the morinda change colour as the loba was added. The more added, the deeper the red.

Ikat warp and yarn in a morinda bath. (Bolok)

Additional information.

The morinda bark is removed and the yarn immersed. The process may be repeated up to 8 or more times to get a good colour. (Ndona)

At Bolok, nitas are burnt, ground and the water strained and then added to the symplocos powder. This increases the alkalinity of the symplocos (loba).

It is worth noting that the dyed yarn may be left 7-8 months before weaving to gain optimum dye result.

Blue from Indigo: Fresh leaf process

From Flores to Savu we saw cotton being dyed with fresh leaves. This indicates that indigo is readily available in these areas.

The basic process is: the leaves are soaked overnight and removed. Lime is then sprinkled on top and the bath is vigorously beaten. It was then used. In this image you can see the indigo leaves, the next step of frothing and then indigo ready to be used. (Savu)


In Bolok, lime powder was sieved into the indigo.

In this series of images watch how the indigo changes colour as it was aerated.

Additional information:

In Bolok we were told that the yarn was put in the dye bath and left for a week. If you wanted a darker colour the whole process was repeated.

In Ledetadu it was quite a complicated recipe for the soaking of the leaves. As well as the indigo leaves, “raru”, betel nut and its flower were used with ash water. This mix was soaked for 8 hours.

Blue from Indigo: Using indigo paste/cake.

Raijua and Sumba use an indigo cake recipe. I understand the climate means that the indigo plant is subject to drought on these limestone islands and so to achieve access to indigo for dyeing the indigo is processed into a form that will keep.

This is the process seen in Sumba at Freddy’s studio: It was identified that hands must be clean and free of soap, creams etc. The indigo leaves are soaked for 12 hrs. A rock is put on top to make the leaves stay under the level of the water. The leaves are removed. This is the size of the vessel used for soaking the indigo. I wonder if it is also referred to as a jar in the process described below for Raijua. Note the lid for covering the jar and rock for weighing down the leaves in the background.

It is then mixed with lime and left for a day. That sinks the indigo to the bottom. The top liquid is removed till there is about 1.5 litres of “sludge”. The indigo liquid is put in a bag and hung to dry for 2 days.

To use the indigo, the paste is dissolved in ash water and an extra unidentified (secret) ingredient from a tree root was added. The dye must be used in 1 -2 days or else it will rot. Multiple dips are required for a deep blue. I have recorded that 500g of indigo paste = 4 times dipping of 500g of yarn. This time of year (May), the quality of an indigo is poor as it is sensitive to heat variations. Freddy’s dye master shows us the paste/cake.

This is the process as told at Ledeunu (Raijua). Indigo cake is made over a three month period. This would correlate to when optimum amounts of indigo can be obtained from the plants.

Indigo leaves (packed in), lime powder and salt water are put in a “jar” and left for a week. The material is then squeezed and removed from the jar. It is then put in basket and the water drips out. This process takes 3 days. Here’s the resulting cake.


To use the indigo cake is dissolved in ash water. Nitas are burnt to obtain the ash water. It “lives” for 3 weeks. The quantities that we were given for dyeing was 10 cakes = 1 sarong for 40 dips. Allow to dry between each dip. This is a very dark blue. I didn’t see the yarn go in but I presume it’s had several dips. I didn’t hear how long for each dip or how many or any other details. I just saw them pull this out.


Here’s some other interesting observations.

A plastic bag is used to exclude dye from an unwanted area. (Ndona)


This bundle consists of several warps all dyed at the same time. They are separate. (Kelompok Kapo Kale)

This warp is partly unwound. Maybe it will be having a second colour applied. However I understand that indigo is usually but not always the last colour. Maybe it will be a 2 tone indigo warp. (Freddy’s studio). How do you identify which bundle to undo if a second process is required? Freddy told us that different types of knots are used for identification.

I was shown that this small section of ikat will be one of the stripes used in a warp to achieve this sarong. (Lamalera, Lembata)

Ikat preparation for dying

As this is often a step before dying, I will cover this topic on this blog.

Ikat here is all done in the warp. So first step is to wind your warp. The warp will be the length required for weaving an item on a circular warp on a back strap loom. A frame is used. The length of the frame will therefor equal half the required length. In the case of a tubular skirt for instance it will be the distance required for the width of the skirt divided by two.

Mostly we saw the warp being wound in a continuous circle for the required number of threads. Usually two people work together. It makes it efficient to reach both sides. Strings were added during the winding process. This will be a means of keeping threads in order for creating heddles for weaving when it is put back on the loom and to keep the sequence in binding for ikat. (Ledetadu, Savu))

In Kelompok Kapo Kale each section of warp was tied in groups at regular intervals. I suspect that this will aid in the design not shifting.

Here’s a close up of the finished warp just prior to binding. Note the strings to keep everything in sequence. Each group of threads has the potential to be wrapped singly as they are clearly identifiable.

This warp is then wrapped for the required design. It is amazing to me how the designs are often just memorised and reference isn’t made to something to do the wrapping. The wrapped areas will be where the dye will not penetrate. The binding at the bottom has secured a straight line and stabilised the warp to prevent slippage. (Ndona)

It is worth noting that the bound design will weave as a mirror image on each side. The blue string was put in during winding the warp. It can easily be seen how it has been used to identify bundles for binding. (Ndona)

Here’s an interesting way to keep everything secure. A band of plain weave has been done by hand. There’ll be nothing getting out of sequence here. I only saw this in Lamalera.

Wrapping is done using this palm leaf. The long leaves are stripped into narrow lengths. (Nggela, Flores)


In some areas we did see plastic being used. (Savu)

According to Freddy (Sumba), the palm leaf is better for binding than plastic. It is stronger and plastic breaks when multiple dips are carried out over a long period of time.

The actual process of weaving with ikat warps will be covered in the next blog along with other forms and aspects of weaving.


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