I have run out of superlatives. Every cliche that you have ever heard about Bali – tropical paradise, friendly people, life changing, among many others – have become the cliches that they are because they are pretty much true. There are valid reasons why people flock to Bali! However, along with the cliched “things to do in Bali” activities like visit a temple, see a dance performance, walk among rice paddies, do a yoga class (you can probably think of more) I wonder how many people take that extra step to participate in activities such as a batik and indigo dyeing class?
Threads of Life have an associated foundation, the Bebali Foundation who work towards sustainable livelihoods for indigenous people throughout Indonesia through a focus on textile and natural dyeing arts. To assist in funding their work and educating others they run natural dyeing classes at Umajati Retreat. Half our group took the class on Tuesday, so yesterday (Wednesday) it was my turn. After breakfast we were taken to Umajati where we found ourselves among not only the lush Balinese gardens that have become familiar to us, but also a garden full of the plants used for making and dyeing textiles.
Our instructor Tutut talked to us about both the batik and dyeing process. I’d done a batik class many years ago when I was at school, but as I had discovered the day before on my bike tour, you really do need to continue to practice things to get good at them! Tutut explained the process of building up a design in varying tones of indigo. She showed us a design that contained around five colours. We were going to work with three – white, mid-blue, and darker indigo blue. Tutut went through the equipment we would be using, and then we got started.
The first step involved sketching a design on our cloth with a pencil. Drawing is not one of my strong points. I have never considered myself to be artistically creative. Sure, I can make things, and I think that over time I have developed some sort of an eye for colour, pattern and shape, but translating any of that into an ability to draw in a pleasing matter is another thing. Tutut had provided us with designs that we could trace if we wanted to, but I decided to come up with my own design based on some of the principles we had heard about in the textiles lecture earlier in the week. I began at the outside, with a border around the whole piece then vertical borders to contain the design and represent the selvedges of woven cloth. I then sketched some lozenge shapes as they were one of the motifs that William had spoken about. After staring at the design for a few minutes wondering what I would put in the centre of the lozenges, I decided to involve the artistry of the Balinese people and use one of their flower stamps for each one. I surprised myself a little at how easily this design seemed to flow for me. I really had anticipated that I would agonise over it, wanting to come up with something perfect for my class. Instead I relaxed and went with the flow.
And it was a good thing that I did relax and go with the flow – because the flow of the beeswax mixture through the tjanting tool that is used to apply it can be rather unpredictable for a beginner! We all made blobs, spots and splashes that we certainly were not intending to make. And with wax, there is no going back! Many of our designs were forced to evolve a little different to account for our mistakes, and we really did have to just ease off and embrace the imperfections. This is quite a change for me. I like things to be done well. I don’t consider myself to be a perfectionist, but I do have fairly high standards. So the process of applying the wax was a good one for me. Relax, embrace, it’s not perfect, but the overall result may still be pleasing. And yes, of course there are many levels on meaning in that sentence too, as with many things on Bali!
After we’d done all the lines that we wanted to stay white in the wax, the fabric was taken to the dye bath for the first dunk into indigo. This first process was done with fresh indigo, made by simply putting the leaves of the plant into water and fermenting them for a day, then adding quicklime. The dyers put some of the yellow-green liquid that had come from the leaves into another contained then dipped the fabric in and out a few times, allowing the air to gradually oxidise the colour to blue. Then they went on the line to dry off so that we would be able to apply the second layer of wax.
While it was drying, we were able to tour through the garden and see all the plants that were used throughout the region in the traditional manufacture of textiles. This included cotton, sisal, and ramie which produce the fibres, and the plants that are used both as dyes and as mordants to prepare the fibres for dyeing. Only the red (morinda) and blue (indigo) are actually colourfast on cotton, although there are also plants that produce yellow and brown. It was fascinating to actually see the plants and to discover which parts of the plant were used. The foundation work on identifying the plants and the conditions under which they grow best in order to ensure that they can be sustainable for the communities that use them. I found it interesting to hear that there had been studies done on one plant that discovered that by using a different part of the plant than that traditionally used they could obtain a stronger dye that would then effectively halve the workload for the people using it – instead of it taking 20 applications of dye to get the colour that they wanted, it would only take 10. At the same time, using a different part of the plant allowed the plant to grow better, making the availability of the dye greater. I could go on and on about the benefits of the research that the foundation has done.
Once the fabric had dried it was time to add our second layer of wax to areas we wanted to stay lighter blue. This time I used a paintbrush to apply the wax to larger areas, but then had fun using the tjanting again to make dots in an attempt to camouflage some of my earlier spills and splashes. This time the indigo was applied differently. We used indigo from a powdered indigo vat, much more familiar to the Australian dyers in the group than the leaves in water we had seen earlier. The fabric was placed onto a shallow flat tray, and a small amount of the indigo was added. We then rubbed the water over the fabric a few times before it was hung up to dry.
While the fabric dried we ate lunch. It came wrapped in large leaves, secured with small bamboo slivers, and was the most delicious vegetarian meal that I have ever eaten. So, so good! Tutut was always available to answer any questions – and from our group, there were plenty! There were a couple of women in our group with dyeing experience – one of who does it as a business – and they asked interesting and incisive questions. It was just as great seeing the different designs evolving.
The last step in the process was to remove the wax and reveal the design. This was done by immersing the fabric in rapidly boiling water, with another substance added (I have forgotten what). I was surprised at how well the wax came out! And then, the ta-da moment! I think that we were all pretty happy with what we had done, even if it wasn’t “perfect”.
You know, I thought that I had a pretty good theoretical knowledge of textiles and many associated crafts, even if I didn’t have the practical experience in all of them. I have been reading craft magazines and books since I was a kid, starting with my mother’s and grandmother’s Golden Hands collection then progressing to whatever other information I could get my hands on. I’ve dabbled in a few crafts over the years, while maintaining a garment sewing focus. I probably do have a broad overview of many crafts, but being in the presence of the talented women in my group, and the extremely experienced specialists from Threads Of Life and the Bebali Foundation has reminded me that I have barely scratched the surface. Ah well, always the generalist, never the specialist! There is always so much more to discover.
After the class we were dropped back in the centre of Ubud. I took the opportunity to change some money and browse in some of the shops lining the very hot and busy roads. The shops with air conditioning were definitely the ones that I preferred! There are so many lovely things that you can buy in Ubud, although they are not all cheap! Yes, you can get “market tat” for very little money, but quality items in the shops varied from what I consider to be moderate prices to ones that I wouldn’t pay in Australia. However, they often used beautiful and unusual fabrics or designs. It was hot and packed in central Ubud, and I was thrilled to get back to the resort to the massage that I had booked.
I really needed that massage! I was hot and bothered not only from the climate but also because the shuttle we’d book to take us back to the resort had failed to arrive and I was running late. And when you’re with a group, running late has a knock on effect, as we were all due to catch another shuttle back into town for early dinner fairly soon after. Anyway, I breathed out, drank the ginger tea that I was offered at the spa, then settled in to a lovely full body massage with “Clarity” scented oil. The resort spa is located right by the river, so as I lay on the table having my muscles rubbed I listened to the river water running and to fountains nearby. Oh, the cliches! After my massage I was offered another drink and fresh fruit, before I headed back into town to rejoin the group.
We ate dinner at Casa Luna, and once again it was excellent. This time I had five spice duck rice paper rolls, then pork spare ribs done Indonesian style. Add to that a couple of cocktails, and before I knew it it was time to head to the Palace for the Legong and Barong Dance.
I have seen Balinese dance in the past, but this time I watched it with different eyes. I am not much of a fan of Gamelan music, and suspect it takes some time to attune your ear to it properly in order to truly appreciate it. However, this time I was more focused on the dancers themselves. We saw three main dances; the Legong Kraton Dance, Barong dance, and Sunda Upasunda. We had been provided with a program explaining each dance, but I only glanced at it before it began, challenging myself to figure out the story just by watching the dances.
Okay, I gave up and referred to the program. There was no doubt of some elements, but there were others I had no idea about. Legong is classical dance that enacts traditional stories. As Wikipedia says, “it is a refined dance form characterized by intricate finger movements, complicated footwork, and expressive gestures and facial expressions.” What I didn’t realise until I checked Wikipedia was the age of the dancers! “Legong dancers are always girls who have not yet reached puberty. They begin rigorous training at about the age of five.” Good grief! What I really noticed was the complexity of the movements. Eyes look from side to side, fingers and toes move in different patterns, and overall it looks incredibly complicated. The costumes makeup are superb, unsurprisingly, with detail upon detail upon detail.
And that was it for the day! After the dancing we headed back to the resort, and I was straight to my room. I’m feeling tired! This morning I’m skipping yoga (wasn’t I saying something only yesterday about incorporating yoga into my everyday life? Oh, the irony) in order to just take things a little more slowly before we head off on our day trip.