Ummi Kalthum Junid, 35, is careful about the vegetable scraps that go into her rubbish bin. Instead of discarding onion peel, garlic skin and spices that she uses in her cooking, she boils them to extracts their natural colours which she then uses to dye fabric.
The dyed fabric pieces are then stitched together into patchwork designs that she frames and hangs as decorative wall art in her living room.
Ummi came up with the idea during Britain’s first lockdown in March last year. At the time, she was based in Norwich, where she was pursuing her Masters in Textile Design at Norwich University of the Arts.
During the stay at home period, she turned to her postgraduate textbooks and came up with a more sustainable alternative to synthetic fabric dyeing methods.
“I cooked most of the time during the lockdown, and I started to realise how much waste I had been producing. I decided to make full use of kitchen scraps (onion skin, peeled potatoes, herbs and spices) as some of them can yield lovely natural dye hues.”
“I started to list down food ingredients and determined the amount of colour pigment that can be extracted from these items. Even though I was stuck indoors, I managed to deepen my knowledge in natural dye making techniques, ” said Ummi who returned to Malaysia two months ago upon completing her studies.
Natural dyes – derived from plants, insects and shells, have existed for centuries, dating back to the Neolithic period. In the last few decades, more eco-conscious fabric makers and companies have started to make natural dyes as they understand the damaging effects that synthetic dyes have on the environment.
Locally, apparel brands like Munimalism, Nysakapas and Bohomys also champion natural dyes.
Ummi is on a mission to explore how vegetable scraps can be used to replace synthetic food colouring and also how to use them in DIY projects.
“I also feel compelled to share how it’s possible to create natural dyes from kitchen scraps. What’s interesting is how we can keep busy during the stay-at-home period, creating natural dyes with limited ingredients, space and tools, ” she says.
Ummi is the founder of Dunia Motif, a homegrown batik canting (hand-drawn) label using natural dyes. She is an advocate of sustainable fashion and is driven to create products that are kinder to the environment.
“I want to show craft lovers that we have a bigger responsibility in educating society, especially in sustainability issues, ” shared Ummi, a former creative director of a publishing firm who set up her home-based batik business in 2019.
She believes in producing natural dyes not just for its aesthetic appeal.
“Textile dyeing is the second largest clean water polluter in the world after agriculture. The textile market is growing rapidly, partly due to the rise in fast fashion, which relies on cheap production, frequent consumption and short-lived garment use.
“We need to slow down fashion and learn more about the origins of our clothes. I can’t solve the entire problem, so I’ll start with promoting natural dye usage among my circle of friends and through social media platforms.”
Ummi does everything from scratch in this one-woman business – from creating her natural dyes, designing her hand-drawn batik, and also blogging about how to repurpose kitchen waste on her website, duniamotif.com.
On her social media page, she’s uploaded a podcast – Tukang Chelup Warna – where she discusses Malaysian craft and natural dyes. Before the pandemic, she organised workshops on natural dye making in her home.
Ummi’s love affair with batik started entirely by chance. It was a decade ago when she stumbled upon several stunning batik canting fabrics at an exhibition.
In batik canting or batik tulis, a pen-like applicator is used to apply wax on a cloth to create intricate designs.
Intrigued, she started doodling and created batik-themed artworks during her free time.
But it was a business trip to Sierra Leone in 2016 that encouraged her to explore her hobby.
She was fascinated by how African batik makers use natural dyes and techniques to create unique effects such as etching, cracking and marbling.
“Travelling allows us to explore and see life in different perspectives. What impressed me was these batik makers’ determination and dedication.
“With a lack of resources, they make do with whatever they have. It’s interesting how they use natural items to create natural dyes, ” said Ummi, who travelled to Semarang – touted as a batik making hub in Indonesia – to learn the intricacies of natural dyes and the art of making batik canting.
She enjoys making batik canting because it helps her be calm and focused.
“I usually do my batik drawing at night. That’s the best time to wind down and I let my hand just follow the flow. And I love the smell of bees wax. That’s why batik canting resonates with me.”
Ummi works mainly with indigo dye obtained from Indigofera tinctoria (also known as true indigo), which grows in abundance in her backyard.
The natural hue is obtained from the processing of the plant’s leaves. They are soaked in water and fermented to get the colour.
Natural dyes are also known as fugitive pigments because they lighten over time when exposed to environmental conditions, such as light, temperature, and humidity.
Each batch of Ummi’s batik fabric yields a different tone depending on weather conditions and how the concentration of natural dyes reacts to mordants (a substance used to fix dyes on cloth).
Even though it is a laborious process, Ummi finds joy in every step involved.
“I like the hands-on process in creating indigo dye. It is a slow process and every step requires patience and consistency.
“I don’t mind if the colour fades. The best thing is to re-dye and play around with the color dyeing.
“Creating natural dyes has taught me how to appreciate the wonders of Mother Nature, ” said Ummi, who has showcased her batik creations at the 2019 Natural Dyes Creative Workshop organised by Royal Tenun Pahang.
She hopes Malaysians will learn to embrace the concept of slow fashion and appreciate what we have.
“I am glad I have chosen natural dyes and sustainability as my passion.
“There’s always something new to learn each day. While slow fashion (sustainable fashion solutions) is still considered a niche in Malaysia, I hope people will adopt this idea.
“But I feel responsible to share and inspire Malaysians. In the long term, I would love to see the practice of mending, re-dyeing and repurposing practised in our society. Hopefully, more people will use their kitchen scraps to make natural dyes too, ” concluded Ummi.