Couple highlight use of natural mangrove dye

A tub of mangrove tree bark that is being soaked in salted water for a period of time to extract its natural colour.

PONTIAN: A couple of graphic designers are using their handmade crafts, made with natural mangrove dye, to shed light on the beauty of the coastal trees.

Jo Wong Seok Wei, 47, and her husband Lim Beng Chee, 53, started exploring the use of natural dye from mangrove barks about two years ago and have since produced their own line of natural fashion and lifestyle products.

Beng Chee recalled that about two years ago, they attended many workshops in Kuala Lumpur, Perak and even went to Thailand to learn about natural dyeing techniques.

He said the Thais mostly used turmeric and butterfly pea flower to obtain natural colouring but the dye was not long-lasting and the ingredients were not uniquely Malaysian.

“As Malaysians, we have always wanted to incorporate something that is close to our home into our crafts.

“With Tanjung Piai and Pulau Kukup here getting recognised as Ramsar sites or Wetlands of International Importance, it was a natural choice for us to turn to mangrove trees as the source of our dye.

“While researching mangrove trees, we learnt that the trees, with their clustered roots, are natural barriers to break strong waves before they hit the shore.

Wong explaining a design to her mother, Chu Yok, who is responsible for sewing all their products.Wong explaining a design to her mother, Chu Yok, who is responsible for sewing all their products.

“They are also shrinking due to the threats of development and the large amounts of plastics and rubbish getting trapped in their roots.

“So our aim is to highlight this problem and also provide an alternative product for people to use, rather than using single-use plastics and following fast fashion, which leads to wastage, ” said Beng Chee in an interview.

Through their research and site visits to fishing villages in Pontian and Selangor, he said they also found out that fishermen in the 1950s used to soak their fishing nets in mangrove dye before hanging them out to dry in the sun to make them more durable.

The practice was discontinued after the fishermen switched to nylon fishing nets, he added.

The couple sourced the mangrove barks from charcoal factories in Johor and other states where the tree barks were usually discarded and omitted from the charcoal-making process.

“We are happy to take their industrial waste and turn them into works of art as the tannin-rich mangrove barks give it its unique colour, which varies in shade depending on the water quality and the heat from the sun.

“The dye is derived by soaking the tree barks in salt for a period of time before filtering the liquid.

“We then hand-dye fabrics according to our desired patterns and shades before hanging them out to dry.

“The dyed fabric will then be made into bags, purses, cutlery set holders, pillow cases, curtains and wall decorations, ” said Beng Chee.

Beng Chee soaking some fabric in mangrove dye using the tie-dye technique at the Pontian studio that he shares with his wife.Beng Chee soaking some fabric in mangrove dye using the tie-dye technique at the Pontian studio that he shares with his wife.

His wife, who used to work in Singapore before returning to Pontian to focus on their venture, said their customers were mainly locals and expatriates in Johor Baru as well as the Klang Valley.

They started out by selling their products in bazaars and flea markets to build their brand, and even represented Malaysia in an artisan competition in Taiwan.

“There, we learnt a lot from craftmakers from other countries who are visibly passionate about their art, which assured us that we are on the right path.

“Initially we planned to expand our production with the ‘Geran Orang Lokal’ (grant for locals) funding that we received from the state government to enter the Singapore market, but it had to be put on hold due to the Covid-19 pandemic, ” said Wong.

While they each have their respective roles in product design, marketing and the dye treatment process, she said the whole venture would not be possible if not for her 72-year-old mother Lim Chu Yok’s help.

“My mum, who is the ‘chief tailor’ of our brand, used to be a home tailor while I was growing up.

“As she complained about how she had nothing to do at home, we decided to let her take care of sewing all our products from scratch.

“She even took several sewing classes to hone her skills to produce better quality products, ” said Wong.

She hoped that their products would inspire other craftsmen to be more confident in the pursuit of their own passion.

“As Malaysians, we should also learn to appreciate and care for our land and resources, otherwise it will be a waste if they disappear for good one day.

“Hopefully with our contribution, we can help to play a part in conserving the environment and inspire many others to follow suit, ” she added.

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