Showcasing a unique natural dyeing technique


The Pulau Kukup National Park in Pontian is a Ramsar site and home to the unique mangrove forest ecosystem. — Photos: THOMAS YONG/The Star

PONTIAN district in Johor is home to one of the most important mangrove ecosystems in the world, and a couple is trying to raise awareness about its importance, one stitch at a time.

Local boy Lim Beng Chee and his wife, Jo Wong Seok Wei, who design and create handsewn products from tie-dyed fabric, have been promoting the beauty of the trees and highlighting the need for mangrove conservation over the past few years.

The 53-year-old graphic designer said their eco-journey began thanks to his wife’s deep interest in natural dyeing techniques, which led them to travel locally and overseas to participate in workshops.

Not satisfied with the usual techniques of obtaining colours from turmeric and butterfly pea flowers, the couple attempted to find better alternatives.

“The natural dye from these plants are not very long-lasting and the ingredients are also not uniquely Malaysian,” explained Lim.

Eager to incorporate an element closer to home into their craft, the couple’s search took them to Ipoh in Perak three years ago where they had heard about a mangrove dyeing workshop.

“Seeing the mangrove dye at the workshop reminded me of my hometown Pontian.

“It became a natural decision to use mangroves as the source of our dye,” he told StarMetro.

Tanjung Piai and Kukup in Pontian are recognised as Ramsar sites or Wetlands of International Importance.

Guardians of the coast

To ensure sustainability, both Lim and Wong spent considerable time researching all they could about the mangrove ecosystem.

They learnt that mangroves, with their clustered and complex root system, are natural barriers to break strong currents before they hit the shore.

These coastal guardians protect the coasts from soil erosion, besides providing refuge to a wide array of wildlife.

The pair’s research also took them to the fishing villages in Pontian and Selangor, where they learnt that fishermen in the 1950s used to soak their fishing nets in mangrove dye before hanging them to dry under the sun to make them more durable.

Lim said the fishermen later stopped the practice after switching to nylon fishing nets.

“The mangrove barks used for our handicrafts are sourced from charcoal factories that usually discard them before burning the wood in high heat to produce charcoal.

“The factories have government permits to fell the trees for charcoal production, but not all parts of the tree are used.

“This way, we are repurposing the discarded parts to prevent wastage,” he highlighted.

Educating localsOther than selling handmade products, Lim said they also conduct half-day mangrove dyeing workshops at his studio in Jalan Bakek, Pontian for locals who wished to learn about the natural technique.

Lim said during their workshops, they would usually educate the participants, some of whom were schoolchildren, about the beauty of mangroves and how the population of the trees was threatened by human practices such as deforestation, pollution and lack of proper management.

“Every day, tonnes of rubbish are washed up and caught between the roots of the mangroves, which can suffocate and kill the trees.

“Our aim is to carry a message through our products and workshops about cutting down on waste and single-use plastics to be kinder to the environment as well as for a more sustainable future.

“We feel a sense of responsibility to spread awareness about these environmental issues in hopes of making a difference.

“The public should understand the importance of mangroves and their importance to the ecosystem in order to appreciate them better,” he said, adding that the workshops were conducted by appointment only.

From start to finish

Extracting dye from mangrove barks is a tedious process, according to Lim.

“We start by drying the barks and soaking them in saltwater for at least a month to obtain the natural and unique reddish colour.

“My wife, who is also a designer, comes up with the designs for the items. I then tie-dye the pieces of fabric accordingly, to showcase the patterns,” he said.

He added that each item would take about two to three days to produce, starting from the dyeing process to the end product.

The couple is helped by Lim’s mother-in-law, who is in charge of sewing the fabrics into handmade items.

“My 73-year-old mother-in-law learnt to sew when she was growing up, and wanted to put her skills to good use. She is our chief tailor,” he quipped.

Their handmade products range from lifestyle items to home decorations made of 100% unbleached cotton fabrics, including bags, purses, keychains, cloth face masks, pillows and table runners.

He added that their products were sold online and also on consignment in Kuala Lumpur.

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