Malaysian eco-print fabric maker grows tannin-rich plants in her townhouse

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If you happen to visit Masitah Babjan’s house and open his refrigerator, you will find more than food there.

Also in the cheerful lady’s cooler are various types of leaves and flowers.

The 60-year-old management consultant is a home-based eco-print fabric maker and uses the plants for her crafts. In her garden at home in Subang Jaya, Selangor is a variety of herbs, flowering plants and trees.

Among all her plants, she pays particular attention to the Mexican creeper, the ulam raja, the plant oroxylum indicum (pokok lanang), the cosmos flowers, the castor bean (pokok jarak) and the guava tree.

A variety of tannin-rich plants thrive in Syd’s garden. Photo: Masitah Babjan“These plants are special because they are rich in tannins. And I need tannin-rich leaves and flowers to produce ecoprint fabric. These tannin-rich plants are hard to come by in town.

“I bought these plants from a nursery. Fortunately, they thrive in my little garden. Whenever I need to make eco-printed fabric, I go into my garden and cut some tannin-rich leaves and flowers,” Masitah, affectionately known as Syd, shared during an interview in Kuala Lumpur recently.

She always has a pair of scissors in her car, just in case she comes across some tannin-rich plants by the side of the road.

“Teak leaves and daun ketapang (Indian almond leaves) are also rich in tannins. Whenever I saw them by the side of the road, I would stop and responsibly rummage through a few leaves, taking only what I needed, leaving the sprouts behind.

Eco-printing, also known as botanical printing, is a technique where the colors and shapes of leaves or flowers are printed onto fabric or paper.

Syd is passionate about using natural dyes and eco-friendly products to produce her fabric. As an advocate for sustainable fashion, she wants to create products that are more respectful of Mother Earth.

Syd says working on eco-print fabrics gives her a chance to relax and unwind.  Photo: Masitah Babjan  Syd says working on eco-print fabrics gives her a chance to relax and unwind. Photo: Masitah Babjan“Pollution, deforestation and climate change are among the biggest environmental concerns, including water pollution and also the increasing levels of waste piling up in landfills.

“Textile production is said to be one of the main contributors to water pollution. Effluents discharged from textile factories enter the water, affecting soil microorganisms and agricultural productivity.

The culprit, she says, is the rapid growth of fast fashion, and the grandmother of six worries about its damaging effects on the environment.

“Nowadays, more and more consumers are buying affordable clothes from various online platforms. Once an item is out of fashion, consumers throw it away and it ends up in landfill,” Syd laments.

The article Putting the brakes on fast fashion on www.unep.org reports that textile dyeing is the second biggest water polluter in the world. It takes about 2,000 gallons (7,570 l) of water to make one pair of jeans.

Indigo dye is derived from the Indigofera tinctoria plant.  Photo: Masitah Babjan  Indigo dye is derived from the Indigofera tinctoria plant. Photo: Masitah Babjan

The article further states that every second, the equivalent of a textile garbage truck is buried or burned. If nothing changes, the fashion industry will use a quarter of the global carbon budget by 2050.

Syd says consumers should be more environmentally friendly to leave a smaller carbon footprint.

“Many countries, including Malaysia, celebrate Fashion Revolution Day on April 24. It’s a day to focus on the need for greater transparency in the fashion supply chain, primarily in relation to its impact on the environment.

“I think consumers should know that slow fashion helps protect the environment. Small steps can do wonders to make our environment greener,” she says.

Syd also leads workshops on shibori and indigo dyeing, and eco-printing. In these workshops, she advocates the need to take care of the environment. One way is to use natural dyes, which are a more sustainable alternative to dyeing synthetic fabrics.

“Natural dyes are very safe because they don’t contaminate the environment. The botanical materials are printed on fabric and the waste is returned to the soil as compost.

I think consumers should know that slow fashion helps protect the environment, says Syd.I think consumers should know that slow fashion helps protect the environment, says Syd.

Make green choices

Syd’s interest in ecoprint fabric came about entirely by chance. Four years ago, she stumbled upon shibori – a Japanese indigo hand-dyeing technique – workshop on Instagram.

It all started with his interest in Indigofera tinctoria (also known as true indigo), a plant that is a source of indigo dye.

“I was fascinated by how shibori textile makers use many techniques to manipulate the fabric, including sewing, tightening, crinkling and twisting. And I fell in love with the different hues created by the natural indigo .

Intrigued by natural dyes, Syd first experimented with purple cabbage, then turned to kitchen scraps like onion skin, mangosteen peel and avocado skin.

Syd derives great satisfaction from successfully unbundling eco-printed fabrics like these.Syd derives great satisfaction from successfully unbundling eco-printed fabrics like these.“It’s so interesting how the purple cabbage tincture turns blue when baking soda is added to it. It turns pink when a squeeze of lemon juice is added. The tea gives a nice earthy tint, while yellow onion skin gives a golden yellow tint pomegranate skin releases a light yellow tint.

“I found it very exciting when I started researching natural dyes. It’s almost like going down a rabbit hole in my deeper understanding of natural dyes. Every day I learn from new things and it’s a wonderful educational journey,” says Syd, who turns to social media platforms to learn more about eco-printing.

Among the many dyeing techniques, she is drawn to the production of ecoprint fabric.

“I like eco-printing because it’s empowering and exciting. But, unfortunately, few artisans appreciate eco-printing because it is tedious and complicated.

“It’s not about the aesthetics, materials and techniques used, but more importantly about appreciating the process, purpose and intent of creating a work of art,” says Syd, who produces scarves, shawls, table runners, bandanas and tote bags in eco-print. and shibori fabric from the comfort of her kitchen.

Each batch of fabric, whether naturally dyed or eco-printed, must be pre-treated with mordant, a substance used to fix dyes to the fabric. Some ingredients in mordant include alum, soda ash, and vinegar. There are different etching techniques that give different results on dyed fabrics and eco-prints.

“Plants have different tannin levels. I usually study the etching process based on the tannin levels of the leaves and flowers, and the material,” says Syd, who uploads photos of her colorful creations to her Instagram.

Kitchen scraps like onion peel, pomegranate peel, and mangosteen peel can be used as natural dyes.Kitchen scraps like onion peel, pomegranate peel, and mangosteen peel can be used as natural dyes.

To make eco-printed fabric, Syd places leaves and flowers on cotton, silk or linen that has been mordanted. Then she rolls it gently and ties it neatly before steaming it for 90 minutes. After steaming and unrolling, the fabric is left to dry for two days. The grand finale is always the best – a beautiful imprint of the natural dyes released by the plants and leaves.

“It’s hypnotherapy. The simple joy of unbundling an eco-printed piece of worry, anticipation and surprises. There’s a sense of satisfaction and fulfillment,” she says.

Syd admits there are challenges in making eco-printed fabrics. It’s disappointing, for example, when the steamed material doesn’t turn out as expected.

Natural dyes are very safe because they do not contaminate the environment.Natural dyes are very safe because they do not contaminate the environment.

“There are cases where the pigments from the leaves leave fuzzy imprints on the fabric. Sometimes the prints are too faint. Sometimes prints bleed and do not create a clean outline. When this happens, I accept it as ‘wabi-sabi’, a traditional Japanese aesthetic about accepting transience and imperfection.

She doesn’t mind repeating the process as it helps her stay calm and relaxed.

“Eco-printing is a hobby as I do it to de-stress. My father passed away recently. By engaging in eco-printing, I distract myself from grief and grief after his death.

“It has been a challenge to juggle my work as a consultant, taking care of my elderly mother and managing the house. Working on ecoprint fabric gives me a chance to relax. Along the way, I learn more about nature, botany, science and art. Eco-printing may be slow, but I’m in tune with nature.


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Raymond I. Langston