Sri Lanka Textile Research

Natural Dyes: Colorful Collections from Sri Lanka
In Sri Lanka, the Textile Initiative investigated the natural dying process and its potential as a prospective market for Sri Lanka. Throughout our stay, we collected various materials from local markets, a dye
shop and some rural villages. After we returned we tested these materials in RISD’s Dye Lab. Our goal
was to find some native materials that might be used in future projects to color products. We feel that
products made using natural dyes could help industries produce jobs, create a product that is unique to
Sri Lanka and be in line with Sri Lanka’s tendency to be environmentally conscious manufacturing.
While natural dying was a heavily practiced and ceremonial tradition many years ago, we saw crafts
people mostly using synthetic dyes. The knowledge of natural dying techniques is being lost quickly and
so documenting and recording some of these traditions also became an imperative part of our project.
The country’s natural vegetation covers about one-third of the total land area, a resource that is both
plentiful and a potential market for agriculture, textiles and product development. Sri Lanka is committed to economic development that is sustainable and economically friendly. In this context, the use
of natural dyes is consistent with this policy. It offers the growth of more plant life, non-toxic chemical
means of coloring and could ensure products that are completely unique to Sri Lanka.
“...then we ventured up the road to find some of the traditional weaving
from the fibers of a yucca gloriosa plant (sri lankan jute). All the colors
in this piece are natural. The red and orange come from patangi (brazil
wood) and the black from a mixture of bulu nuts and rice patty mud”
-Alexandra Azbel on finding a naturally dyed mat weaving at a remote
village in Sri Lanka
Natural Dye Catalog
Kasturi Kuala (Turmeric)
Upon returning to the US, the Textile Initiative returned promptly to the dye lab to begin cataloging the
the colors and affects of potential natural dyes found in Sri Lanka. We tested various natural materials
for their vibrancy and absorption of color. Many elements were in play (including material, time, heat,
limited dyestuff etc.) so results may vary.
Each dye bath included a long, brittle fiber called patangi (which is extracted from the Pantgi plant and used in Pan Padura or mat weaving);
a skein of cotton (a common fiber used for weaving); both a raw and
bleached cotton swatch; and a skein of wool (although not commonly
seen in Sri Lanka we felt it may be a potential fiber for Sri Lanka’s colder
regions and an interesting comparison to cotton because wool absorbs
color more readily). We also experimented with some resist techniques
From Left: Patango, Cotton, Wool,
and an Alkaline and Copper over-dye in an attempt to achieve a larger
Bleached Cotton, Raw Cotton
range of color. These are our just some of our findings and observations,
we hope to continue exploring in the future.
Turmeric was the most vibrate of the colors we tested. Water was brought to a simmer as the dye
powder was stirred into the water and dissolved. Next, we added the materials into the dye bath and
let simmer for approximately an hour before rinsing. Turmeric seemed to only achieve a slightly darker
shade of yellow when over-dyed with Alkaline but was dramatically affected by copper. It should be
noted that Turmeric is not wash-fast and will fade after a period of time.
2 3
2 3
Tumeric + Alkaline
Tumeric + Copper
2 3
Original Color
Resist Technique
Resist Technique
Resist Technique
1. Patangi
2. Cotton
3. Wool
Each dyestuff tested follows the key above. Please use as refrence to technique and material.
Sivanguva + Alkaline
Sivanguva + Copper
There is not a lot of information on this powder. We bought it at the dye shop and were told it produces a brown color. Both the cotton and the wool took well to this dye--although the fabric felt a little
dusty--we are a little skeptical about the washfast character of this fabric as well. Also, only the wool
seemed to be greatly affected by the alkaline and copper over dye.
Velma Atiya
Velma Atiya
Velma Atiya
Velma Atiya + Alkaline
Velma Atiya + Copper
Sandalwood + Alkaline
Sandalwood + Copper
Velma Atiya is a type of wood which produces as pink color when boiled. To extract the color we broke
the branches into small pieces and tried to strip the bark off of the twigs. We think that the color
comes from the core although in the pot we boiled both the bark and the branch. Some of the bright
pink marks on the resist samples on the right where accomplished from wrapping the sticks in the cloth
and boiling them. The resist sample on the left was wrapped around a wooden block and clamped. The
green and blue color are reminets of previous dyed samples. This serendipitious incident made question the potential of natural and synthtic dyes working together on a piece of fabric.
Sandalwood is a common name of many species of plants and their wood and oils. We bought a powder so the specifics are a little unclear. It produced a beigy yellow color when combined with simmering
water. The dyestuff turned a darker shade when overdyed with Alkaline and more tended toward a yellow when overdyed with copper. This was another sample in which the wool took the color a lot more
dramatically then the cotton samples.
Madam Potha
Cardamom + Alkaline
Cardamom + Copper
Cardomon, a species of plant brewed using both its leaves and seeds was served at many tea breaks
during our stay in Sri Lanka. In addition to flavoring food and drink, it is used in Ayurveda medicine.
Intrigued by its prevalnce, we were curious to see its potential as a dyestuff. Cardomon produced a very
soft beige color. While we didn’t see much of a change when overdyed with Alkaline, when overdyed
with copper the cotton turned a bit darker and the wool took to a dark orange color.
Madam Potha
Madam Potha
Madam Potha + Alkaline
Madam Potha + Copper
Madam Potha was said to produce a purple color; however, we were only able to produce a warm grey.
We did face the issue of extracting the color from the tree chunks. Ideally the wood would have been
pulverized, but we settled for boiling it for over three hours and letting the dyestuff and materials soak
overnight. The dye didn’t seem to react with copper. When over-dyed with alkaline it turned a slight
Bael Fruit
Natural Dyes in Kilinochchi
As part of our work in Kilinochchi we held a natural dye workshop for the war widows. They experimented with resist techniques and quite took to it. Seeing the color change because of the natural dye
was fun for everyone.
Bael Fruit
Bael Fruit
Bael Fruit + Alkaline
Bael Fruit + Copper
This was another total experiement--we found these dried fruit rinds at a local market and were told
they were used to make tea. The result was a really soft pinky color. The wool turned darker when
overdyed with alkeline, but the copper showed no significant changes.
Blackseed + Alkaline
Blackseed + Copper
Blackseed we were told would turn our fabrics black. We attempted to boil the seeds for thier color, but
even after several hours of boiling we were only left with a light green colored dyebath. We strained
the seeds and let our fabric soak overnight. The resulting color was a pale beige. The fabric and wool
seemd unaffected by both alkaline and copper.
Photographs by Lucas Vasilko
Weaving is a craft that is practiced all over the island of Sri Lanka. We ventured far and wide to see many
different artist and crafts people practice their artform.
The first textile village we went to see was in Kundasale. We had read that this village was still
producing Tilak’s work. To get to this remote village we had to take a tuktuk through a bump
winding forest path, across rice paddy fields and up a rocky road. The people of Kundasale spoke
almost no english so we communicated mostly with drawings and our limited Sinhalese. They
had a small building with three or so looms in it. We learned that they were no longer producing
Tilak pieces, but instead weaving linen which they sold at their local markets.
The second weaving village we went to was in the Thalagune district. The textile’s produced
there were overseen by an award-winning designer named Priyantha Premachandra. Priyantha
was really pushing the medium of weaving with his bright colors and color-blocking techniques.
He told us that he drew a lot of his inspiration from painting. At the time of our visit he was
experimenting with using rolled and colored newspapers as a weft for woven place mats. Priyantha used to work with Tilak but now sells his own work to Barefoot. Priyantha was an interesting
designer to look at because he seemed to be taking many of the traditional techniques of weaving but made them more contemporary through his use of color or material.
In the Kundasale Providence we came across a much more traditional village. They were producing Dumbara mats. This village was unique to others we saw because almost all the materials
being used to make the mats was local. They started with the leaves of a Sisal plant, extracted
and dyed the fiber and then wove the fiber.
On our final day in Sri Lanka we met with greatly respected textile artist, Marie Gnanaraj. She
was creating some of the most unique textiles we saw in Sri Lanka. She creates textiles based on
the colors and textures she sees around her. She said that she began creating art because she
wanted to see something new. Her pieces are just that, new and inventive. In some works, she
brings a 3-dimesional quality to them (either with strips of spiraling fabric or by attaching actual
object to the woven), in others she use utilitarian objects like rope and coconut coir bring new
meaning and beauty to these every day objects. My favorite part of her artwork however, is her
choice and use of color. Marie spends a lot of her time premixing and experimenting with different colored yarns. The results are stunning pieces of fabric and one of a kind pieces.
Sisal at Kundasale
A fiber similar to Jute, extracted from the leaves of the Sisal (Hana) plant- a hemp grown wild in the
marshy lands of Sri Lanka, is processed, dyed, and woven in patterns. Sisal is a species of the Agave
plant, and it’s fiber is used for the making of various products in Sri Lanka from Dumbara mat weaving, such as wall hangings, bags, and place mats.
Clockwise from left to right: Coconut coir seen as
a fiber. It is collected and either spun by hand,
spun using a mechanical wheel.
In a visit to a weaving village in the Kundasale province near Kandy, we were exposed to a wide variety of traditional weaving techniques. One of the materials that was being weaved came from the
harvested leaves from the Sisal plant. We were shown by one of the weavers the process by which
they extract the fibers from the plant. First a leaf is set against a plane wooden background to be
scraped by a knife or sharp object. Once the fibers are scraped from the leaf, they are then dried in
the sun. If the weaver chooses to dye the fiber, they dip it into the dye solution and then dry it once
again. After words the fiber is then twisted by a drop spindle. Lastly, fiber is then weaved with a floor
loom into the whichever pattern is desired for the final product. The outcome of this seemingly thin
fiber is a strong and durable material that is able to be manipulated into a unique end product. To
keep up with the demands of modern consumer the weaving craftsmen have introduced innovative
uses of mat weaving. We were shown a variety of interesting products that the weavers had made,
from a laptop cases to place mats, pencil cases, and coasters.
Observing the aesthetic and physical potential of a single plant allowed for us to understand this
cultural tradition of mat weaving and the durability behind natural materials.
Recycled Materials of Sri Lanka
Woven Rice bags
Women at Killonochi weaving recycled fabrics scraps upcycled from a nearby intimates factory.
In Sri Lanka, it is very evident how environmentally conscious the people are. Throughout our travels, we consistently saw materials such as plastic, rice bags, newspaper, and scrap fabrics being recycled and reused to make utilitarian objects and markadable products.
Right: Woven bags bags made from recycled plastic; Left: Woven basket made from recycled plastic.
Fiberous dung dyed six different colors,
ready to be made into paper.
Experimentation by textile artist, Priyantha Premachandra.
Strips of rolled up newspaper used to make woven surface
Label from “Poo Paper”
Strips of recycled plastic and newspaper are commonly woven to make placemats, bags, and baskets. In the local markets, a majority of the women carry grocery bags from recycled plastic strips.
These bags are extremely durable, and can be washed very easily. In fact, in a town outside of Anuradhapura, woman are employed by the government to weave these bags out of recycled plastic
strips. Later, in a weaving village near Kandy we witnessed newspaper being woven to make placemats. Newspaper is also recycled to make drink coasters, cups, and baskets. Even the paper can be
made from upcycled material. Some places in Sri Lanka are using elephant dung to make what they
call “poo paper.” Because elephants are poor digesters, 50 % of the plants they eat comes straight
out of them. Therefore, their dung is very fibrous and largely cellulose, which is ideal for paper making. Another common material that we saw repurposed was rice bages. We saw rice bags used as
containers in markets to hold vegetables, fruit, spices, herbs and rice, as well as sewn together and
hung from windows and architectural frames as temporary shelter from sunlight, and for privacy.
One of the most exciting experiences I had with recycled materials was in Kilinoche. When we
arrived we were told, women were using the scrap fabric from a nearby intimates factory to stuff pillows. The group saw the potential for a workshop in which we could think about upcycling matierals
and reinvented common places object to be made into unique products ready for the marketplace.
We held a workshop in where we asked the women to take the scrap fabric and change it somehow.
We experimented with various techniques (weaving, knitting, dying etc.). Some women made rugs,
some women made puppets, some even used the fabric to add texture and frill to flip flops. I really
enjoyed watching these women being so creative with the material and hope that the experience
may spark further inspiration of upcycling.
Palmyra Palm fibers
Palmyra Palm fibers were a fequently used matieral in Sri Lanka. Most oftern seen as material for fences, the Textile Intitive had fun both buidling our own and spotting them all over Sri
1 Alexandra Azbel (Arch ‘14) spent some time working with some girls in Kilinochchi weaving a
Palmyra Pam structure to be used to construct a shelter. The girls had fun bring nature into and
literally as the structure for their small “home”.
2 We were able to observe a man in Lunuganga rebuild the fence of his home with Palmyrah leaves.
Each leaf interlocks with the other through a manual hand weave. This is done by one leaf being
brought to face the opposite direction and then being weaved through the previous leaves. The result is both an aesthetically stimulating and functional product that serves a plethora of purposes
within the region. The Palmyrah leaves are also able to be manipulated into a variety of objects as
well, such as large baskets. Palmyrah leaves are woven right after the leaves are cut from the tree
as it is easier to flex the leaves. After it is woven, the plant is then dried over time and turns into a
more frigid and courser material, adding on to its strength.
The abundance of the Plamyrah tree (known as Borassus) throughout Sri Lanka allows for
locals to take advantage of this natural material, not only significantly reducing waste but also
costs. The constant reuse and recycling of materials in Sri Lanka also allows for the material to be
used for countless purposes. The concept of using raw, eco-friendly, sustainable, and biodegradable materials is an almost inherent trait among Sri Lankan villages, and one that is commonly
seen with the Palmyrah leaf.
Coconut Coir
Craft seems to be a common thread throughout Sri Lanka, tying North to South; farmer to crafts person, craftsperson to industry. One of the most interesting things to observe during our travels was the
transformation of material into product, and from product into the marketplace. Coconut Coir was one
product which we saw take form. Lyza Balm (TX ‘15) followed the coconut from North to South.
1 Coconut Coir, a natural fiber extracted from the husk of a coconut, is a valuable resource to Sri
Lanka. In fact, Sri Lanka is known to have the best source of coconut coir in the world. We saw it in
markets all over Sri Lanka.
2 During our stay in Polhena, we stumbled upon local women and men harvesting the coconut husk
that would later be used to produce rope. After stopping to observe and ask questions, we were
introduced to a man who owns four acres of coconut trees in Polhena. He told us to meet him in
half an hour and he would show us where the coconut husks were collected and spun into rope.
We followed him and his wooden cart full of coconut husks strapped to a water buffalo down the
road, where we met two older women that spin the coconut coir. The two women demonstrated
how the coconut coir is extracted and spun into rope. Coconut Coir is removed from the fibrous
outer shell of a coconut fruit. The coconut husk is broken and beaten to loosen the long fibers.
After the husk is loosened the long fibers are removed and collected. The fibers are used to make
robe by using two spinning wheels. The coir is spun into yarn by one wheel, and then attached to
a second wheel which spins the yarn into a two ply rope. The women also demonstrated how they
spin the coir into robe just by using their hands. The coconut rope is also spun by a mechanical
machine to produce a large amount of robe at a quicker rate. He makes a business by producing
coconut rope and selling it to apparel factories and weaving factories. At the weaving factories,
the rope is woven to make mats. Coconut coir is also used to make brooms, using the stiff, straight,
long strands of the fiber. Coir can also be used for other various industrial purposes because of
its strength, durability, and environmentally friendly characteristic. He has been in the coconut
industry for the past ten years, however the four acres of coconut trees have been in his family for
3 generations. Although a lot of his land was destroyed during the tsunami, he told us his business
is continuing to do well.
3 The coconut ropes made a final appearance in the beautiful textiles of Marie Gnanaraj, whom we
had the honor of meeting. The ropes were bound by white and black warp, exposed in some areas, and tightly wrapped in other. Marie said that she liked reinventing the use of such a utilitarian
object, and found it interesting to challenge the context of the natural material.
Coconut Coir at Polhena
Counter Clockwise from left to right: We saw
coconut being used as utilitarian object in
spoons and for hanging clothes. We also saw it
being reinterpreted in the artwork of Marie
Clockwise from left to right: Coconut coir seen as a fiber. It is collected
and either spun by hand, spun using a mechanical wheel.
Throughout our stay in Sri Lanka, we had the pleasure of both working with and meeting many artists
and craftspeople practicing thier artform. Alyssa Spytman (TX ‘15) shares some of her experiences with
1 Batik is found all around the island of Sri Lanka. I was immediately drawn to the crackle effect used
in batik and the beautiful vibrant colors that are often seen in the designs. Batik is a technique
of printing cloth using molten wax to create a pattern/surface design. As a textile student myself
I was extremely interested in this process, as it is something we are not allowed to experiment
with in the Dye lab in College Building. Not only is batik used as a material for apparel, its is used
for furnishing fabrics, heavy canvas wall hangings, tablecloths and household accessories. Many
artisans will spends 6 months working on just a single piece. The process takes a lot of patience
and a steady hand. It took me a while to get used to using the tool which was a sturdy stick with
copper wire wrapped around the end to allow the wax to stay hot and fluid while trying to fill in
large areas on a piece of fabric.
2 I did get a chance to experiment with batik at the first batik place we visited just outside of Negombo. This batik I made was inspired off of the vegetation I saw around me that day, and also the
shape of the boda leaf. When making this sample I learned how to use the tool with two women
who were excellent at their craft. They were very excited by the design I had drawn out. It was
wonderful to sit next to them working and sharing the bowl of wax with them. I also think they really loved to see me creating a design that they have never seen because they are always producing the same motifs that will cater to their customer and don’t really make batik designs for fun or
creative enjoyment. This was definitely the case when talking to the woman who worked under
Ena De Silva. They claimed their baik work was purely just work for them.
3 Having the opportunity to do a workshop at JEZ-BATIKS was an amazing opportunity for me, I was
thrilled to be able to see the unique ways in which the woman at this location worked. Jezmine is
an amazing business woman. She has created designs unlike anything else. This is because of how
she experiments with the material outside of the normal way in which batik designs are created.
This makes her stand out amongst the other artists. I personally love the silk batiks she does along
with the beadwork on top. I found this type of fabric manipulation to be exquisitely beautiful.
4 We also visited another Batik Artist, Ena De Silva. Her work is beautiful because of the unique way
in which she does her batiks because they are extremely narrative often having illustrations of
animals and plant life. I truly love Enas spirit and the way in which she looks at life. She claims she
adores color and nature and just follows her heart when it comes to making designs. I wish I could
have met her because although she is elder now it seems as though she still has a beautiful spirit. I
have been inspired by her work in the Bowa Hotel. The ceiling made my jaw drop in awe.
Materials of Batik
The batik artists of Sri Lanka use a concoction of melted beeswax, paraffin wax, and tree resin.
The combination and percentage of these three materials in the wax mixture are crucial to the
batik process. Beeswax is a more malleable material than paraffin and tree resin increases the wax
mixtures ability to adhere to the cloth. The percentage of paraffin wax is a very important factor
because paraffin is a brittle wax, therefore it cracks very easily on the cloth. By controlling the
amount of paraffin used, the batik artist can regulate how much they want the wax to crack. When
the wax is applied on the cloth and dried, it can be cracked to created a surface of small veins that
run through the designs on the batik. Some batik artists use more paraffin wax in their wax mixture
to achieve more of the crackling effect.
Traditionally starting in Sri Lanka, the crackle technique was seen on many batiks all over the island.
I found the crackles to be a very organic and beautiful addition to either intricate or simple designs.
Although one can control the amount of crackles through the percentage of paraffin used, the
results are always unique and unexpected, making each batik an individual. While traveling the island, I noticed similar crackle textures on old eroded buildings, trees, nature, rocks, and elephants.
I found it really fascinating to see the crackle surfaces manifest in different locations, surfaces, and
Photographs by Lucas Vasilko
Lyza Baum (TX ‘15) compares batik wax to the textures she found on buildings and animals throughout Sri Lanka
Experiments with Batik
While at the textile workshops, the Textile Initiative experimented with various techniques. Some chose
to focus on resist techniques with batik overlay while other chose to apply batik to their own designs.
The group did try to explore themes of the cascading water system in Sri Lanka. Water is supplied from
the North, and distributed southward throughout the country. Since water is such a unique and important characteristic of the North we found it inspiring. Ideally we would like to have some of these
samples inspire further work in the North.
This batik is pretty simple. I started by
drawing lines across the fabric. The intersecting lines formed interesting geometries. I wanted to create a geometric
pattern that would contrast the organic
and unpredictable nature of the crackle.
I wanted to further highlight this opposition by using black and white.
The “crackle” effect is a design element
that began in Sri Lanka and is a direct
result of the various waxes used to coat
the piece. Since the crack is so distinct
and creates really beautiful effects I hope
to see used in products/projects used in
the north.
This batik is inspired by the cascading water system from North to South. I wanted
to capture the feeling of water as well as
a growing and shrinking feel. I used a motif that could be interpreted as water, fish
scales, arrows showing direction.
The underlayer is blue. I used a resist
technique on the fist layer to create an
interesting and inconsistent wash, then I
went over the areas I wanted to keep blue
with wax in order to create the undulating
triangle pattern.
Dye Resis is a simple and easy application that produces unexpectedly stunning result. By simply using a
rubber band, a fbric can be coiled enough to resist color. The following samples are experiements with
resist techniques, starting from the simplest to the more complex.
In this sample, I wanted to explore ways the cascading
water system in Sri Lanka could be presented. The water
tank and irrigation systems in Sri Lanka have an almost
flourishing and progressive design to them. The water
system starts small in the South and then blooms into
a larger image in the North. This sample attempts to
portray this sense of flourishing and progression using
rectilinear shapes and a cool color palette. This batik
was made with two wax applications to represent the
progression, and the crackling to represent the water.
This batik sample was made in two parts, first the
drawing and waxing of the background floral figure,
then with the rewaxing and crackling of the entire
fabric. This allows for an controlled image/design to
be presented, while also allowing for the mystery and
.suprise of the crackling to come through
This second sample, I twisted and tied several
knots in the same piece of fabric with the
addition found rocks. The fabric was twisted
around the rocks and then tied with rubber
The third sample shown was made using
found objects in nature. By knotting rocks and
twigs with rubber bands, more interesting and
complex shapes were achieved. After doing
one side of the fabric, I covered the other with
wax and dipped it into a different dye, thus
achieving two colors.
This first sample was made by twisting the
fabric into a ball on one end and then randomly
scrunshing the otherside with a few rubber
This batik I made was inspired off of the vegetation I saw around me that day, and also the shape of the
boda leaf. When making this sample I learned how to use the tool with two women who were excellent at their craft. They were very excited by the design I had drawn out. It was wonderful to sit next to
them working and sharing the bowl of wax with them. I also think they really loved to see me creating
a design that they have never seen because they are always producing the same motifs that will cater
to their customer and don’t really make batik designs for fun or creative enjoyment. This was definitely
the case when talking to the woman who worked under Ena De Silva. They claimed their baik work was
purely just work for them.
The design for my batik was initially inspired by the cascading water systems in Sri Lanka. From the
south to the north of the island the water systems expand and become larger in the north. While I was
sketching I was thinking about the movement of the water systems, drawing inspiration from the idea
of expansion, movement, fluidity, and water.