In a Lather over Candlenut Oil

Documenting the oiling process with Theresia, Nona, and Fatima

In late July, I was in central Flores, near the town of Ende, with Pung and Wayan from our dye team and Professor Tony Cunningham from Murdock University in Perth, Australia. We were with Theresia Ngeni and the members of the weavers’ group she runs, studying their unusual candlenut oil mordant process for the traditional Morinda red dye. Everywhere across Indonesia, the oiling process utilizes chemical reactions akin to soap making. In most places this involves soaking yarns in candlenut pulp; only around Ende and in Tenganan on Bali is an oil extracted and then used.

Freshly oiled yarn (top left) changes color when it dries (bottom left) before being dyed (right)

Our purpose in documenting the recipe was twofold. First, was to archive the practice for the community. Theresia is a master dyer and is not getting younger. Recording her skills became an interest after another of the neighborhood’s master dyers, Ita Yusuf, dyed last year of cancer without having left any documentation of her work. Our promise to Theresia was to hold what we learned in trust for her family and traditional community: we may apply the principles of what we have learned from her in our own dye work but may not replicate her recipe.

Nine plant species are used just in the Ende oil mordant recipe

Our secondary interest, in fulfilment of this promise, was to understand the saponification (soap making) process so we could use what we learned to help a village in Timor. To these ends we identified all of the fifteen plant species used across the red dye processes. Then we weighed each component as it was prepared. Then we documented the processes used and took home some of the oiled yarn to dye ourselves in Bali.

Making cold-pressed candlenut oil in Timor

The work in Ende was connected to capacity building work we have been doing with a farmers’ group in the Mollo region of Timor. Since 2013, Threads of Life has been a research partner in a project entitled ‘Development of timber and non-timber forest products’ production and market strategies for improvement of smallholders’ livelihoods in Indonesia’. The title is a mouthful, but the work has been (at least conceptually) straightforward: cultivation of indigo and the production of cold-pressed nut oils in Timor.

Jeff Allen teaching cold-pressed oil making in Timor

In 2015 and working for Professor Tony Cunningham, then of the University of Western Australia, we helped Jeff Allen of Pacific Povender teach the production of cold-pressed oils from coconut and candlenut. In the search for ongoing markets for this group’s products we are seeking to make a pH neutral textile soap from the candlenut oil that we can use in the dye studio for the scouring (initial washing) and finishing (final washing) of yarns and cloth during dyeing. The study with Theresia in Ende has informed this research, but we still have work to do in the studio before we achieve the soap product we are aiming for.