Who Will Be the Next Indigo Tradition Keeper?

Yohana Ato was born in 1945 in Timor. When she was thirteen, she and her mother went on a three-day horseback ride to a distant village where her aunt lived. Joanna’s aunt was a fully initiated master indigo dyer, and while Yohana and her mother were both indigo dyers and maintained dye pots, neither had undergone the initiation that would allow them to perform the ritual to start new indigo vats. They brought a pig as an offering, and after the initiation they returned with a stone to be the foundation of their own master vats and used two large bamboo culms to carry indigo water and indigo paste from the aunt’s master vats. 

Yohana Ato rode a horse for three days at age 13 for indigo initiation.

To this day, Yohana maintains the two master pots that she set up with the indigo water and indigo paste those many years ago. She has eleven dye pots in all, with the other nine filled and replenished from the master pots. Yohana does the indigo dying for about twenty women in her village. With the yarn received from Threads of Life, each woman will have enough for two big bundles of threads to weave large textiles or four smaller bundles of tied threads to weave the smaller shoulder cloths.

Left: Yohana Ato and her indigo vats. Right: Yohana dyes for about twenty women in her community.

The bundles of threads that the village women bring to be dyed are all decorated with the tying technique called ikat, which means “to the tie a knot”. Their work is particularly fine. There is no pre-drawn design, the weaver will just remember the motif and begin in the middle of the tying frame and continue to the ends. 

The work of tying the tiny ikat is very time consuming and can take up to two months.

Yohana makes indigo from Indigofera tinctoria leaves she has picked and soaked overnight. Each bundle of tied threads is moved through all eleven dye pots until the deep black indigo blue is achieved. Once the threads are dyed the weaver takes them home and begins to warp her loom.

Threads are dyed repeatedly in the indigo before the weaver takes them home to weave.

There is only one young woman who has the skill to replace Yohana but she is yet to undergo the initiation that is required.