Naturally Sustainable

Naturally Sustainable

Lyza Baum 16 TX works on a four-harness loom on the remote Filipino island of Bohol.

On the remote Filipino island of Bohol—a tropical paradise where fishing and weaving are the main sources of income —hearty talisay trees grow tall along most roadsides. In addition to providing welcome shade, the indigenous plant harbors an invaluable resource: small leaves that yield potent natural dyes. According to Lyza Baum 16 TX and Emilie Jehng 16 TX, who were in the Philippines this summer researching textiles traditions, this is just one of the many local species of vegetation that can be distilled into brilliant, nontoxic dyes for coloring fabric.

“Rich yellows, grays and blacks can be extracted from this abundant foliage,” explains Jehng. “I was excited to learn that the vibrancy of the dye is a direct reflection of the tree’s age and environment.”

The Textiles majors are two of the seven RISD students and recent graduates selected as 2015 Maharam STEAM Fellows in Applied Art and Design, which means they landed awards of up to $5,000 each for otherwise unpaid summer internships with government agencies and nonprofit organizations working outside the realm of art and design. All seven recipients have been chronicling their experiences on the Maharam STEAM Fellows blog and will submit a final report to Maharam about how they have applied their visual and critical thinking skills in helping to solve problems and contribute to public policy decisions.

Interested in how textile design can empower rural communities, Baum and Jehng spent just over two months in the Philippines this summer working with the Office of Culture and Design (OCD) and the ClassAct Foundation, along with representatives from the Tubigon Loom Weaving Multipurpose Cooperative. The nonprofit cooperative was established in 1993 to help fishermen’s wives financially support their families after environmental pollution and a devastating earthquake destroyed the area’s coral reefs.

The Tubigon weavers now work on four-harness looms using raffia palms, a durable natural fiber that’s woven into products ranging from hats to shoes to decorative mats. After learning that the artisans use chemical dyes, Baum and Jehng were eager to inventory local vegetation to find brilliant, eco-friendly alternatives. “We wanted to show them the value of their natural resources and how to harness the economic benefits of naturally-sourced dyes,” notes Jehng. She adds that although one of the attributes of vegetable dyes is that the fabric fades, she finds “the natural fading of fabric—the ability for material to show its age—to be quite beautiful.”

To learn more about the Filipino textiles market and industry, the duo met with local artisans and Kenneth Cobonpue, an industrial designer who uses natural materials, weaving techniques and handmade processes to produce furniture, and visited a textiles lab at the Philippine Textiles Research Institute. With a bit of guidance, Baum and Jehng successfully extracted rich oranges from fresh tumeric, deep reds from sappan heartwood, browns from mahogany bark—and even pinkish brown hues from young coconuts.

“The art and design community isn’t very large here—so we were quickly linked to a connected network of experts,” explains Baum. “And through these meetings, we’ve developed a clearer insight into the community and contemporary markets.”

Baum and Jehng now plan to share their summer discoveries more broadly. Before leaving the Philippines, they gave a design talk at the Metropolitan Museum of Manila called Unnaturally Natural, Sustainably Unsustainable. They’re now reworking a collection of diary entries, photos, drawings and scientific findings recorded during their nine-week adventure to be published by Hardworking Goodlooking and exhibited at the New York Art Book Fair at MOMA Ps1 on September 28.

“It’s been so exciting to see our project inspire others to opt for natural, sustainable dye practices,” says Jehng. “There’s no doubt we’ll continue to explore ways in which textiles can empower diverse cultures.”

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