5 Nov 2021 - 30 Nov 2021

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This November, LET’S LEARN ABOUT…Natural Dyes!


The weather towards the end of the year turns slightly chillier (very slightly in Singapore). What colour is your favourite blanket that you spend a cosy evening in? As we are living in a world that has made many technological advances, the fabric on your blanket was probably coloured with synthetic dyes. In the past, clothes and other textiles were dyed using natural materials, such as leaves, fruit, or sometimes even parts of animals and insects!

Countries all over the world developed their own techniques to dye fabrics in various colours, or make different patterns through dyeing and weaving. Tag along with us on this journey to discover examples of colourful cloths at ACM, then watch a short tutorial to learn how to make your own natural dye. 






Let’s take a look at some objects in ACM that were coloured using natural dyes.


 Minangkabau shoulder cloth


Minangkabau shoulder cloth

Western Sumatra, late 19th or early 20th century

Cotton or silk, silver threads

Gift of Mr and Mrs Andy Ng, 1997-04485


Try pronouncing “Min-ang-ka-bau”! The Minangkabau people are native to the highlands of western Sumatra, Indonesia. The yellow colour on this shoulder cloth was probably made with a dye from turmeric root. Does your family use turmeric in cooking? Turmeric is used in many local foods, including curry dishes, biryani rice, and satay.

Look closely and see if you can spot some floral motifs on the cloth made with silver threads. These designs were woven into the cloth using a technique called “songket”. In the past, having a songket cloth in Minangkabau society could signal you are of noble background and have high status.



 Tube skirt


Tube skirt

Lembata Island, 19th or early 20th century

Handspun cotton and silk, natural dyes


As its name suggests, this cloth was likely worn as a skirt. This skirt was made by someone living on an island called Lembata. Lembata Island is one of the Sunda Islands, in eastern Indonesia.


This skirt is mostly dark blue, which is considered an auspicious colour. Cloths like this were mostly given as gifts for weddings. The deep blue was created with dye made from the indigo plant. The red sections were most likely dyed with morinda root. This root is also found in some traditional Chinese medicine shops – see if you can find it the next time you go to one!


You can find this skirt in our Ancestors and Rituals Gallery on Level 2.



kain panjang


Kain panjang

Made by Mrs Oey Soen King (1861–1942)

Java, Pekalongan, late 19th or early 20th century

Cotton, drawn batik, natural dyes

Peranakan Museum, Gift of Ika, Melia & Inge Hendromartono in memory of

their parents Liem Siok Hien & Jane Hendromartono,

grandmother Mrs Oey Kok Sing & great grandmother Mrs Oey Soen King,



This cloth is mainly cream coloured and decorated with auspicious Chinese symbols in a dark red, which was probably made with morinda root dye. The combination of natural red and blue dyes on a cream background is quite typical of batiks made during the late 19th to early 20th century in the north coast of Java.


Can you spot any creatures on this kain panjang? There are bats and the qilin (a mythical creature in Chinese legends, with the head of a dragon, and the body of a deer). It is said that the kind and gentle qilin appears in times of good fortune.

In addition to Chinese elements, there are also some symbols associated with Java (an island of Indonesia). One of the designs is a “sawat”, consisting of Garuda's wings and his tail feathers. Garuda is a mythical creature in Hindu-Buddhist stories that is part man, part bird. This motif was only used on cloths made for Javanese royalty in the past.

You can find this kain panjang in the Fashion and Textiles Gallery on Level 3. Read up more on the qilin here and Garuda here, and attempt some activities with your friends or family!



Imitation patolu


Imitation patolu: Flower basket pattern

India, Gujarat, 19th century

Cotton (block printed and painted, mordant dyed)

Ex. Hollander Collection, 2009-02059


This textile was made in India, but the patterns and design were made to appeal to buyers in Indonesia. The patterns were block-printed (“stamped”) on and made to look like a technique called patolu, which is a complex and time-consuming type of weaving. To make patolu, the threads are first dyed in different colours, then carefully aligned during the weaving to create patterns. Using carved wooden blocks to stamp on the pattern is much easier!


The red dye used here might have been from an insect called a lac beetle, found on banyan trees in Asia, or maybe from roots of the chay plant, native to India.





Follow along with textile artist Autumn to create your own piece of naturally dyed fabric. Form patterns with rubber bands, then wear it as a scarf or bandana! Tag us @ACM_SG and #LearningatACM to get your creation featured on our Instagram.







Head to NHB’s one-stop heritage portal Roots.sg to read more about the objects featured:


Minangkabau Shoulder cloth

Tube skirt

Imitation patolu: flower basket pattern


Want more of these resources? Come back to learn new things every month.

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What else would you like to learn about? Tell us here.


There’s more!

Check out other videos and download e-resources inspired by the objects in ACM’s collection.