Tuesday, April 2, 2013

'Balde': relic of a now-extinct industry of manufacturing indigo dye in our old hometown

A 'balde' in a village in San Narciso, Zambales.  This large cylindrical concrete vessel was used by the Ilocanos in the manufacture of indigo, which they used for dyeing clothes. The industry died when commercial dyes became available.  Photo by the author.

Part of our boyhood memories are two large baldes in the neighborhood located under the shade of fruit trees beside a water well.  They were demolished when we were in high school to give way to the construction of houses.

But several still exists. Two of them are easily accessible, the sites being along a barrio roadThe one in the photograph is overgrown with vines and hidden by clumps of tall shrubs.  Another is right beside a small house, and used for storing recyclable materials.

We've photographed them for the purpose of asking the assistance of the National Historical Institute in their conservation and preservation.  We've also asked the town's Sangguniang Bayan to protect these historical structures; and they thought it may be possible to transfer one of them to serve as center piece of the plaza park. We learned that there was a prospector who was interested to buy one but he balked at the difficulty of hauling this in one unbroken piece.

The balde was used in the manufacture of indigo before commercial dye killed the ancient art of natural dying. The Ilocano settlers brought the indigo industry to Zambales around 1837They also brought their weaving looms, and indigo (Indigofera tinctoria), commonly called ngila, was their source of natural dye for their woven cloths.  

Dionisio Villanueva (1916) left us the best description of the balde and the now-extinct indigo manufacturing industry.  When he wrote this, he was reviewing for the bar examination having just graduated from the college of law of the University of the Philippines.

The balde, he wrote, was "built of cement, the wall is about one and one-half to two feet thick, of cylindrical shape standing on one of its end, of a diameter of about four meters with the altitude of about four to five meters.  At about one yard from is wall is dug a well for the supply of water to soak the plant.  With it are strong bars to press in the plant and hold it under water."

Farmers planted the indigo around February after the rice harvest.  It took more than three months, and usually in the last days of May, when the plants would be about five feet tall and ready for cutting, to be  processed using the balde to produce the dye.  

According to Villanueva, soaking of the plant took overnight with water fetched from the nearby well.  After taking out the plants, lime would be added to precipitate the indigo. The water would be drained out through a hole on the side of the balde without disturbing the precipitate that had settled at the bottom.  Similarly, the solid indigo would be moved through another hole into a ditch nearby for the drying.

The dried indigo dye would be stored in big jars or tinajas.  It was expensive, and the indigo makers sold it for four pesos a can.

It was the women who used the dye for cotton cloths.  It could have been a very dark dye that Villanueva wrote about the product as being 'blackened cotton' with the 'color ... so beautiful and lasting.'

Philippine indigo was part of our commercial history, a commodity carried by the galleons to Europe and traded with ChinaWe've read accounts about it in shipping logs of American merchant ships from Manila to the Salem port in Massachusetts.  

Cheap synthetic indigo was first sold in Germany in 1897.  Thus, by the early 1900s, the natural indigo dye industry in the Philippines was already under threat.  In 1916, Villanueva was already saying that 'this industry will not be practiced in the near future as much as it is now' because of the expensive natural product.

But this natural dye has excellent colorfastness qualities.  Hence, in very recent times, there had been efforts to revive the Philippine indigo, the bluer than blue natural dye, under the lead of the Philippine Textile Research Institute (PTRI).  It's production is more ecologically friendly than that of synthetic dyes, according to PTRI.  

Even then, the balde will just remain a relic of a once 'colorful' era in a Zambales town's history.  

  • Villanueva, Dionisio. (1916). The Manufacture of indigo (ngila) in Zambales province.  Microform BEY33/1 Sambali Ethnography Paper No, 21 3/4p-1. National Library of the Philippines
  • University of New Brunswick Fredericton & St John. (2011, Nov 3).  The history of indigo. Retrieved from  http://www.unb.ca/fredericton/science/chem/outreach/documents/Indigo
  • Flores, Malu A & Anonas Framela V. (2007).  PTRI's natural dyes add oomph to baro.  S&T Post. Phil. Textile Research InstituteRetrieved from http://sntpost.stii.dost.gov.ph/NewPOST/AprJun2007/PTRI%20natural%20dyes.htm

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