The NGAR Is Not a Mordant: Update

By Gavin, Traude | Borneo Research Bulletin, Annual 2013 | Go to article overview

The NGAR Is Not a Mordant: Update


Gavin, Traude, Borneo Research Bulletin


In October 1988, I was fortunate to document a ngar ritual in a longhouse on the Baleh river. By then the ngar was already a rare occurrence. My report was published in 1991 in the Sarawak Museum Journal. Formerly, the ngar was considered the most important stage in the production of ritual cloth, surrounded by numerous ritual restrictions. It was a group event and its leader was accorded the highest prestige available to a weaver. The ngar is essential for dyeing with morinda, the source for the most desirable red dye. In this paper I shall focus solely on the technical aspect of the ngar. the treatment of cotton thread. (1)

The main ingredients used for the ngar include several types of ginger, salt, and oil. All ingredients are mixed in boiling water and the cotton thread is repeatedly immersed in the mixture. Then it is stretched over bamboo frames, dried in the sun and exposed to the dew at night. After several days, the thread is taken off the frames, washed, dried and stored.

In my report of 1991,1 repeatedly referred to this mixture as the "mordant" mixture and to the ngar process as the application of the "mordant." Indeed, this is how the ngar has been referred to in the literature in the past and how it continues to be referred to today. This, however, is incorrect. (2) The ngar does not include a mordant. Iban weavers apply the mordant during the actual dye process with Morinda citrifolia. This occurs at a later stage, after the first tying of the pattern in the warp. Unlike the ngar, dyeing the cotton is not a group undertaking and is carried out by individual weavers when necessary. The mordant used by Iban weavers is alum, obtained from the pounded bark of Aporosa frutescens, Bl. (Iban: janggau).

If the ngar is not a mordant, then what is it and what is it for? The correct technical terms for the process are "scouring" and "wetting out." The outer surface of plant fibres such as cotton is coated with wax and oils and these must be removed before cotton can bond with a dye. In modern practice, the pretreatment is to boil the cotton thread in a solution of washing soda (sodium carbonate). Before the availability of washing soda, weavers throughout Asia used oil and alkali for this purpose. …

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