Social enterprise Bohomys enables young people to improve their skills through an eco-friendly tie-dye business

Shaqira Ramli was a fine arts student at the American University in Dubai, who had quite a meteoric journey before putting her passion and expertise to work. Trained as a graphic designer and event manager, she followed a well-established career path before stopping in 2016 to focus on motherhood.

“I was carrying my firstborn and had really bad morning sickness. So I had to stop working to focus on my pregnancy,” she says.

This calm and restful period prompted her to rekindle her love of the arts, in addition to looking for a way to generate income.

“I always wanted to do something in the arts because I came from that background. I imported tapestries from India and started selling them in bazaars across Malaysia,” says Shaqira.

“We regularly attended an event organized by a friend in Penang. One day he asked me if I knew how to teach tie-dye. Basically, every art student should know how to tie-dye. I had never taught the technique to anyone but needed to do something new, so I accepted the invitation. My first tie-dye workshop was at the George Town Festival 2017.”

The event may have led Shaqira to venture into natural dyes, but it was upon discovering the negative effects of synthetic dyes on the human body and the environment that she decided to publicize the benefits of the first .

“When I heard about tie-dye I went to a class where the instructor warned us, ‘Please be careful when handling the dye because when you inhale it it can destroy your reproductive system. Aquatic creatures are also at risk from factories that flout the law by not properly disposing of synthetic dyes,” she says.

Learning about natural dyes was all about experimentation and trial and error for Shaqira. “I knew about natural dyes when I was in school, so I used the knowledge and improvised. I also follow overseas natural dyes on social media to see how they work. Basically, you just to experiment. We treat certain plants to see what colors they produce.

Malaysia is rich in natural resources and this has been a great advantage for Shaqira as she aims to explore colors beyond those available in the market.

“There are batik producers who already use natural dyes, but this is relatively new among young locals and the colors produced are limited. There are a lot of factories in the country and we want to get our hands on them,” she says.

In line with its vision of celebrating ethical and slow fashion, Bohomys produces 400 items per monthly production in a small studio in Kampung Tengah, Puchong, Selangor. These handmade pieces are painstakingly crafted using natural fibers such as cotton and silk before being dipped in dyes made from kayu sepang, daun ketapang, tarum, mangosteen peel, acacia bark , orange peel or mulberry leaves, from a herbal distributor in Kedah.

“We have to clean the new fabric with soda ash and leave it overnight because it’s usually coated in wax to give it a nice stiff look. After rinsing, it is washed again with alum, which helps the fabric to absorb the dye better. Then we simmer the product in a dye solution – boiling will destroy the properties of the dye. The last step is to rinse it and dry it again.

The process of making natural dyes is time-consuming because they need to be simmered for up to 24 hours, depending on the volume of dye, Shaqira says. “Before that, we were buying tincture extracts from India. Today, half of our dyes are imported and the other half is ours. We received a grant from Yayasan Inovasi to produce natural dyes in large quantities, and they will be available to the public next year. It gives us the opportunity to let people know that art can be made by anyone.

For a very long time, Bohomys was a brand known for running workshops before turning to selling products. As a business that relied primarily on physical interaction, the natural dye business has been hit hard by the raging coronavirus pandemic.

“We had workshops every week before the pandemic. We were really comfortable doing it because it gave us a stable income. But the pandemic made it impossible to continue the business, so we started selling products instead,” she says.

Bohomys uses a specific type of textile that is suitable for natural dyes and Shaqira needed labor to help transform the fabrics into t-shirts, bags, baby rompers and lanyards, among other things. She found a number of troubled young people who had lost their sources of income during this period, working as seamstresses in Kampung Tengah – where she was residing during the lockdown.

Shaqira offered them the opportunity to help with the production, but soon noticed that they weren’t very skilled at what they were doing. “Most of them started sewing because their parents asked them to; they didn’t have the proper training or skills. I then asked someone to teach them the basics of sewing so that the products could be marketed,” she recalls.

Today, Bohomys is one of the participants in the Perolehan Impak Sosial Kerajaan (PPISK) program, where part of its profits are used for free to upskill young people.

Named to commemorate Shaqira’s interest in bohemian style, the company is opening a store in Kuala Lumpur’s Central Market on June 15 and hopes to resume its pre-pandemic workshop business.

“Much of our sales come from products bought from our stand at pop-up events, because people want to see, touch and smell products made from natural dyes, which is impossible to do online. We are really happy to have a physical space and a nice ground to organize workshops as well.

This article was first published on June 13, 2022 in The Edge Malaysia.

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