Batik is a traditional art-form which involves using wax and dye to create beautiful and intricate patterns on cloth. The methods of traditional batik date back to Egypt, China, India, and Japan but it is the traditional Indonesian batik that is most valued around the world.
The exact origins of this art-form is hard to confirm. It is very possible that all these cultures developed similar techniques without any contact with each other but the most believable theory is that it originated in Asia and spread to the Malayan Archipelago where the highest quality batik is produced. Batik existed there before written language, which is one of the reasons why it is also possible that it is native to Indonesia.
The island of Java is the centre of batik. The Dutch colonial power quickly saw the value of the art and began to develop the local trade. They even took Indonesian craftsman back to Europe with them in order to teach Dutch craftsmen how to colour these beautiful fabrics.
How is it made?
Batik is a many step process that involves different people who specialise in different parts of the process.
First the overall pattern is drawn on using a canting or traditional hand tool. It consists of a small copper container with a curved spout. This is mounted onto a piece of bamboo for convenience. With this too you are able to skillfully draw intricate images onto a cloth.
The wax used in traditional batik is beeswax but paraffin wax works just as well. The fabric onto which you are drawing is normally white cotton or silk that is stretched onto a frame. The concept behind the art form is that the water-based dye will be absorbed by the cloth while the area with the smooth wax will not.
Once you’ve stretched your piece of fabric its time to design the image. Batik is a layered process, meaning that you first add wax to the parts which you want to have the original colour. Then you add on some die with a paintbrush.
Once that dries you add wax to the parts that you want to remain the colour you just used. Then you repeat the process with another colour. You keep doing this until the entire fabric is covered with wax. When you reach this phase, all you have to do is scrape off all the wax and you’re left with a beautiful image. The process of using a canting to draw on the fabric and dying it is called batik tulis, meaning batik writing.
Another method of creating batik is batik capping. This method utilizes a square or rectangle block made from copper or wood. This stamp is used to add a repetitive design of wax to create a symmetrical pattern before it is dyed. This is known as batik cap.
The level of craftsmanship involved with creating batik tulis is very high and one cannot tell the difference between fabrics created with the hand and those made by a machine except for the price. Some Batik tulis fabrics can be priced at thousands of rupees per metre and reflects the hours that take to make just 1 metre.
Batik was originally a method of adding colour to fabric worn by people but has since also become an art form. Traditional designs were only worn by certain classes to indicate power and stature in society, like kawung that is worn only by a king or queen. Some were also meant only for traditional purposes like Sido Mukti, worn by a bride and groom.
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