• What is Batik?



    Most of us at one point or another have owned at least one piece of batik – maybe a dolphin or floral patterned sarong purchased as a swimsuit cover or perhaps a black, gold and red wall hanging with one’s favorite reggae singer or horticultural hobby (you know what I’m talkin’ about) for dorm room decoration. But, what do we really know about the skill and labor that went into those pieces or the extensive history behind batik as an art form?

    Batik cloth as a craft is arguably Indonesia’s most recognizable form of textile production. The origins of batik remain uncertain but what is known is that its roots can be traced back as far as 1500 years throughout Southeast Asia but has reached its most sophisticated form in the Indonesian archipelago. While there exists some evidence that men played a role in overall textile production, batik production is widely considered the domain of Indonesian women. Batiks are traditionally worn as garments but they are also used in rituals, especially to mark special occasions or for ceremonial purposes. The Batak people, for example, give batik cloth as gifts to commemorate important milestones such as births, marriages, deaths, and circumcisions.


    What is batik and how is it different than other patterned textiles? Batik is characterized by the resist-dye technique used to mark and color the cloth with intricate patterns and designs. Artists use a specific combination of beeswax and paraffin wax that’s been heated to a specific temperature, which ensures proper adhesion to the fabric and resistance to dye. Wax is applied directly onto woven cloth, usually with a canting, a slim pen-like piece of bamboo with a reservoir tip. Sometimes designs are drawn freehand; other times outlines are waxed over faint charcoal lines. The number of waxing and dyeing steps depends on the overall design and the mastery of the artist. Up to six colors (sometimes seven at a master level) can be achieved through the dyeing and re-dyeing process. This process is usually applied to a finely woven cotton cloth, but silk or rayon is used in today’s market.

    With these colors, beautiful patterns and designs can be achieved. There exists over 3,000 unique batik patterns, some dating back to prehistoric times and range from abstract to figurative form. Batik patterns are rich in history and symbolism – often incorporating stylized animals, birds, and ancestral figures. Until the 18th century, it was forbidden for the lower classes to wear specific patterns, as with the Surakarta and Yogyakarta cultures. Until the 20th century, some patterns were family owned or had been kept private, only available to elite rulers and their families.


    Indonesia’s history of trading with other cultures has also influenced new patterns and designs. Artisans have used geometrical and floral patterned Indian cloth, Chinese florals (now known as chintz), and European herald motifs as inspiration. Origins of symbols present among collected Indonesian textiles are also linked to Hindu and Buddhist cultures of mainland Asia. In the North, batik textiles from port and coastal towns exhibit bolder designs and brighter colors, maritime themes, and dragon motifs, undoubtedly an influence of Chinese imports and the sea trade.

    Because the application of color is a lengthy process, batiks with more color are considered more luxurious and more expensive. Before the development of synthetic dyes, colors were originally produced from vegetable or tropical plant material. Blue and black were extracted from leaves of native indigo plants. Purple was extracted from a variety of mangrove, Ceriops Tagal, and oranges and warmer reds from Bruguiera.  Red, purple, and brown, were produced from the root bark of Morinda that’s been crushed, mixed with water and then boiled. Reds are most time intensive to produce; often times, up to ten immersions are required for true color. In central Java, shavings of bark from a Peltophorum tree were boiled to produce hues ranging from yellow to a rich brown. Another yellow is derived from Cudrana Javanensis, which the Javanese import for the batik industry. When combined with indigo, it creates a true green color.

    The above dyeing techniques have been refined over the centuries. It’s a complex process due to the various ways in which color can react to particular fabrics.  Artists have developed methods to control color by mixing ground plants with lime, gypsum, or metallic salts.  New colors in batik designs, like pale and bright pinks, lilacs, and pastels are now possible because the dyeing process has been refined for the commercial market.

    So, take another look at your hibiscus print sarong or your Bob Marley wall hanging…. Can you see how the design has emerged? The process is quite remarkable, really. Even with just two colors, the precision of line and saturation of color on even the simplest batik is something to behold. What is being produced today in Bali ranges from two-color contemporary patterns (shown above) to some really amazing hand painted cloths that can easily be considered true works of art. Curating this season’s selection has been a pleasure and I look forward to sharing it all with you! For a sneak preview of batik and other fairly traded items available soon, please visit JUST’s Facebook page. Like what you see? ‘Like’ our page and help spread the word – the 250th fan AND the Facebooker who suggested it to them will win a free cotton batik – terima kasi!

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