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A Brief History of Batik

When I first walked into a silk emporium that imports batik products, I felt as if I had entered another world. Hindi music was playing and a woman in a beautiful sari greeted me. Magnificent rolls of fabric surrounded us. She showed me their finest: it was a stunning sarong.

The middle section had yellow squares filled with red, black and blue birds, flowers, and geometric motifs. This batik sarong was from the north coast of Java in Indonesia and the artist had worked many hours to make it. It was soft, it was made of fine cotton, and I could detect the delicate scents of the vegetable dyes and the paraffin wax that had been used to make this striking piece.

Woman with a Batik Cloth

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What in the world is batik? In my quest to find out, I embarked on a journey into an ancient civilization, a rich culture and an exquisite form of art.

Batik is a textile art similar to tie-dyeing. Instead of tying the fabric, however, wax is applied to resist dyes. The wax can be removed and re-applied several times to make beautiful and intricate designs.

A Brief History of Batik

Batik’s true origins are a mystery. The word (pronounced bateek) is translated in many different ways—some sources say it means “to dot,” some translate it as “wax writing” or “drawing with a broken line.” Batik is the art of waxing a surface, usually cloth, to make it resist dyeing, and then removing the wax, re-waxing, re-dyeing and creating intricate patterns and designs. It is a very old form of art, as evidence of early batik has been found all over the Middle East as well as India and Central Asia from about 2000 years ago.

Although the exact birthplace of batik is unknown, it is most prevalent on the Indonesian island of Java. It is believed that when the art form was introduced there, batik belonged only to the privileged. It was a hobby for the “fine ladies” of that time, although the messy work of waxing and dyeing cloth was probably left to court artisans who worked for them.

The ability to make beautiful batik was considered a sign of refinement. It first appeared in costumes of the aristocrats and royalty. Sometimes a certain design identified a family, a person’s social status or origin, and specific patterns had special meanings. For example, one motif called Satrio Wibowo means “man with dignity” and was worn by men who deserved to feel dignified.

Over time, batik art spread throughout India, China, Malaysia and Europe. It also became familiar to the common people. Today it is worn by both men and women, and often seen on the streets of Asian countries. The trend today is to decorate the fabric in whatever way the artist wants. More resources are available, including many different kinds of wax recipes, dyes and fabrics, which in turn create more freedom for batik artists. The old patterns are being replaced by imaginative designs of all sorts, and batik is now made into many different kinds of beautiful clothing and decorative household items. 

Batik – Its Many Faces and Places

Some of the finest batik cloth is made in Java, Indonesia. It has been made there for centuries, and to this day Java is known for its exquisite batik. Traditionally, deep indigo blues and browns are used in Javanese batik. The blue and brown dyes, along with white cloth, originally represented three Hindu gods Shiva (righteousness), Vishnu (wisdom) and Brahma (strength).

The fascinating beauty of Indonesian batik lies in the many changes in style and motif that have come about through its introduction to many different cultures. The basic batik of Java, for example, is known as batik kraton, and its motifs are rich in Hindu influence—such as the revered garuda bird, the sacred lotus flower, the dragon Naga and the tree of life. Then, as a result of Islamic influence, batik motifs became more botanic and geometrical, because syariah Islam forbade the depiction of humans or animals.

In the 17th century the Dutch colonized the island of Java, and they took samples of batik back to Europe. The technique soon spread to this part of the world for printing on leather, ivory, paper and even metal. In addition, the Dutch introduced various German dyes, which added more color and new motifs to the art of Indonesian batik.

Chinese-influenced batik emerged in Indonesia some decades after the Dutch-influenced batik. The Chinese motifs included beautiful dragons, the phoenix, snakes, lions and flowers. In contrast with Java’s deep blues and browns, Chinese batik uses brighter, pastel colors.

Chinese batik is made using mostly beeswax, which resists cracking when dyed, so there is less of that “crackle” effect seen in many batiks. Today’s Chinese batik is made mostly by the Miao people on the south China border. They make hemp and cotton batik to be used for skirts, jackets, aprons and baby carriers.

Some African countries practice the batik technique. However, instead of wax, a paste is applied to cloth to resist dyeing. This smooth, thick paste is made from cassava flour, rice and alum (or copper sulphate) boiled together. The most widely used color is indigo from a widely available African plant.

Batik is an art form known and practiced almost all over the world. It is beautiful, exotic and constantly changing. Read on to find out what its most common uses are as well as how you can make your own!

The Many Uses of Batik

My short excursion into the world of batik showed one thing about the uses of batik: they are endless!

Material for a SarongFirst and foremost is the sarong. The sarong is the most popular and widely known type of batik clothing. It can be wrapped around the waist as a beach cover-up, worn as a skirt, dress, or shawl, or worn in virtually an unlimited number of ways to enhance your personal attributes. Women wear sarongs formally and informally, and they are even worn around the home by men in some countries.

Another interesting piece of clothing is the selendang. It is actually a very functional accessory. A selendang is a long, narrow strip of batik cloth that can be draped around the head in several ways. Many women use it to carry personal objects. The selendang is also often used as a baby carrier. It is tied around the neck like a sling, and the baby sits safely and comfortably, close to her mother’s heart.

Batik PatternIndonesian men wear a head covering for formal occasions. This is called Ikat Kepala (or blangkon in Javanese). This can be tied in many ways to form a turban that sometimes represents a man’s age, class, religion and ethnic identity.

Batik cloth is used to make lovely shirts, ties and scarves. I even saw a pair of very attractive open-toe batik sandals!

Batik Bedspread

The striking beauty of batik bedspreads, curtains, tablecloths and placemats is indescribable. The colors are so vivid and the designs so stunning it’s hard to believe they were made with wax and dye. I saw a deep blue curtain, for example, with bright, colorful tropical fish and plants on it. Another of my favorites was a set of rectangular placemats: they were a dark green with many different geometric shapes and designs. Not to mention the charming flower design that I bought, framed and hung on my wall!

Batik is a unique and exotic form of art. If you love creativity and appreciate beauty, batik is for you!

Batik in the World Today

The batik industry is still very much alive today. Although it is common to see the mass-production of batik made with machines, it is still made by hand in many parts of the world. There is a considerable market for this high-quality cloth.

Perhaps batik is still popular today because of its artistic freedom. The designs become whatever the artist’s heart desires. Batik is very durable: it is more colorfast than printed fabrics because through the dyeing process the fabric absorbs the color so well that it will not easily fade.

The key players in the batik industry are based in Malaysia and Indonesia. In fact, batik has been Malaysia’s official costume for many years. The industry also thrives in Thailand, the Philippines and other parts of the world.

The batik technique first started out as a decoration for royals. Today, the striking and intricate patterns can be seen on the catwalk, in the office and on formal occasions. Designers have recently started incorporating batik into everyday clothing, not only in Asian countries, but all around the world!

I was so intrigued by all that I learned about batik that I had to try it myself.  I took a yellow handkerchief and pinned it down on a wooden board, so that it was nice and taut.How Batik is Made Today Then I burned down a large candle until there was a good amount of wax melted. I poured the wax onto the handkerchief in different ways and designs until almost all of the wax was used up. I let the wax settle, then I dipped the handkerchief in a bowl of red dye. I let it drip dry, then boiled it in a large pot. Most of the wax came off; some residue remained, as expected.

The final result looks phenomenal! The design may not look like the ancient Javanese batik but it is very interesting and different from anything I’ve ever done!  I feel like I have experienced an intricate part of an exotic culture, the beautiful art form called batik.

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