Batik is an Indonesian word and refers to a particular method of dying cloth known as 'resist dying', whereby part of the cloth is deliberately prevented from absorbing colour dyes. Instead of a uniformly patterned colour effect, Batik cloth is a vibrant mix of hues, with varying colour intensity on different parts of the cloth.
Wax or paste is commonly used in traditional resist dying - this is applied to various parts of the cloth before the whole is dipped in dye. As the wax is usually applied by hand and the process not exact, a more random colour pattern is achieved, with indistinct, rather than precise borders around the patches of colour. It's a process that has been used in Asia, Egypt and Africa since ancient times.
Batik gives a much more natural look to the material than machine died cloth with its precise, repeating patterns and reflects something of the the beautiful, merging of colours of nature found, among other things, in flowers and variegated plants. Many batik artists take their inspiration from nature, animals and folklore.
Styles of batik range from simple designs to extremely intricate patterns, requiring great skill and practise. Traditionally, batik colours were made from natural ingredients and included brown, indigo (blue) and white, representing the Hindu Gods but modernised techniques allow for a variety of colours. .
The island of Java in Indonesia developed a particularly beautiful and complex form of batik and its craft people are renown for their skillful techniques, which they exported to other parts of the world.
Javanese batik artists used a tool called a canton, which is a small copper container with a bamboo handle (see image below). In the traditional batik technique, known astulis, the canton is filled with wax (beeswax mixed with parrafin, resins and fat), which is then strategically poured onto the cloth by hand(densely woven natural fibre, such as cotton or silk), in accordance with the desired pattern. Often trickles of wax will escape from the outline of the pattern, creating interesting effects and giving the cloth a unique and distinctive character.
The canting tool has different sized spouts to create a variety of patterns.Before the procedure begins, the cloth has to be washed and boiled several times so that any impurities and deposits on the cloth that might interfere with the process are removed.The cloth is then smoothed, ready for the application of wax.The cloth is then immersed in dye and as the waxed parts aren't dyed they are left uncoloured. The cloth is then gently washed in warm water to remove the wax, after which it is then re-waxed and dipped into a different coloured dye, creating more contrasting colours. Usually lighter colours are used for the first dying, so they can be overlaid with deeper, darker ones.
Although it is still used, the traditional batik tulis method is very time consuming - a particularly intricate and complex design can take months to finish. Many batik artists, including the Javanese, also employ modern techniques, known as batik cap and batik print which speeds up the process considerably.The Javanese invented a cap made of red copper for stamping designs rather than hand drawing with the wax pen (canting) and works in a similar way to European wood block prints. Patterns are formed by attaching thin metal bands to a frame with a handle.
Batik cap, which has been used since the 1800s, is still a tricky process and requires concentration and precision, though certainly it has made the cost of batik much more affordable. However, some batik enthusiasts believe it is less creative, too exact and lacks the interesting and unpredictable characteristics of traditional tulis batik. Interestingly,in Java, it is mainly women who still use the traditional canton technique. Men took over batik making when the cap technique was invented, seeing the economic possibilities of a faster, cheaper process.
Batik Art in the 1970s
With the ascendance of the alternative 'hippy' culture in the late 60s and 70s, Westerners began to look toward Asian craft for new style inspirations and a more natural look and feel, using natural fibres. During this time Batik clothing became very popular and appeared on T-shorts, kaftans and scarves, as well as wall hangings, throws and duvet covers. The batik wrap skirt, in particular became emblematic of the era.
Iwan Tirta, an Indonesian fashion designer, is generally credited with instigating the 70s batik revival. When he finished a law degree in New York in 1970 Tirta returned to his homeland of Indonesia and instead of practising law, he became inspired by traditional culture, emerging as a designer and cultural advocate in the process. Using traditional cloths and design, Tirta created his own fashion designs, wrote books about batik and promoted it within the fashion industry, via magazines, and in shows. Although the hippy movement helped to popularise batik in the West, Tirta became critical of the kind of mass produced, printed batik that later began to be sold around the world, regarding it as vastly inferior to the traditional handmade method of manufacture.