The Making Of: Batik in Indonesia

What is Batik? 

Batik is a wax-resist dyeing method that originated in Indonesia. The word itself originated either from Javanese word Tik, meaning to dot, or Amba, meaning to write. However, because the craft predates written records, there is still a historical and cultural debate of whether the roots of this art form was imported from India or Sri Lanka in the 6th or 7th century, or whether it organically developed as a local tradition. 

Although the art of batik is uniquely Indonesian, there has been a multitude of different iterations of the art of wax-resist dyeing. Wax-resist dyeing has been traced back to 4th century B.C. in Egypt, where it was used to wrap mummies, as well as in the Chinese Tang Dynasty, the Nara Period in Japan, and the Yoruba tribe in Nigeria. However, it is widely believed that the Indonesian (Javan) industry has thrived more so than in other regions because the materials to make batik prints are the most readily available on this island. Such materials include cotton, beeswax, and plants from which different coloured dyes are made. 

Traditional batik process
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Photo taken by TripCanvas


The Process of Batik 

Batik is made using a wax-resisting dye method. This means that the designs are first sketched, then drawn over with melted wax using either a spouted tool called a tjanting, or copper bock stamps called the cap. Interestingly, the cap was only introduced to the Indonesian batik industry in the late Dutch colonial era, when the demand for mass-produced batiks developed alongside the Dutch trade industry in Southeast Asia. 

The wax works as a kind of seal to prevent the initial dye from dyeing the entire fabric, taking advantage of the fact that an oil-based wax would not mix with water-based dyes. After the first dyeing process, the fabric is then left to dry. Next, the fabric is soaked in boiling water in order to remove the wax resist. Another layer of wax is then reapplied in small increments to create the intricate patterns seen in traditional prints, and the process of dyeing and removal of wax is repeated over again until the entire fabric is dyed in rich layers of colours.  

Traditional batik motifs
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Photo taken by Obatrindu


Batik Patterns and Motifs 

In Indonesia, batik patterns are symbolic and differ, most generally, according to region. Regional batiks include the Keraton, with symmetrical flower designs, as well as the more subdued Jepara and the Kawung. In addition to regional differences, there are historic designs reserved solely for the royal family (and banned amongst commoners), as well as patterns reserved for special occasions (weddings, funerals). 

Inspirations for batik motifs come from everywhere–from nature to famous folklore, history, and even human emotions like love and happiness. For example, the Wayhu Tumurun motif, which symbolises divine blessing, may be worn by those looking for enlightenment or everyday blessings. Other motifs include the sweeping bird Garuda motif that symbolises masculinity and life, as well as the Slobog reserved for funerals and mourning periods. 

Something to note is that although batik designs are often inspired by nature, it actively avoids accurate interpretations of  human and animal images as idolatry, in accordance with local Islamic doctrines, especially in Malaysia. Instead, they use geometric designs, abstractions, and stylisations that are repeated again and again in certain patterns. 

The Economic Importance of Batik 

With the rising tourist industry in Indonesia, the buying and selling of batik are becoming significant aspects of the Indonesian economy. In fact, the value of total exports was about 340 million dollars in 2016, and the industry is expected to see a 300 percent growth – or 1.5 billion dollars in the next couple of years. 

However, one challenge that older artisans face is the lack of interest in the younger generation to learn the art of batik making. For example, in the city of Yogyakarta, one of Indonesia’s main batik centres, nearly all of the artisans are aged 40 years and above. Many find it imperative that younger generations of Indonesians to become interested in the craft in order to save it from dying out. This movement to make revive and cultivate the culture of batik-making have been encouraged by it being added to UNESCO’s Intangible Heritage List in 2009, as well as grassroots organisations like Perkumpulan Wastra Indonesia who are working to raise awareness of Indonesia’s rich textile traditions. 

Batik is, and has been an indispensable part of Indonesian culture, and we’re very happy to be contributing to helping this age-old craft remain alive. Take a look at our Midi Shirt Dress range, a new style on linen and silk that combines relaxed comfort with tailored construction. We’ve reinterpreted this silhouette in the modern craft of batik screen printing. 

See the range in full here.

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