The Making Of: Batik Screen Printing in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia

Batik screen printing is an innovative derivative of its traditional counterpart; batik is a wax-resist dyeing craft with its roots in Indonesia, and in October of 2009 it was lauded as a Masterpiece of Oral and Intangible Heritage of Humanity by UNESCO. Batik, as seen from a traditional lens, is a familiar art form to many: starting with a pencil trace under the assistance of natural light to bring the design from sketch to stitch, then feeding wax into a tjanting to trace the motif, next, a repeated process of dyeing and drying, and finished with a reveal of the final motif when the wax is removed with boiling water. 

Batik screen printing
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In 2018, we met with Pak Cik Dan, a batik professor who started batik screen printing in West Malaysia. Batik screen printing was an oxymoron if we’ve ever heard one. If batik stands for a continuation of a heritage craft, and screen printing is a modern craft – then would batik screen printing still be considered as an artisan craft?

The Intention Behind Batik Screen Printing

As a professor who teaches on the craft of batik, he knows firsthand that interest does not always lead to purpose. His students have an appreciation for the craft, but they’re also held back by the industry’s sustainability in the long run. For 10 years, he dedicated himself to the traditional craft of batik. Starting batik screen printing was a matter of sustainability. The way he sees it, batik screen printing creates more consistency in the printing and that change counters any hesitance a client might have when it comes to working with craft. He sees batik screen printing as an innovation that would sustain the traditional craft and make it more accessible to the larger market. In turn, this would create more demand in the industry, and allow for the younger generation to see batik as a business that could sustain their livelihood. He tells us that the batik craft cannot go on without the efforts of the younger generation, and if things go as they are then the craft will end with the current generation. 

Batik screen printing process
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Batik Screen Printing: The Process

Batik screen printing is a craft that started in Indonesia almost 2 years ago, and Pak Cik Dan is the first to practice it in West Malaysia. The designs begin as a printed vector transferred onto a plastic film. The artisans then take an organza screen built by hand, soak it in an emulsion, and bring it into the dark room where a focused light will transfer the design onto the screen – a process likened to developing film. Using a trade secret recipe of cool wax, trained artisans will swipe the screen back and forth. It is a laborious group effort that’s often done by 3-4 artisans. The batik screen printed fabric is then left overnight to dry, sometimes even a day or two longer depending on the motif. 

The dyes are made by hand and the time it takes varies depending on the shade needed. The cloth is then imbued in a dye bath and hung to dry. This process of dyeing and drying is repeated until the shade of the fabric matches its intended hue. As the cloth is dipped into a pot of boiling water, the wax peels off to reveal the batik designs. The beauty is in this process of uncovering what was there to begin with. 

Batik screen printing
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The Integrity of Human Elements

The value of craft is in its making. When we learn that the cracking and colour gradience often seen on batik fabrics are actually a beautiful imperfection that comes from the handmade process of craft, something that otherwise is an industrial defect becomes a detail we appreciate. 

In the process of batik screen printing, the integrity of human elements are still kept in the process. Every organza screen is built from scratch, the motif then moves from print to screen through an emulsion process done manually in the dark room, and is eclipsed with a thick layer of cold wax volleyed back and forth across the screen by a group of 4 people. The intention is to uphold stay true to the traditional elements of the craft while modernising the process.

Modern batik
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Pak Cik Dan tells us that the soul of batik is wax. Though the tjanting and block are more traditionally associated with the craft, artisans now are using other more ‘modern’ tools, like brushes and spray cans, to continue their craft in innovative textural ways. At the end of the day, what makes something batik is the wax element. 

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