As a social enterprise in Malaysia, Batik Boutique creates fair trade handmade batik textiles with natural fibres. Their counterpart is a sewing center where they train women from low-income backgrounds in basic sewing techniques while providing childcare and education for their children – all in an effort to sustain their economic freedom. A large part of these efforts is a bigger dream to make artisan craft a sustainable form of production in the long run, an ethos, as you know, we find great affinity in.
“Tourism brought me to Malaysia and I’ve since been here for 12 years. We moved to Kuala Lumpur because of my husband’s job. In my first couple months in KL, I met Anna, she was a single mom who lived 5 minutes down the street from me. She didn’t speak English and I only knew a handful of Bahasa, but in our conversations she spoke of needing extra money to support her family. I knew a bit of Bahasa so I asked her to come talk to me everyday and teach me more, and as we did that I began to understand her story as a single mom and her struggles. I wanted to support her but didn’t know how and it was only when I learned that she had a sewing machine that I realised the best way to go about doing it.
That was how we started our sewing centre. It all began with Anna. She was working with us for a long time, but her eyesight got too bad to sew and she ended up moving to a village to remarry. We continued her legacy with the sewing centre by dedicating that space to empower the same demographic of women that Anna represented, women who live in poverty, who have children, who don’t have any means of transportation, and seek financial stability and support. Our intention with this sewing center was to bring the job to them, instead of just saying “come here and work for us”. That is why we built the sewing center in the same neighbourhood as their homes, for the sake of convenience and accessibility.
ON THE SEWING CENTRE
We offer free trainings 3-4 times a year, and it’s open to any of the women living in the flats nearby or any women in their network. They go through a training of basic sewing skills, and we’ve tiered it so that if they were interested to continue they can stay and eventually work with us. The training is specifically for apparel sewing, we use remnant fabrics so we’re not creating more waste, and we even give them the childcare option as well during the training.
Right now, we have about 8 women who work full time with us for 20 hours a week. We pay them 40% higher than the industry rate because we want to pay them fair wages. Kylin, the production manager, and I monitor their progress every quarter. That way we get to see if they’re getting paid enough for their work, and check in with any goals they’ve set for themselves.
ON THE BATIK ARTISAN PARTNERS
I had my two babies strapped to my back while I was walking to the market in Kelantan. I wanted to find batik fabrics and the artisans behind them and this was the only way I knew to go about doing so. I pointed to the ones I liked, asked who made them, and asked the store owners to take me to the batik artisans. It was quite a funny scene, but that’s kind of how things go here. It’s very grassroots and the artisans rely more on word of mouth. Part of sustaining the batik business is also leaving room for innovation, and so I like working with artisans who are already doing so or are open to that.
There’s Wanie, who grew up watching her father do block batik, and chose to follow his footsteps after her studies. Her dad was the block-maker in their neighbourhood, but with his eyesight fading he can no longer do it full time. Wanie likes to experiment with different tools apart from the traditional tjanting, like a sponge brush, paint brush, or even spray can.
Aznan is another artisan we work with and he specialises in the discharge method and batik block-printing on. He’s a 3rd generation batik artisan and he continues the family business now with his two brothers. Everyone who works in the workshop is of an older age, and his fear is that the craft will just end here because there aren’t enough consistent orders to sustain them.
Pac Cik Dan is a batik professor who started batik screen printing in West Malaysia. The craft is an innovative derivative of its traditional counterpart and his intention is to sustain the traditional craft and make it more accessible to the larger market. The hope is that 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.
THE BIGGER DREAM
Trying to grow a retail space on top of production and manufacturing, while doing it socially and responsibly is challenging in a developing nation. We began as a production house and we only stepped into apparel because we started doing it for other brands. We learned that we were good at it, and so we slowly developed and created our own retail channels. The bigger dream is to be a production house with other segments: one for apparel and one for accessories, for example.
We are the only batik brand in Malaysia that has a focus on social responsibility, and part of that purpose is highlighting Malaysian batik for the sake of tourism and the nation. We want to bring more awareness to Malaysian batik. Actually, a dream of mine is to run a tourism side of this business: to showcase batik artists and their craft and create educational experiences or workshops. At the end of the day, batik has to be a sustainable industry for the craft to continue, and I want our business to contribute to that.”
– As told to MATTER by Amy Blair, the founder and CEO of Batik Boutique