We have come to Bandung, Indonesia with a group of friends with all our children (5-17 years old), on our yearly charity volunteer trip. We support a school for children with multiple handicaps with financial and material contributions as well as, on our yearly visit, painting, cleaning, and general repairs around the school. Over the years, we have found the effort to be enormously worthwhile.
Once the work has been done, I have taken a detour to seek out and write about the ancient art of Batik printing technique and the artists who practice it. I've really loved Batik for a long time, so I was really looking forward to this opportunity to learn how it's made directly from the source and then to share this wonderful process with you all. We're going to be doing a series of articles involving Batik, so this first article is an introduction to the ancient art of Batik printing.
Bandung, the capital of West Java and the third-largest city in Indonesia, sits at the foot of the Tangkuban Perahu volcano on the Island of Java. The city is surrounded by tea plantations and has an idyllic climate due to its altitude with cooler nights and warm days. The environment is perfect for Batik painting since the studios and work areas need an open-air setting due to the high temperature of the baths and the fumes from the very hot wax. Most of the stores that sell Batik will open their studios so thankfully picture taking is allowed.
A Brief History of Batik
There are more than a couple of theories on how and where Batik started, but as with any oral tradition, it is hard to pinpoint with accuracy the true origins of Batik. One thing is for sure –it already existed in Egypt in the 4th century BC where oiled cloth-wrapped mummies have been found exhibiting properties of Batik. There are also records of Batik being used in China, India, and Japan between 650 to 950 AD.
Today, Batik can be found in Singapore, Malaysia, Indonesia, India, Sri Lanka, Philippines, Nigeria, and Senegal –although the African technique varies slightly on the kind of “resist” they use. (You'll learn what this means in a minute.) Among all these countries, the Indonesian Batik is the most widely known. Even the word Batik comes from Indonesia and from two Javanese words: amba (to write) and titik (dot). However, the Indonesian designs in Batik printing have been influenced by major cultural influences from Hinduism, Buddhism, Islam, and Chinese, Japanese and Dutch culture.
In 2009, UNESCO declared Indonesian Batik a Masterpiece of Oral and Intangible Heritage of Humanity.
The Process of Batik Printing
There are two ways to print the Batik designs on the fabric. In this article, we will explore the use the Canting.
As in any other printing technique, it all starts with a drawing.
From the master template, the design is transferred to the fabric –in this case with the use of a lightbox made out of an old desk. The artist then uses a tool called a “canting” that is often made out of copper with a little spout that pours out the liquid wax. The artist re-traces the drawing with wax creating with it the “resist” where the natural dyes will not penetrate.
With a lot of practice, the artist will let just the right amount of wax drip from the tiny spout. It could take up to 15 days for the whole pattern to be traced.
The fabric then is ready to be colored, either with a cold bath or by hand with the use of a hand brush as in the picture below. The cloth is hung to dry to let the dye penetrate the cotton fibers. Then wax will be used once again to protect the color that is not meant to be changed with the bath dye. The fabric is then soaked in a cold bath with another color. Then it is laid under the sun to cure for at least 2 hours. After being under the sun, the fabric is hung to allow the dye to penetrate the cotton fiber.
If the right color has not been achieved the fabric gets another bath. This process will be repeated until the desired color is achieved. Then, it is time to remove the wax by immersing the fabric in boiling water. The wax is scooped from the surface and reused. Nothing goes to waste since this wax will be much darker and perfect for the third and fourth application of darker colors.
Once again, the artist will wax the parts that need protection from the next dye bath.
This process will be repeated as many times as the number of colors desired. The most common colors used are red, brown, blue, and yellow. The colors are applied from the lightest to the darkest. Here are a few pieces in different stages of dying. You can imagine that for complex patterns, many, many dying cycles are required. Seeing this certainly made me appreciate the value of Batik!
The final product is a fabric with very intricate and colorful designs that fill me with excitement about the possibilities for its use. In Indonesia, you can see Batik everywhere from decorating the home to clothing for both women and men. For women, Batik is often part of the best outfit she can have with a great skirt that skims her soft curves and a big smile to enhances her gentle nature.
I hope you enjoyed this quick introduction to the ancient art of Batik. Please share your comments and questions below.