What is Batik? - Art & Fabrics

Instructor: Christopher Muscato

Chris has a master's degree in history and teaches at the University of Northern Colorado.

There are countless textile arts found around the world, and in this lesson we're going to explore one called batik. We'll look at the history and method of this technique, and see how it is being introduced into global markets today.

Batik

When we think of the Indonesian island of Java, a certain product may come to mind. Coffee. The abundance of coffee farms on this island during the Dutch colonial era is actually why we sometimes refer to coffee as java. But coffee is not naturally indigenous to Java. Other world famous products are. One of the most notable is a style of decorated cloth known as batik. Batik represents one of Java's most venerated traditions and is one of the world's most respected textile arts. Today, batik is seen as a definitively Javanese art form and something you don't want to miss should you visit this Indonesian island.

Batik Fabrics

Batik is a method of decorating textiles through dye resistance, in which designs are created by preventing specific parts of a textile from being exposed to dye. So, here's how it works. First, the cloth itself is washed repeatedly to remove any contaminants and then pounded flat to remove wrinkles. Then, the design pattern is traced onto the cloth using a soft material like charcoal. These designs tend to be extraordinarily intricate and complex, so this could take a while.

Next, the artist covers the design itself in wax. This is traditionally done using a canting, a small pen-like copper tube that lets the artist draw the molten wax onto the cloth. As any accidental spilling of the wax could ruin the design and therefore the value of the cloth, this must be done with patience and precision. This wax will prevent the design from being dyed the same color as the rest of the fabric, so it's pretty important. As a result, the Javanese have cultivated various grades of wax to use for batik; the best waxes come from Timor, Sumbawa, and Sumatra.

Woman demonstrating how to make batik
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Finally, the cloth is immersed in a dye bath. The areas without wax are dyed, while the design covered in wax remains white. From here, this process can be altered and redone as the artist sees fit. By applying wax to different areas; or removing wax from other areas, and dipping the cloth in the same or different dyes, the artist can achieve complex and multi-tonal designs.

History of Batik

Batik fabrics are now one of Java's definitive folk arts, revered around the world. But how did this tradition begin? Dye resistance techniques date back to ancient Egypt, but were never quite as complex as Javanese batik. While we'll probably never know the precise origins of this technique in Indonesia, many scholars believe that it only could have begun with the first arrival of very high quality textiles from India in the early 1800s.

Records from Dutch explorers do mention that the Javanese had highly developed and complex textile arts long before this, but the batik technique itself is never described. So, it seems most likely that the arrival of Indian fabrics and textile design methods built upon an already thriving textile design culture, and thus batik was born. What is clear is that batik quickly became an important part of Javanese life. Batik cloths were used for a variety of ceremonial occasions, and still are today.

Designs

The term batik is most likely derived from the Javanese word ambatik, which describes a cloth with little dots, or simply the suffix -tik, which denotes small dots or drops. This tells us something about the original designs used for batik fabrics. Today, most batik designs fall into one of two categories. First are geometric designs, composed of interlacing circles or other shapes. These complex patterns tend to be the more traditional ones, some of which have been passed down for generations.

Batik fabric
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The other sorts of designs we find are more figurative. Images of natural items, often including plants or animals, are also popular. They tend to be newer designs, indicating a degree of both Western and Chinese influence in modern Indonesian culture, but are still seen as distinctly Javanese styles.

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