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The Ancient Art of Batik

Batik is a technique used for dying cloth that is used today to create a wide variety of colored and patterned fabrics. Although the technique is popular today, especially in women’s clothing and home décor, batik is actually an ancient art.

The technique of batik has been used for centuries; evidence of batik has been discovered in ancient Egyptian tombs around the first century as well as in the Middle East, Indian, Asia and Africa. By the 19th century, batik had become a highly developed art form in both the Indonesian islands of Java and Bali. In fact, the word batik is derived from two words in Javanese: amba (to write) and titik (dot). Even today, some of the finest batik fabrics are made in Java.

In Java, the patterns, motifs and colors of batik were often used to identify family origins and social status. At one time, it is believed that the production of batik fabrics was allowed only to the Javanese elite. Noblewomen typically created the designs, drew the designs on the cloth and made the first waxing. Then, subsequent waxings and dyings were completed by craftspeople. Certain motifs were set aside for the aristocracy. Among them were kawung -- a circular design, ceplok -- a repetitive geometric design, and parang -- a broken sword design. For images of these motifs and further discussion, click here.

Traditionally, batik involved the use of two colors: blue and brown. Blue came from the leaves of the indigo plant and brown from the bark of the soga tree. But other colors were used as well and varied according to geographic location and the plant materials available in the area. Dye recipes sometimes included other surprising plant and animal materials such as bananas and meat. Varying shades were developed by diluting the dyes with water. Silk or cotton cloth was typically used in the batik process for its ability to absorb the dye. The artistic philosophy that is the basis of batik is to create a harmony among the colors through successive dying.

The batik design may either be created on the cloth by hand or with a block print. The hand method requires the use of an instrument called a canting, a small copper container with spouts of varying sizes attached to a handle. The hot wax is poured into the container of the canting and the artist applies the wax through the spout of choice to create a desired pattern of dots and lines. In block printing, a cap is used to apply the wax to the fabric. The cap is a block made from strips of metal in a desired pattern. Small metal pins are sometimes placed at the corners of the cap so that successive impressions can be easily aligned.

In the batik process, the fabric to be used is stretched over a metal or wooden frame. The pattern is often drawn on the fabric first with charcoal. Using either a canting or a cap, the hot wax is applied to the fabric. The application of wax requires great skill – if the wax is too hot, it will be difficult to remove; if it is too cold it will not adhere well. After the wax is applied, the fabric is immersed in dye. The waxed portions on the cloth resist the dye and create a colored pattern. After the fabric is dried, the wax is removed by immersing it in boiling water. The process is repeated over and over again to achieve the desired results.

The wax used is traditionally a combination of beeswax and paraffin wax, each possessing a different benefit: the beeswax adheres to the fabric well and the paraffin wax creates a cracked appearance that is desirable in batik. The container in which the wax is heated is called a wajan. The wajan is placed over a heat source to warm the wax to the desired consistency before it is applied to the canting or cap.

When Indonesia came under control of the Netherlands in the 1600s, a European influence was experienced in the design and manufacture of batik. But at the same time, the influence of batik was also felt in Europe, gradually becoming a respected art technique. In 1900, images of the batik technique were shown at the Paris International Exhibition. Today, batik is widely used as a fabric design technique, not only for clothing but home décor as well.

To see an example of a complex Indonesian batik fabric, click here.

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Diana Blake is a professional artist and art history enthusiast. Her fascination with art history began when she encountered European art firsthand during several trips abroad as a young adult. As she began to compose a portfolio for her own art career, she called upon what she had seen in Europe and extended her knowledge to other styles of art through profuse reading and exhaustive research. As a result, Diana has written more than one hundred articles in which she delves into a variety of art history topics and she has compiled a list of links that she believes to be invaluable for art history enthusiasts. In addition, she also reviews books and movies on the topic of art history and has assembled an extensive list of online stores that sell books, movies and gift items related to art history.
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