Indonesian Batik: The Art of Wax-Resist Dyeing

Walk down a market street and your eyes will be treated to garments of every kind, of every material and for every occasion. But, there’s nothing special about these outfits for most of them have been mass produced in a factory. Be assured that the top that looks so unique to you has a hundred clones, sitting in store shelves around the world. Since most of us weren’t born with a silver spoon in our mouth, we have to seek solace and style in these run-off-the-mill, but affordable options. No custom-made designer clothes for us.

The Indonesians, however, do not suffer the same fate, for they deck themselves in clothes flaunting Batik designs. To understand how valuable and beautiful Batik wear is, you have to first acquaint yourself with the designing process, which is time-consuming and arduous. Batik is a traditional designing process which makes use of the resist dyeing technique. The Batik of Indonesia is particularly famous for the craftspeople here are believed to possess great skill and a wealth of knowledge regarding Batik patterns. Because of the cultural significance of this designing technique, UNESCO has designated Indonesian Batik as a Masterpiece of Oral and Intangible Heritage of Humanity.

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Traditional Indonesian Batik design

Image courtesy: Vacation Bali Indonesia

So what is Batik designing all about? To create Batik designs, the artisan first sketches a design onto a piece of cotton cloth. Then, paraffin or beeswax is applied over the design or sections of it using a canting, which is a spout-like tool, made of bamboo and copper. To acquire colour, the wax-covered cloth is immersed in a tub of dye. The sections covered with wax do not absorb colour, while the rest of the cloth does. Thus, the design is highlighted due to the absence of colour. If the design is intricate and multi-coloured, this process of waxing and dyeing is repeated. The wax is washed of after every stage of colouring by immersing the cloth is boiling water.

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Wax being applied through a canting

Batik printing is time-consuming and requires a phenomenal amount of patience. Since the designs are fairly intricate, the wax has to be applied with precision. The processes of waxing and dyeing have to be repeated for every design that needs to be highlighted and hence, decorating a piece of cloth with an intricate Batik design can take up to a year! However, in recent times, to meet the rising demand for Batik wear, copper stamps are being used to apply wax. While these stamps help fasten the designing process, they rob the design of the intricacy hand application permits.

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Stamp being used for applying wax

If you ever make a trip to Indonesia, don’t forget to pick a few Batik dresses!