Ni Wayan Murni
How to make Batik
The Times, Lombok
September – October 2007
How is batik made?
I wrote in last month’s Murni’s Corner about Calligraphy Batik, which is an outstanding example of one of the many styles of beautiful batik made in Indonesia. I have been collecting batik for decades and selling it since I was a girl. I sell it from my shop, Murni’s Warung Shop in Ubud, and in recent years all over the world from my web site www.murnis.com, You see batik frequently as locals in most of the islands wear it on a daily basis and people love it. I am frequently asked How is batik made? I think that you may be surprised at the time and effort it takes. But, first, what is batik?
Girl wearing Batik breastcloth, Yogyakarta, 1880
What is batik?
Batik is a method of dying cloth by applying warm beeswax, mixed with paraffin, resins and fat, to it to repel the dye. The cloth is usually cotton but can be silk, The pattern is left unwaxed. When the cloth is put into the dye, the waxed parts aren’t dyed and are left uncoloured. The wax is then removed by gently washing it in warm water. The cloth is rewaxed and dipped into a different dye, so that there are more and more colours. If there are three colours, the cloth is dyed six times, three times on each side.
Generally lighter colours are dyed first to enable overdying with darker colours. Sometimes the dyes seep under the waxed borders and create interesting spider webs and attractive fuzzy outlines, which are so attractive.
One side or two?
Silk is only dyed on one side. It’s not necessary to dye cotton on both sides, but we like to dye both sides in Indonesia. It has to be done very carefully and takes more time. It is called two-sided batik. The pattern is then very clear on both sides.
The alternative is to wax the whole of the underside. That is called one-sided batik. The pattern is still visible but less clear and the textiles are not regarded as so good. So, how is it made?
The finest, and still the most sought after, batik is hand-drawn batik, using a canting to apply the wax. A canting is a pen with a bamboo handle. It is a Javanese invention, probably in the 17th or 18th centuries. The wax painting is done by women, usually at home, often in bad light. The melted wax is poured into the pot at the end and carefully released out of the nozzle bit by bit on to the white cotton.
Lady using a canting
It’s very slow and requires a calm state of mind and a lot of concentration. A complicated pattern could easily take six months or even longer. That was all very well in the18th century, but at the beginning of the 19th century the Europeans discovered batik and loved it very much. They didn’t want to wait. They wanted it and a lot of it, and they wanted it cheap and quick.
The batik makers had another problem: competition. In the 1830s inexpensive machine-printed batiks were beginning to flood the market from Europe. It was cheap and quick. To meet the challenge the batik makers in Java experimented with stamps to apply the wax instead of the canting. Initially they tried stamps made from tubers, but they didn’t last long, then wood, but they weren’t fine enough.
Invention of the batik stamp
Finally, they invented the cap, made of red copper, which is still used today, and they are collected as works of art in their own right. In fact I sell a lot of them. The pattern is formed from thin metal bands, secured to a frame, to which a handle is attached. The structure was inspired by European wood-block printing stamps. The original caps were small and were first used around 1845. They are bigger now and tend to be about 20 cm by 20 cm.
The cap process was revolutionary and enabled a batik maker to wax many cloths a day, maybe up to eight. Men saw the commercial possibilities and muscled in to do this new kind of work. Previously women made batik. Now, men make most batik cap textiles, whereas batik tulis, using a canting, is done mostly by women. The invention was a great success. The tide of imported foreign textiles to Indonesia was stemmed.
Man using a Batik Stamp
Using a batik stamp
It is hard and unhealthy work. The cap printer stands at a padded rectangular table on which the textile is stretched. Beside him stands a round, flat-bottomed basin containing warm wax on a small stove. The wax is filtered for impurities. The batik maker presses the cap on to a filter pad and absorbs the wax. He then applies the stamp on the cloth at exactly the right temperature. He places the edge of the cap on the cloth first to make sure that the position is correct. Then he presses it firmly on the textile to leave the wax imprint and repeats the process until all the cloth is covered. He may use several caps depending on the pattern.
One of the problems that took a long time to solve was how to overlap the wax so that patterns were regular. It was not until 1930 that the problem was solved: pins were soldered to the corners of the caps to ease the alignment. The batik maker just had to check that the location marks on the stamp matched the marks already on the cloth. Then the pattern would be perfect. Some batik makers use stamps for larger areas and the canting for fine details, so both techniques are applied to the same textile. They are called combinasi.
Cap-printing has now made it possible for everyone to afford batik textiles. Interestingly there was a surge in demand for batik canting following the availability of cap batiks. Those who could afford it preferred it.
Which is better: canting or cap?
Customers often ask me which technique produces the better batik. I like both very much, but for me, batik cantingis more pleasing, more delicate, more charming and has more life than the batik cap.
In my opinion batik stamp patterns are too perfect. They don’t have those interruptions, small mistakes, variations and drips of colour that make the designs of a canting interesting, individual and alive. Hand-drawn batiks are unique works of art, which demonstrate great technical skill. Using a stamp removes the creative aspect from the process. Having said that it is sometimes difficult to tell which are tulis, that is hand-drawn, and which are cap. The hand-drawn batiks can be so perfect that they look as if they were done with a cap.
To me, the irregularities of batik canting give the piece feeling; they literally put you in touch with the lady who made a unique work of art; they are tactile signatures.