Traditional and Contemporary Batik

Explore Batik Art

Batik is a Far Eastern traditional resist technique of decorating fabric where wax is applied to fabric to resist colourful dyes. 

The word ‘batik’ first appears in the 17th century Dutch texts, and refers to a particular resist method of applying coloured patterned designs to cloth. It is an Indonesian word and derives from the Javanese ‘ambatik’, which in turn comes from the word ‘Titik’ meaning to mark with dots. The word ‘tik’ in ‘batik’ means a ‘point of light’ or ‘a light in the darkness’. 

The exact origin of batik is unknown. Evidence of early examples of batik have been found in the Far East (China and Japan), Middle East (Egypt), Central Asia and India, – some from over 2000 years ago. It is very likely that the craft spread from Asia to islands of the Malay Archipelago and west to the Middle East through the caravan route. 

However, it is in Indonesia, especially the island of Java, where batik has reached the greatest accomplishment. 

Different tools are used to apply wax in different countries around the world – cantings, (Indonesia and Sri Lanka), brushes (Japan), kalams (India), kistkas (W. Ukraine & Poland), ladao tools (China). The two main traditional waxing tools used in Java are the canting (pronounced tjanting) – wax pen – and a copper stamp called a cap (pronounced tjap). Designs with wax are built up and at each stage, dyes are applied by dipping the cloth in a dye bath. At the final stage the wax is removed in hot water. 

Traditionally, women used a canting to draw fine lines and dots with hot wax. This hand-drawn method is called tulis batik. It wasn’t until the mid-19th century that a method of block printing wax onto fabric using a copper stamp called a cap (pronounced ‘chap’) was developed. This method is still used in Java, and over 250 sarongs can be waxed, in the time taken to use a canting to draw the same pattern on a piece of fabric. 

When the Dutch colonised Java in the seventeenth century, trade routes opened and Javanese batiks were imported to Holland and other parts of Europe. 

Since the mid-nineteenth century, The Dutch and British produced an industrial wax-print, imitative of the Javanese style, for the African market. 

In the early 1900s, batik fabrics became very fashionable in Holland, Germany and parts of Europe. Then it waned until the 1960s, when it was once more taken up, explored, and adapted by artists, including Noel Dyrenforth in London who was the founder of The Batik Guild. Unlike traditional Far Eastern batik, where it was mainly used for clothing, in the West it has developed more as an art form. Designs are applied by both traditional and innovative methods on fabric, paper, wood, eggs and other materials. Artists experiment with different waxing tools – cantings, kistkas, brushes, kitchen tools, cookie cutters, paper towel, sponges etc. – anything that can transfer wax onto a surface. Various kinds of wax are used in the drawing process, as well as both natural dyes (including indigo) and synthetic dyes. Once the wax is removed, the finished batiks are often framed as paintings or wall-hangings, or are ready for wearing.

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