Indonesian ‘batik’ has 2,000-year history

Tami Williams
Contributing writer

***image1***Being born in Indonesia, I was exposed everyday to the beauty of “batik” (pronounced bateek) throughout my childhood.
The word batik is translated as “to dot” or “wax writing.” Batik has come to be used as a generic term which refers to the process of dyeing fabric by making use of a “resist technique;” covering areas of cloth with a dye-resistant substance to prevent them from absorbing colors. This process creates a beautiful intricate pattern of designs and images.
I did not have a full appreciation of batik until two years ago when I learned how to make batik while visiting Indonesia. I went away with a sense of wonder and a deeper appreciation of my heritage at the time, effort and patience put into the creation of each piece of batik. If you love creativity and appreciate beauty, batik will certainly intrigue you as well.
Historical evidence indicates that cloth decorated with this technique can be traced back 2,000 years ago to Africa, the Middle East and several places in Asia. Although experts disagree as to the precise origins of batik, most believe that batik has reached its highest artistic expression in the island of Java, Indonesia.
One of the fascinating characteristics in Javanese batik is the variety of style, motif and color that have come through its exposure to many foreign cultures and religious influences over the centuries. There are about 3,000 recorded traditional Javanese batik patterns, and each traditional pattern has a name and meaning as does each shape within the pattern. The traditional motif and colors remain, but the trend today is to decorate the fabric in whatever way the artist’s heart desires. Batik is still popular today in part because of this artistic freedom.
The process to make batik is simple, but tedious. The first stage is tracing the desired pattern on finely woven cotton or silk fabric. A pen like instrument called “canting” (pronounced chan-ting) is used to apply hot liquid wax to the fabric. The artist’s hand movements must be very decisive and quick in applying the wax to the fabric. The wax cools quickly, so the artist then dips the canting in the hot wax and begins again. The process is repeated on the backside of the fabric to ensure the wax has completely penetrated the fabric. The fabric is then dipped in cool vegetable dye, hung to dry and then boiled in hot water. The wax is removed by the hot water, displaying a light pattern on the dyed fabric. This process is repeated numerous times depending on the number of dyes involved, until the overall pattern and effect are achieved. Producing a high quality piece of batik is time consuming and requires a high degree of skill.
The beautiful and fascinating world of batik makes up just one aspect of Indonesia’s unique and multifaceted culture and history. Each one of Indonesia’s 17,000 islands offers something interesting that is sure to please.
Learning about batik helps me preserve and pass on my Indonesian heritage. During May, Asian Pacific Heritage month, enjoy with us in celebrating our cultural diversity. You can view samples of Asian’s historical and cultural pieces, including batik and the tools used to make batik, on display at the Ramstein Library until the end of the month.