Home > Craft Topics > Craft Introductions > Batik
An ancient method of decorating fabrics, the craft of batik involves patterning material with molten wax before it is dyed so that the dye is repelled from the waxed areas. Designs ranging from minutely detailed patterns to expressive abstracts can be achieved in this way.
Origins of Batik
The distinctive craft of batik has an ancient folk tradition
that dates back more than 2000 years. It originated in China where it
still plays an important part in the life and culture of local
Other areas of the East may have developed batik
independently, without trade or cultural links with China, but evidence
suggests that the craft spread from mainland China through the caravan
routes to the islands of the Malay Archipelago, India and the Middle East.
As fabrics perish, few early examples of batik have survived,
although Chinese batiks dating from the 700’s have been preserved in
Japan, and in Egypt examples from the 5th century have been
excavated. Most of the early historical evidence of the craft comes from
paintings and frescos which depict clothes with batik
The finest examples of the craft come from Indonesia, in
particular Java, where batik was initially practised by the palace élite.
Eventually, it became a national craft and the fabrics, with their skillfully
applied patterns, became part of the traditional costume.
The craft was introduced to Europe by the Dutch in the late
1600’s and grew in popularity. The craft is labour intensive, so by the
mid 19th century the Dutch had developed a more economic
method using stamps.
Today, this versatile technique has established itself as a vital art medium, Arts and crafts people use a combination of traditional and modern materials and techniques to create innovative fabric designs.
The cloth should be a natural fibre such as cotton, wool or
silk, pre treated to remove sizing or dressing. The wax is generally a
mixture of microcrystalline and paraffin in a proportion of 1:2. Beeswax,
resins and animal fats can be used in traditional recipes to give
The wax can be applied with tools ranging from a thick brush (hogs hair or bristle) to a tjanting, a traditional fine Japanese drawing tool. Stamps and etching tools can be used to give additional effects.
The dyes are applied in cold water. The most commonly used
are fibre reactive (Procion MX), Naphthol and Indigosol. The procion dyes
are easy to apply by dipping, painting or spraying and are largely light
and colourfast. The colours, which can be mixed, give excellent results on
The principle of Batik is that the wax applied to the fabric
acts as a resist to the dye. Great skill is needed to ensure the molten
wax falls only where the pattern dictates. Combining old and new
techniques of applying the wax and using dyes offers enormous scope to the
The cloth is washed to remove any dressing then pulled taut
over a wooden frame and secured with pins. The design is drawn on the
cloth with a soft pencil.
The batik artist then applies the wax which must be kept at a temperature of no more than 248°F, so a pot with a built in thermostat is invaluable. Tjantings, which have a special reservoir for the molten wax, must be regularly topped up to ensure a consistent and reliable flow of hot, penetrating wax.
Once the waxing is complete, the first dye bath is prepared.
The cloth is gently dipped, taking care not to crack the waxed surface,
although sometimes the cracked effect will be incorporated in the design.
It is then removed and dried ready for the next waxing.
For the second waxing, the pattern may be refined with the tjanting, or more solid colour or additional texture may be added with a brush.
These successive steps are repeated until the design is
complete. Safety and health precautions must be followed when working with
dyes and molten wax.
After the final dyeing the wax is ironed out between sheets of newsprint. The cloth is then dry cleaned to remove any residue.
Alternatively, the wax can be boiled out of the cloth by stirring it vigorously in boiling water for a few minutes. A touch of soda added to the water helps this process. The cloth is then put in cold water to solidify and remaining specks of wax which are then picked off.
Further techniques of Batik
Direct dye application – Dyes can be used in a random or
painterly way to provide a multicoloured foundation over which the wax can
be applied. However, if blocks of controlled colour are preferred the
following method is used.
The outlines of the design are waxed with the tjanting so that each block of colour is self contained. Dye is then painted within the wax boundaries using a hair or sponge brush.
Further axing and dying in different colours adds enriching and interesting effects.
Stencils – An image can be cut out of an adhesive vinyl or
foil and attached to the cloth on a frame. A large brush is loaded with
molten wax and with a firm rhythmic flick of the brush, the unprotected
cloth is stippled with wax. When the cloth is dyed, a very subtle image
will appear on the fabric. Direct application by brushing the wax and
using the stencil creates a solid image.
Etching – A linear design is drawn onto the cloth which is
taped on to a plastic or glass base. Molten wax is spread evenly over the
whole surface with a brush. Using a tool with a dull metal point, the
design is cut into the wax. The tool must be firm enough to gouge out the
wax to expose the cloth to the dye. This technique gives fine lines of
colour on the fabric, while the background colour remains unchanged.
Cross hatching and scraping give a variety of lines. The etched wax cloth is set in the dye bath and brushed over to enable colour to seep in.
Stamps – Providing the stamp is made of a material that is
both absorbent and a good conductor of hot wax, patterns can be registered
and repeated. The cloth is spread on a plastic sheet with a soft underlay.
The stamp is held in a shallow wax pot with an absorbent pad. When the
ready, the excess wax is shaken off the stamp which is then pressed
quickly onto the cloth.
A varied texture can be created using alternative materials to apply the wax and as a base fabric; paper, leather and wood are all suited to the batik process.
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