Updated on August 17, 2022 by Sarina Tariq
Traditional Batik fabric is a hand-dyed fabric that has been dyed using the resist dyeing process called Batik. The process uses wax and dye to decorate fabric in different patterns.
What is Batik?
Batik is an ancient textile dyeing technique that probably started in ancient Egypt but has now gained immense popularity all over the world.
In this fabric, a wax resist is applied on the surface and then the fabric is dyed – this blocks the effect of dye on the wax-applied area resulting in beautiful patterns. Crackled cob-web-like lines are a characteristic feature of batik fabric.
Today Machine printing can imitate the look of hand batik dyeing in a very convincing manner. Mass-produced, machine-made batik may even be cheaper than the labour intensive batik dyed fabric. The fabrics made in this way are called wax print fabrics, not batik fabric.
Cotton, linen Silk, and Rayon are the most common fabrics that are dyed this way. Voile and poplin batik fabrics are beautiful and vivid and are often popularly used to make casual clothes.
Batik fabric making involves applying a resist material to the areas of the design that you do not need the color of the dye. This is referred to as Batik printing.
Beautiful designs and patterns can be made on fabric using this technique. It involves some creative skills and intensive labor.
History of Batik
There are records of this art form being practiced on textiles in India, China, Japan and Africa from old days. Batik as we know it today is more known as an art form refined in Indonesia.
The Javanese methods of resist dyeing produce very innovative and creative patterns on the batik fabric. In Indonesia Batik is a way of life, the fabric is used everywhere – Indonesian men wear Barik printed sarongs, women wear batik headdresses and clothes, their houses are adorned with beautiful batik wall hangings.
You can see some beautiful photos of Indonesian batik here.
In Japan, Batik was popularised during its Indonesian occupation but a very similar textile printing process using wax resist called Roketsuzome was already established there for centuries.
Japanese has perfected the technique into an art form. Their batik prints are as beautiful as paintings. Tsutsugaki is the Japaneses technique of wax resist dyeing using rice paste.
In Laos this dyeing process is called Hmong batik.
How is batik printing done?
Whatever your preferred style of batik fabric printing – Indonesian style, North American, African style, or European – the basic process is the same. Batik printing involves 5 main steps –
1. Dyeing the fabric in a base color.
2. Applying resist on the fabric as per the design
3. Dyeing the fabric in a different color.
4. Repeat if necessary.
5. Removing the wax from the fabric.
Resist used in Batik printing
Wax is the most commonly used resist used in batik printing but there are many other ways of doing the resist involving pastes made from cassava, rice. In the African style of batik, a mud resist is used.
If you prefer using wax, you can use paraffin wax which is the most inexpensive or natural beeswax/Microcrystalline Wax (synthetic alternative to beeswax) or vegetable wax/Carnauba wax.
Most experts use a combination of different types of wax and resin. A very good combination is to use paraffin wax mixed with beeswax and resin. The beeswax chosen has to be resistant to alkali found in dyes. Wax has to be melted carefully before it is applied on the fabric for fluidity.
Applicators of Resist
The wax or the resist material you have chosen is applied in a preconceived design on the prepared fabric which is usually stretched on a frame. It is usually applied on both sides of the fabric but you will find batik’s with just one side wax applied dyeing.
A tjanting brush (pronounced canting) “a Javanese instrument for applying hot wax in batik work usually consisting of a small thin copper cut with one or more capillary spouts and a handle of reed or bamboo” according to the dictionary here is used by professionals. This has a nozzle through which the wax is applied.You apply wax as you would write with a pen with this instrument. This method is called Batik Tulis.
Tjap (cap) is a stamp used in the batik dyeing process to apply designs. Other copper stamps and rollers are also used. This stamp is dipped in hot wax and then this is applied on the fabric leaving a light layer of wax in the shape of the design on the fabric. This Batik is called Tjap Batik.
The Japanese use a thick brush to apply wax like a painting and this produces beautiful results. This is Roketsuzome Batik.
Yet another method uses ‘scratches’ in the wax applied to dye the fabric – this method is called Sgraffito.
As the wax dries there will be cracks in the wax – this is almost a pre-requisite for the batik printing process because the dye which seeps through these cracks creates the unique pattern/crackled lines that is usually seen on batik fabric.
After the wax is thoroughly dry, the fabric is dipped in another contrasting color dye. A cold water dye bath is used for this. The dye will color those areas where the wax or the resist is not there.
After this, the wax is removed – usually, the fabric is boiled with detergent for this. The wax melts off in the hot water. It is then dried.
The batik process is repeated as often as needed to print the fabric with more complex multi-layered designs in different colors. Some complex designs require as many as 20 steps to complete.
Then finally the fabric is rinsed and cleaned and the batik fabric is completed.
The process of traditional hand batik printing is fascinating and people still do this labor-intensive work with all the love and creativity needed for any kind of artform and some more.
The patterns that are formed as a result of the hand batik printing process are original and I do not think that this labour of love can ever be copied by any machine
Read more on Batik on wikipedia here. Or the batikguild website. You can find interesting batik pictures in this pinterest board here. Here is a nice website to read more on batik. A lot of pictures in this instagram profile of batik artist @widianti_lian
Frequently asked questions
What can be made with Batik fabric?
In the countries that batik fabrics are famous for, like Indonesia, Africa, China, India batik fabrics are made into sarongs, summer dresses, sarees, skirts, bags, scarves and other accessories; they are also used for bedsheets, tapestry and upholstery. Casual bohemian style Thai Fisherman Pants made of batik fabrics are quite popular.
How to care for batik fabric?
Batik fabrics have intense colored prints and the colors may run on the first and subsequent washes. So you have to be careful when washing them with other light colored clothes.
Batik process is usually done on cotton fabrics and silk – you have to treat the material as per the base fabric.
How to sew with batik fabric?
If you are cutting into batik fabric, you may not need to prewash it to prevent shrinkage as it may already be shrunk during the printing process. Still, you may want to remove extra finishes and dyes.
One thing you have to be careful is the direction of the prints – the prints may be directional and you do not want your two sleeves to have prints in different directions.