Published: May 2008THE GENUINE ARTICLE
Malaysian Batik
Photo: Creating Malaysian batik
A Malaysian woman creates colorful batik fabric using the traditional process.
By Laura Morelli
Photo by Hemis/Alamy

Salt air blends with the scent of hot wax emanating from the batik-maker's shop, little more than a beachside shack. On a line, a dozen freshly printed cloths flap in the breeze, a cacophony of color. A slight Malaysian man appears at the door, dabbing beads of sweat prompted by the open fire, the blistering equatorial sun, and his labor of love: decorating batik fabric by hand.

No one knows how long artisans in Southeast Asia have been making batik, the brightly colored fabric that is printed using a wax-resist process. Although batik is also crafted in Japan, China, India, and some countries in West Africa and South America, there is no other region as inextricably linked with batik as Southeast Asia. Indonesians, and especially Javanese, have swaddled their infants in it, married in it, wrapped their dead in it; batik is an essential element of daily living. In neighboring Malaysia, where Indonesian batik traditions have been influential, the burgeoning tourism and fashion industries have begun to take this craft in new stylistic directions.

The basic process of batik involves creating designs in wax in order to prohibit dye from coloring the cloth in those areas. Artisans begin by stretching the fabric—usually cotton but sometimes silk or linen—over a wooden or metal frame. In Malaysia, batik artisans are known for their hand-drawn designs, a technique known as batik tulis. The artisan draws the design using a pencil, then traces over the design using a traditional, stylus-like tool called a canting. The canting, invented in Java, has a small copper receptacle with a spout that allows artisans to apply the hot wax in a controlled stream. Alternatively, they apply the hot wax with a brush. After waxing, the fabric is immersed in a vat of dye, dried, then waxed and dyed again until the desired effect is achieved. Traditionally batik-makers created natural dyes made from the highly prized indigo plant, as well as roots, bark, leaves, and seeds, though today synthetic dyes are common. The fabric is rinsed in hot water to remove the wax, then hung to dry. Often the design is embellished with hand-embroidery or sequins.

An alternate technique called batik cap relies on stamps, often made of copper, rather than hand-drawn designs, a faster process that makes for more regular patterns. Artisans dip the stamps into wax and apply them to the fabric before dyeing. Many of these stamps—with intricate geometric, floral, and animal motifs—are works of art in themselves made by specialized craftspeople.

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