Featuring intricate and often colourful motifs, batik is a centuries-old technique of hand-dyeing cloth that is used across the Indonesian archipelago. Such is its iconic status as a traditional art and craft form that Indonesian batik was added to the UNESCO Intangible Cultural Heritage List back in 2009.
Despite its heritage status, batik is no static art form. Practiced from mainland Yogyakarta and Solo to northern Java coastal towns like Pekalongan, it is constantly evolving and adapting to cultural and environmental influences. The result is a series of distinctive colours and patterns, each telling their own unique story.
During Dutch rule, the wives of Indo-European officials set up workshops, hiring labourers to produce batik with European motifs – from symbols of faith and charity, to images from fairytales.
Raw materials were scarce during the Japanese Occupation, so craftsmen improvised by producing different patterns on each side of the cloth. This enabled wearers to don the batik twice – in the morning and in the evening. Japanese-inspired motifs, such as butterflies and sakura flowers, are often juxtaposed against traditional patterns.
Typical of inland towns like Yogyakarta and Solo, this batik is rooted in the 17th-century Mataram Kingdom, when it was widely made and used within the royal grounds. It is characterised by earthy tones such as brown, white and indigo, colours which symbolise the Trinity of Supreme Divinity in Hinduism.
The vibrant batik of port towns like Pekalongan, Lasem and Cirebon reflects the booming maritime trade and foreign influences of the early 1900s. Common motifs include Arabic scriptures and Chinese mythical creatures, such as phoenixes.
How is batik made?
Hot wax is applied with a canting (spouted, pen-like tool) or cap (copper stamp) to prevent the dye from penetrating selected areas of the cloth. The process is repeated several times to create complex and colourful patterns.
This article originally appeared in the April 2017 issue of Silkwinds magazine