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Batik is cloth that has been dyed by the wax resist technique. A pattern is applied to cotton or silk in wax and then the cloth is dyed - the wax prevents the dye from colouring some parts and the technique can be repeated to build up a complex design. Great skill and care is required. This practice is common in many parts of the world, especially Asia, but also South America, and has been known since the sixth century. But it is Indonesia that is accepted as the real home of batik and where the art is at its highest.
There are two main ways to make batik - by kanting (sometimes written as canting but pronounced chanting) or by stamp. Kanting is the original way where the wax is drawn onto the cloth by the use of a vessel with a long thing spout. The artist (usually women) uses kantings with differing width of spouts to create the desired pattern. A batik made this way is called a "batik tuli".
This is a kanting in use
In the middle of the nineteenth century, the Javanese developed the use of copper to make stamps (Tchap or more commonly Cap) that were used to impress the wax in much the same way that wooden stamps were used in India to make block print materials. These stamps are works of art in themselves. This speeded up the work of creating batik, but also made it much more labour intensive and as a result men began to work in batik factories that were established. While a batik could be produced more quickly, skill was still required to make the stamp style of batik look good. A misplaced stamp is extremely obvious when looking at a batik. A batik made this way is usually called a "batik cap"
This is a copper batik stamp or cap
A Cap in use
Batiks can be made by either of these techniques or by what the Indonesians like to call a "Kombinasion", by which they mean the combination of these two methods. Usually, this means that the background is made by stamp and then details are added by kanting. Additionally, some batiks have some of the details painted on to them - they are wax-resist dyed at first and then some of the coloured detail is applied by small paint brushes. This kind of work is usually quite obvious as the painted parts often don't match perfectly with the rest of the work and the brush strokes can be seen if you look closely.
With the introduction of printing onto cloth, many imitation batiks, much of it screen printed, became available. While they look very nice, they are not batiks in any way as no wax is involved in their production. It is fairly easy to distinguish a batik print from a cap or a tuli. The printed batik's reverse will not have the colour density and strength that the front does, whereas a batik's colour is the same on both sides, as both sides are waxed and then dyed.
If you are unsure if what you are looking at is a real batik or just a print of a batik design, then price is a good guide in Asia - no one can produce a real batik for 10 dollars, it is just way too time consuming, so if it is really cheap, then it is likely to be a print. A real batik, even one made by stamp, takes at least a few days to make. It has to be waxed on both sides, then dyed, washed to remove the wax, waxed again, dyed again and so on depending on how many colours are involved. Even in the poorest paid parts of Asia all that work plus profit adds up to more than $10.
A high quality, detailed batik can take a long time to make. If the design is complex, just applying the wax for one colour can take two weeks, then another week to dye, wash, rinse and remove the wax. And that process has to be repeated for each colour or shade of colour. Really high quality batiks can take a year or more to make.
Natural versus Synthetic Dyes
The other great shift in batik was the introduction of synthetic dyes. Up until then, there were only natural dyes such as indigo (blue), soba (brown) and mengkuda (red). The production of these dyes can be very complex, requiring mordants to bind the dye to the cloth and skills of almost an alchemist. Old batiks made with only natural dyes generally are restricted to white/cream/beige/brown/blue/purple/red whereas the introduction of synthetic dyes opened up the whole panoply of colours.
Kains and Sarongs
Batiks are these days made into anything that cloth can be used for, but originally they were used to make sarongs or kains. A kain is a length of batik between 2 and 2.5 metres long and about 1 metre wide. This is tied around a mans waist (see below for some methods) whereas a sarong is a slightly shorter piece that has had the two short ends sewn together to create a cylinder which is usually worn by women.
Page-Soir or Day Night, is a batik with two separate patterns that meet diagonally near the middle, the idea being that the same batik can be worn all day, with one end showing during the day and then it can be reversed to show a different look at night. This practice originated during World War 2 when cotton was in short supply.
How to tie a batik
This article from, of all people, Tescos is a pretty good guide. Just be aware that when they say Sarong, they mean a Kain. They just don't understand what a sarong is!
There are many similar articles online showing differing numbers of ways to use a batik (one has 21 different ways, but the simplest ones are shown here).
This youtube video shows you similar ways to tie a kain batik.
For a real sarong, this youtube video is quite good. It is in french, but there are some subtitles and it does show several uses for a sarong.
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Batik - Fabled Cloth of Java by Inger McCabe Elliott
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The Glory of Batik - Danar Hadi Collection