What Is the Batik Dyeing Technique and What Does It Involve?

Learn about the mysterious origin of this ancient textile wax-resist dyeing technique

Although most people associate batik with the hippie movement and aesthetics associated with Eastern cultures, few know the truth about this technique's history.

Batik has been admired for its complexity and richness over the centuries and, in Southeast Asian villages, it has even become a sign of one’s local identity. Associated with spirituality and identity, batik is a textile art full of history.

In this post, we share some surprising details about its origin.

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A batik design of a South American gray fox by the artist Ikaro Batik.

What is batik?

Batik is one of the oldest textile dyeing techniques in the world. Hot wax is applied to the fabric before soaking it in dyes. The areas that are covered in wax are preserved and resist the dye, while the rest of the fabric soaks it up. The wax prevents the fabric from absorbing the color. Knowing how wax-resist dyeing works, you’ll be able to create your own unique effect.

What materials and tools do I need?

Before you start trying out this technique for yourself, you’ll need to gather the following list of essential materials and learn how to use each item:

- different types of fabrics, such as linen, beige or white crea, beige or white osnaburg, and recycled fabrics
- different types of wax, such as paraffin wax or beeswax
- dyes
- various tools including a tjanting (similar to a pen, used to apply the wax) and pots

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Aristocratic women making batik in Southeast Asia.

Batik’s mysterious origin

One of the most curious things about batik is that there are still lots of unanswered questions about where it came from. Some studies suggest that it has been around for over a thousand years, evidence of which has been found in Egypt. There, remains of fabrics dyed using wax were found that are believed to come from India or Persia. This technique has also been found in Asia, Africa, and Latin America.

Some theories suggest that batik dates back to 200 BC in China, in the province of Guizhou, and from there it would have migrated to Southeast Asia. It is in the latter part of the world where it became so popular and acquired the name by which we now know it.

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A restored piece of batik-dyed fabric, which was found in Egypt.

The evolution of the technique and its heyday

Batik is a word derived from the term “ambatik”. “Amba” means “to write”, while the ending “tik” means “a small place, a drop”. The term, therefore, refers to a design that appears to be composed of small drops.

When the technique first arrived in Southeast Asia, only aristocratic women were able to practice it, the reason being very simple: they were the only ones who had enough time to do so. When they began to request that their servants assist them in carrying out the task, their staff also learned the technique and that is how it became popular. Over time, they helped the art to evolve and spread.

The use of the sarong, a long piece of cloth that is wrapped around the body and worn by both men and women, popularised batik designs.

The more the batik technique spread, the more it evolved. It embraced knowledge and new customs, which resulted in symbols related to spirituality and the daily life of people from different areas and social classes being incorporated into designs.

Batik became such an important part of Southeast Asian culture that people began to create pieces that had specific patterns and symbols that identified groups. Even the use of certain colors began to be associated with belonging to certain social classes and geographical areas. In other words, symbology, patterns, and colors expressed the wearer’s local identity.

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Southeast Asian men wearing sarongs.

Industrialization vs. preservation

The batik technique became so popular during the last century–a period of globalization–that it eventually began to be produced industrially using stamps. This technique is called batik cap and is different from the batik tulis technique, which is done by hand.

Batik tulis is carried out using a tool called a tjanting. A tjanting is usually made of copper and is similar to a pen and is used to apply hot liquid wax to the fabric.

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A tjanting is similar to a ballpoint pen.

Recovering the original technique

Today, the technique has become popular in many parts of the world, yet those who approach this practice with respect, seek to celebrate its history. Many of these artists begin with the more traditional reserve-dyeing technique, which is carried out by tying certain areas of the fabric or preserving them before exposing the fabric to the dyes.

If you are interested in studying the traditional batik method in more depth, sign up for the course, Batik Illustration: Wax-Resist Dyeing. Under the guidance of textile artist and illustrator Ikaro Batik, you will learn how to make a design inspired by nature, which is full of colors, contrasts, and textures that are often associated with this technique.

English version by @eloiseedgington.

You may also like:

- Textile Dyeing Tutorial: Plant-based Pigments
- Tie-Dye Tutorial: Crumple Technique for Beginners
- The Materials You Need to Block Print on Fabric

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