Batik​—Indonesia’s Fabulous Fabric

BATIK has been around for ages, yet it is not old-fashioned. Royalty wear it at fancy receptions, as do traders at local marketplaces. It is beautiful, colorful, and incredibly varied. But what is batik? How is it made? Where did it originate? And how is it used today?

Batik is a fabric with an ancient history. The Batik design is made by using a special dye-resistant technique and has become an integral part of Indonesian life and culture. Similar fabrics are popular the world over.

A Marriage of Dye and Wax

A craftsperson produces a piece of batik cloth by using a small copper tool filled with liquid wax to draw by hand an intricate design on a piece of fabric. When the wax is dry, the fabric is dyed. Waxed parts keep their natural color, unaffected by the dye. The process is often repeated using various colored dyes to create vivid designs.

In the mid-19th century, Batik artisans used copper stamps to apply the wax. This method was faster than using the handheld tool and could be used to produce identical pieces of fabric. During the 20th century, commercial factories started to screen print the design on the fabric. Handmade batik can still be purchased. However, the industrially printed batik now dominates the market.

Cotton or silk is usually used to make batik. Dyes are made from locally grown leaves, wood, bark, and spices, although synthetic dyes are also used. Before wax was introduced, vegetable pastes, animal fats, and even mud were used to create patterns. Nowadays, the wax is often synthetic. Yet, a mixture of paraffin and beeswax is still used.

Long History​—Bright Future

No one knows exactly when and where batik was made for the first time. In China, some fragments of batik date back to the sixth century C.E. It is still unclear when the technique became known in Indonesia, but by the 17th century, there was evidence of a batik trade to and from Indonesia.

In recent decades, batik has gained greater popularity and has become a symbol of Indonesian national identity. In 2009, in recognition of batik’s long history in Indonesia and its impact on local culture, UNESCO listed batik as part of the country’s “Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity.”

Batik Attire

There are traditional ways of wearing, folding, and making batik that are influenced by local beliefs and superstitions. Many of Indonesia’s provinces have their own typical batik colors and motifs. Batik from the north coast of Java, for example, is brightly colored, often having motifs of flowers, birds, and other animals. However, batik from central Java usually has a narrower color range, and the  motifs are often geometric designs. There are some 3,000 recorded batik patterns.

A traditional batik garment is the selendang, which is a shawl or carrying cloth hung over the shoulder and worn by women. Women often carry a baby or items bought at the market in it. But the shawl is also used to cover the head on a hot day.

Men use a traditional head covering called iket kepala. The square batik cloth is tied around the head to form a turban. It is often considered as formal dress for ceremonies.

Another popular garment made of batik is a rectangular cloth wrapped around the body, called a sarong. Sometimes the two ends of this cloth are sewn together to form a tube. A typical sarong is worn around the legs and tucked in at the waist, resembling a loose skirt. The sarong is worn by both men and women.

Batik fabric is used for almost any style of clothing, from casual trousers to glamorous gowns. But the fabric is also used for paintings, wall hangings, tablecloths, bedspreads, and so forth. Tourists strolling through an Indonesian market may find batik-style bags, sandals, lampshades, and even laptop covers. The variety is almost endless​—a fabulous fabric indeed!

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A small copper tool filled with liquid wax is used to draw an intricate design by hand

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The fabric with the wax design is repeatedly dipped into the dye

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Batik Attire

1. Selendang

2. Iket kepala

3. Sarong