Batik is a fascinating craft but one that many people hesitate to try because the old process is tedious and time consuming. Batik may be used for pillow tops, wall hangings, place mats or scarves. Big, bold designs in bright colors are most striking.
The word batik (pronounced Bateek) means "wax written" and this is basically what batik is. It is a way of decorating cloth by covering part of it with a coat of wax and then dyeing the cloth. The waxed area keeps its original color and when the wax is removed the contrast between the dyed and undyed area makes the pattern.
Here we will deal with the basic methods of the batik process, so that the beginner will be able to experiment later.
The exact origins of batik are unknown, but they are almost certainly in the Orient where the technique was used, long before printing, to enhance the appearance of fine garments. Batik became most deeply rooted in Indonesia, particularly the island of Java, where it was a highly developed art by the 13th century.
Batik was considered a fitting occupation for aristocratic ladies whose delicately painted designs, based on bird and flower motifs, were a sign of cultivation and refinement, just as fine needlework was for European ladies of a similar position.
Java is still famous for batik and the traditional patterns, developed over centuries, are still part of Javanese dress, although very few are made by the traditional method of wax painting. This, instead, has been rediscovered and put to use by craftsman all over the world who find the freedom of working with liquid was, and the control of color possible through dyeing, makes batik an exciting and uniquely expressive medium to work in. Increasingly, the all-over patterns of Oriental batiks are being replaced by imaginative pictures and designs of all sorts, which are sued to make wall hangings and soft sculpture as well as decorations for clothing and household items.
Part of the attraction of batik is its simplicity and the fact that you don't have to be artistic in the conventional sense to produce beautiful results. Some of the best effects in batik are in fact the work of chance. This is particularly true of the way in which the wax cracks to let small quantities of dye through, adding an unexpected and interesting effect to any design. This hairline detail, or "crackling", is a special characteristic of most batik work.
Because batik wax is applied hot it is necessary to work fairly rapidly and this can produce a freedom (or loss of self-consciousness) that makes many people who think they cannot draw find, to their amazement, that they can. Of course, designs can be worked out beforehand and for many things, such as borders and trimmings, this is necessary; but designs drawn spontaneously in wax, or according to the briefest sketch, can bring surprising rewards.
Combined with the pleasure of drawing freehand is the fascination of working creatively with dyes-blending and mixing different colors-to get as vivid or as subtle as you want.
Natural or vegetable fiber fabrics, such as cotton, linen and silk, are the ones to use for batik.
Viscose rayon can also be used, but avoid all synthetic fibers, no matter how closely they simulate natural fibers. Their true nature is revealed in the dyebath, by which time it is too late. They will not dye properly with cold dyes, which must necessarily be used for batik; otherwise the wax would melt in the
To Test Fibers of which you are uncertain, try this quick test. Watch carefully as you hold a single fiber over a lighted match. The synthetic thread melts quickly into a hard residue. Organic fibers burn more slowly, and a soft ash is formed.
Silk is one of the best fabrics for batik - the finer the woven the better - and a finer waxed line can be drawn on silk than on any other fabric. To start with, however, silk is far from necessary, and the expense may inhibit your inventiveness since you will be less willing to "chance" a design.
Cotton is excellent, and some prefer it to silk on the grounds that the sheen of silk obscures the pattern.
In general, with coarser spun fabrics, more wax is absorbed and a fine sweeping line is harder to obtain, as the wax sinks rapidly into the cloth as it is applied. So, although you can batik canvas, calico and flannelette, these are only suitable for large, clear designs.
For intricate work and, in particular, pictures or wall hangings, fine linen or fine cotton is recommended. Especially delicate designs can be produced on batiste or cotton lawn - any thin cotton in fact which is not so transparent that your picture will look like an apparition.
Dye Batik dye must be a cold dye since hot water would cause the hardened wax to melt in the dyebath. Ordinary cold water dyes are best for beginners and all contain instructions for their use; but after some experience you may prefer to use special, fast-acting cold dyes or vat dyes, which involve the use of additional chemicals but which "take" a lot more quickly and, in the case of vat dyes, give exceptionally colorfast results.
Once you are used to working with wax you can begin to experiment more with mixing dyes, buying large amounts (less expensive) of the basic colors and making any others you need.
Wax The ideal mixture for batik work is 30% beeswax to 70% paraffin wax, and to try it for the first time you can easily melt down candles. If, however, you decide to do more batik, it makes sense to get the wax from a craft supply store in bulk.
Beeswax adheres well to fabric, whereas paraffin wax is brittle, cracking easily. So how you mix the two determines how much crackling you will get.
Crackling produces the fine lines that characterize most batik work. With pure paraffin wax there is the danger of it peeling off in the dyebath. A mixture of beeswax and paraffin wax therefore assures adherence, plus decorative crackling effects.
The equipment you need to begin batik is fairly simple, and most of it can be found around the house.
Some old white sheets. Old, torn white cotton sheets have the advantage of being already free from chemical finishes (which would otherwise prevent the dye from penetrating).
Note: all new fabrics must be boiled to remove the finishing.
Candles, at least one containing beeswax.
Double boiler for melting wax.
Good quality artist's paintbrush.
Cold water dye and fixative.
Charcoal, or pencil, for making preliminary sketch.
Old picture frame. (Batik is normally worked on a special frame on which the cloth is tacked to keep it taut, but for beginners an old picture frame will serve just as well.)
You will also need a double boiler or a boiling ring or chafing dish (such as a fondue dish with candles beneath) to melt the wax, and you will need access to a sink or bowl for dyeing.
Cracking or crackling is a process which produces dark lines all over the design of the fabric. Using paraffin or beeswax and then crumpling the fabric creates hairline cracks in the wax, allowing dye to enter the fabric and produce the texture that is part of the unique charm of batik. However, too much cracking can destroy detail and subtle color gradations or blendings. While cracking is not admired in fine Indonesian batik, it is used by contemporary Indonesian batik artists, especially on Bali where batik is geared toward tourists.