Batik 101: Where It Comes From, How It’s Made, and How to Use It in an Interior
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Batik 101: Where It Comes From, How It’s Made, and How to Use It in an Interior

Sep 11, 2023

By Anna Elise Anderson

Celebrated by designers, tastemakers, and pattern-lovers for centuries, batik is both a type of fabric and an ancient dyeing technique with a long and complicated history. Often grouped with other historically significant, patterned textiles like ikats, suzanis, and chintz, batik has played an important role in several different cultures over the ages.

Generally speaking, batik fabric is a textile that has been colored using one of several different dyeing methods (which are also known as batik). There are many different batik styles, each incorporating their own decorative methods, tools, and materials. But the defining feature of true batik fabrics is that their patterns are created via wax-resist dyeing, a process where artists apply hot wax to certain parts of a cloth, soak it in various dye baths, then peel off or boil away the wax to reveal where the fabric has “resisted” the dyes.

Signs of the earliest forms of wax-resist art have been discovered around the world dating back as long as 2,000 years. The variety and global reach of batik suggest that the methods evolved independently in separate regions among unrelated ethnic groups. Different forms of wax-resist dyeing have been popular in Asia, Europe, and Africa since before written records were kept. It’s probable that certain batik styles spread from Indonesia throughout Malaysia and into the Middle East via popular trading routes. These days, batik is still practiced around the world, but nowhere is it as refined and culturally charged as on the Indonesian island of Java.

Textiles at the Batik Museum in central Jogja in Indonesia

Batik techniques, traditional imagery, and symbolic motifs have played an important role in Indonesian culture for centuries—especially on Java. In ancient Javanese communities, different batik motifs could be used to signal social status, celebrate nature, honor virtues, or record history. There were special geometric patterns reserved for and worn only by specific groups: The scrolling, oblong forms repeated in the traditional “parang” pattern, for example, were only worn by royalty, while the “truntum” pattern, commonly worn at weddings, was reserved for celebrations of love.

Batik cotton and silk garments still appear regularly at formal and traditional events, as well as in the background of everyday life. Handed down from generation to generation, batiks are common family heirlooms, carefully designed to represent certain aspects of cultural or spiritual heritage. Infant children in Indonesia are carried in batik slings decorated with traditional imagery for bringing protection and luck. Society events and theater performances also incorporate custom-designed batiks, and many artists use the process to hand-paint one-of-a-kind batik fabric panels that can be framed as works of art. Influenced by a global variety of sources, including Arabic calligraphy, European bouquets, Persian peacocks, and Japanese cherry blossoms, many classic recurring elements remain popular in modern examples.

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A relatively time-consuming physical process, batik is celebrated for its spiritual dimensions in addition to its beauty and ability to convey meaning. Historically considered an important skill for women of noble birth in Indonesia, batik-making once involved a preparatory night of prayer before beginning the tedious, often monthslong decorative process of crafting an important family heirloom. For some modern practitioners, the design-making act itself can be a kind of prayer, where symbolic imagery, words, or traditional motifs are hand-drawn onto the batik cloth in a moving meditation.

The English word batik is a Dutch version of the Javanese word bathikan (meaning “drawing”; “writing”; or “mark-making”), which most likely evolved from the Javanese term ambatik or mbatik, a combination of the Javanese terms amba (meaning “to write”) and titik or tik (“to make dots” or “dotted”). Like the origins of the art form itself, the accepted etymology of the word “batik” is contested: Some believe the term actually comes from a totally different, Proto-Austronesian root word meaning “to tattoo.”

The earliest versions of the process involved the use of a hollow, pen-like bamboo instrument called a “canting” (or tjanting in Javanese) to hand-draw designs in melted, hot wax directly onto a cloth (most often a cotton fabric, though silk and rayon are now commonly used). Later methods incorporated the use of a copper stamp called a “cap” to print the resist wax onto the fabric for faster production.

These days, manufacturers may use the term batik to describe any fabric featuring pale, tropical designs on a colorfully dyed background—but some consider the block-printed, mass-produced, modern commercial versions to be poor imitations of a rich cultural tradition.

An artist applies color to silk by hand at Ardiyanto, which has produced Yogyakarta’s finest batiks for 40 years.

Early examples of the batik process have been found scattered across multiple continents, in some cases preserved from a time before historical records. Evidence of batik appears everywhere from Sri Lanka to China to India to Africa, and many places in between. While it’s difficult to confirm an exact origin timeline or location, what’s clear is that batik has deep roots on the Indonesian island of Java, where the art form has grown, evolved, and flourished for millennia. (Today, some of the most gifted batik practitioners and the most virtuosic examples of both traditional and innovative batik techniques can be found in the capital city, Jakarta.) Historically, different regions of Indonesia had their own traditional patterns and associated imagery. There were special motifs that designated the various members of the royal lineage. In Java, batiks were often divided by their general locales into “inland batik” and “coastal batik.”

In Asia, batik may have been practiced during the ancient Chinese Sui and Tang Dynasties, beginning circa AD 581, and silk batik print screens have been found among artifacts from Japan’s Nara period, which began in AD 710. Linen grave cloths, scratched with wax-relief designs and dyed with indigo, have been found in Egypt and date back to the 4th century BC.

Batik textiles also flourished very early in several west African regions, most notably among the Yoruba people of Nigeria and Senegal, whose pattern-making traditions have been passed down from mothers to daughters for centuries. Yoruba batiks, called adire cloths, are created via two different methods of resist-dyeing: “adire eleso” (tying and stitching the fabric similar to the tie dye process) or “adire eleko” (using starch pastes made from plant roots or rice as a resist). African batik designs typically incorporate indigo dyes on cotton, with designs made by freehand drawing or by using resources at hand, including feathers, sticks, bones, combs, wood tools, or metal stencils. The process sometimes involves large gatherings that serve as cost-saving, mass dyeing sessions for groups of batik-making women.

In Malaysia, new batik-making methods evolved out of the Javanese tradition. Around the 17th century, Malaysian artisans began making patterned fabrics featuring larger, less intricate floral motifs. Often hand-painted, these Malaysian batiks rarely included animal or human figures and tended to focus solely on natural images.

European traders visiting Java in the 1800s brought back various batik cloths and helped spread the textile around the world. In the 19th century, Javanese batiks began to be displayed in Dutch museums, popping up at various European expositions. But batik reached the height of its popularity in Europe at the end of the 19th century, when a group of Dutch artists began experimenting with batik techniques in modern decorative arts—including Art Nouveau designers Carel Adolph Lion Cachet, Theo Neuhuys, and painter Agathe Wegerif-Gravestein (who founded her own batik workshop). By the early 20th century, the decorative practice was embraced by French (including celebrated “mother of French Batik” Mme Marguerite Pangon) and American designers, as well as craft enthusiasts and decorators in Holland, Germany, Poland, and Great Britain.

Batik made more waves in the British scene in 1960, when European artists and craftspeople again began experimenting with the possibilities of wax-resist dyeing. Among them, visual artist Noel Dyrenforth founded the Batik Guild in London in 1986, gathering together a small group of batik artists, lovers, and teachers of the technique. Today, the Batik Guild continues to promote the art and support its enthusiasts, educating the public about batik processes and techniques via lectures, workshops, online community, and a thrice-yearly color publication.

A relatively new extension of the ancient tradition, a Balinese version of batik gained popularity in the 1970s and soon became an important part of the island’s local textile economy. Bali batik motifs encompass a wider range of local, natural, and floral imagery, including leaf, fish, insect, and bird insignia, as well as activity-based patterns reflecting regional culture and the Balinese people’s close ties with nature.

In July of 1972, the Central Java Ministry of Education and Culture officially opened the Pekalongan Batik Museum, which showcases a large collection of local and foreign batiks, as well as information and artifacts related to the development of the art form over the course of several centuries.

Over the mantel of a Pacific Palisades living room, AD100 designer Mandy Cheng hung three framed vintage batik textiles, which were created by the Hmong people in Vietnam.

Hand-drawn Batik Tulis, or “written” batik, is considered the finest and most pure traditional form of Javanese batik. (It’s also the most expensive.) A time-consuming process, Batik Tulis involves intense manual focus and skill: The artist uses a small crucible of hot paraffin or beeswax with a thin spout to draw intricate, often dotted designs directly onto fabric by hand. (This tool, the canting, is unique to Indonesian batik.) In Batik Tulis, both sides of the fabric are treated with wax before being immersed in a series of dye baths. This repeated application of the wax ensures a strong resist that will develop clean, clear images in the final product—which can take anywhere from several days to a full year to complete.

Batik cap, or “stamped” batik, is a technique that evolved to help speed up the painstaking decorative process. Though it doesn’t use a canting or involve hand-drawn imagery, this form of Indonesian batik (along with batik tulis) is recognized by UNESCO as part of an important cultural heritage. Batik Cap involves creating the same kind of wax-resist designs, but patterns are stamped rather than drawn into the fabric. Batik Cap involves a specific copper tool called a “canting cap,” which experts use to apply repeating designs like a stamp, using wax instead of ink. This form of batik is less idiosyncratic, but the fabric is easier to create, more uniform, and thus less expensive than hand-drawn Batik Tulis.

Batik Lukis is the form of batik that involves painting patterns, images, or lines onto blank, undyed cloth using any number of tools: paintbrushes, broomsticks, toothpicks, or other found tools. Often called batik painting, it’s a slightly newer development than the first two forms, and a less traditional, more openly creative style that allows for the development of new imagery and modern motifs. This style of batik is often linked to the aesthetics and personal choices of specific artists rather than to inherited wisdom and cultural iconography. The dye colors and wax designs in Batik Lukis tend to be more fun and experimental as well, and there’s more evidence of color gradients in this style.

Batik Pesisir, also known as “coastal batik” or “Indonesian coastal batik,” is a stamped style of batik made on the island of Java as well as other seaside regions. The coastal tradition soared in popularity once Dutch, Chinese, and Indian merchants became involved in the batik industry. Although it is still centuries old, coastal batik is a relatively newer style that rose to popularity in the 19th century and is less tied to a specific cultural heritage. Unlike the status-signaling, age-old symbolism of more historic Indonesian styles, Batik Pesisir is more fashion-focused, more commercial, and more common. The techniques used to make it are less rigid, incorporating tools and steps inspired by foreign trade. Dutch, Indo European, and Chinese settlers introduced a host of new motifs in the late colonial period, as well as the stamping cap that allowed mass-production of designs. (In fact, a coastal batik sub-genre called Batik Belanda, or “Dutch batik,” developed in Java between 1811 and 1946. It encompassed fabrics from a smaller, European-led batik industry, which fused Western design elements with techniques and patterns from the native Javanese tradition. Its popularity faded after WWII.) Heavily influenced by Islamic art in the 16th century, coastal batiks tend to favor vibrant reds and blues over more traditional black, brown, and ochre dyes. This kind of batik is still identifiable by the influence of foreign art on its stamped motifs and nontraditional color palettes.

Carrier and Co selected a Ralph Lauren Home batik wall covering for Jessica Chastain’s light-filled living room in New York City.

From DIY classroom tutorials for art students to the vibrant, repeating geometric patterns of this batik-inspired collection from Niba Designs, the process seems to have maintained its stronghold as part of global pop culture—though the trend is anything but new.

The current Indonesian president, Joko Widodo, for one, has been photographed at many occasions since his 2014 inauguration sporting a wide range of both formal and informal batiks. The patterns chosen for his different public appearances all have cultural significance related to each event.

And in the world of fashion, Indonesian designers are modernizing the ancient practice for a new generation, working a refreshingly wide range of brand-new batiks into their latest collections. Chitra Subyakto’s Indonesian textile label Sejauh Mata Memandang and the modern retail brand Bateeq, for example, seek to fan the genre’s flames for younger shoppers by offering fresh takes on the textile’s traditional palette and symbolism.

For Americans today, the most easily accessible examples of batik can be found in the vibrantly printed sarongs that fill the racks of many souvenir shops in tropical locales. In fact, batik is traditionally sold in 2.25-meter lengths for this use specifically. But the tourist shop versions are often cheap imitations that don’t convey the depth and intricacy of the real thing.

That said, it is possible to achieve the effect of batik in your interior decor without sourcing batik cloth from Indonesia. Luxury textile brands like Schumacher sell different multicolored fabrics by the yard with patterns inspired by traditional batik (though not always handmade using the older painstaking method). And the fabric has found its way into notable homes in the pages of AD, too: Batik features prominently in the recently listed Connecticut estate of Susie Hilfiger, with interior design inspired by Sister Parish’s cozy, pattern-friendly, American country home style: “One of the more elaborately rendered spaces is an attic room, lined entirely with an antique-inspired red-and-yellow Batik that covers the bamboo canopy bed, plush chaise lounge, and sloped dormer ceiling,” writer Laura May Todd said of the space, which Hilfiger lovingly described as “totally filled with joy.”

In Texas, a batik bedroom by Miles Redd is covered in a weave by Piece & Co.

Batik can evoke an ancient past or suggest the amorphous parameters of a colorful future. But how to incorporate this vibrant possibility into your next home design project? While the beauty of batik lies in its boldness, the real magic of the material lies in the immense flexibility of its application. Whether you’re working on a tight New York City apartment or a spacious oceanfront ranch getaway in Turks and Caicos, chances are there’s a spot somewhere in the decor design for batik to shine.

Perhaps the easiest way to use batik in a modern interior is through accent pieces like throws, curtains, blankets, club chairs, banquettes, couch cushions, framed fabric art, bolsters, bar stools, and other upholstered items. One can usually catch a glimpse of batik amid the worldly-artifacts-slash-hand-me-downs that appear in modern boho interiors, where new pieces intermix with thrifted and flea market finds, and handmade elements like batik, ikat, and macrame abound. For instance, interior designer Leonora Hammill, whose love of craft and deep respect for cultural traditions shape her worldview and design aesthetic, chose an elegant, wall-mounted Indonesian batik panel from Belgravia’s Joss Graham gallery to serve as a focal point above the dining table in her warm and eclectic South Kensington home.

Though typically reserved for the most “worldly” of bohemian styles, batik can work in subtler ways as well. Choosing tone-on-tone patterns and muted palettes can elevate a neutral space with the implication of texture and history—like the framed trio of vintage taupe batik Hmong textiles AD100 interior designer Mandy Cheng hung over the fireplace of one client’s modern, Mediterranean-inflected Pacific Palisades redesign.

“We chose to use batik for a recent commercial project, inspired by the Filipino heritage of our client,” says Katy Burgess, cofounder of women-led Los Angeles design studio Wall for Apricots. “Batik fabrics are typically handmade, so they lend a deep sense of artistry to a space. By using textiles inspired by our client’s family heritage, the project was rooted in the traditions of the past.”

According to Danielle Rollins, principal of Palm Beach–based Danielle Rollins Interiors: “Batik is a great alternative to popular prints like ikat, because it reads a bit beachy without becoming kitschy. It’s also a perfect choice for going all-or-nothing with a pattern—where you cover everything from curtains to pillows in a batik pattern, and leave the rest of the room as crisp and plain as possible.” She favors authentic yet inexpensive batiks that provide maximum style with minimum splurge, warning that overuse of batiks can make a space feel more “tiki bar, mai tais, and beach blanket bingo” than intended; nevertheless, when used right, “it’s a beautiful, elegant fabric with a worldly feel.” Now, even designer show houses are serving up glimpses of batik: Danielle Rollins Home debuted its own, understated “Carlyle Batik” this year at the Kips Bay Decorator Show House in Palm Beach. Maybe it’s batik’s easy way of conjuring the islands, or the vibrant intensity of its dyes…but it’s safe to say the ongoing, worldwide human interest in batik isn’t ending anytime soon.

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