First Experiences: Batik

The ancient art form of batik teaches us the immeasurable beauty of slowing down

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(1) Image of a person neck down wearing a moss green crewneck, holding up an embroidery hoop and using a Batik tool to draw on the fabric with wax. (2) first-person point of view, two pieces of cloth flatlaying on a table with designs drawn on them with wax. One is a symmetrical pattern that evolves into two small faces as it goes down, and one drawing is a larger side profile of a face. The person taking the photo has one hand in the photo holding up a Batik tool over the fabrics. (3) Person with dark curly shoulder-length hair, glasses, and a blue plaid shirt on has shoulders angled towards an embroidery hoop they are holding up and drawing on using a Batik tool. In the background, another person with a ponytail and moss green crewneck is seen at the table also hunched over their own Batik piece.
Practicing and learning about Batik for the first time. Yelin Gemma Lee and Gudrun Wai-Gunnarsson / The Peak

By: Yelin Gemma Lee, Arts & Culture Editor

As a part of explorASIAN 2022’s programming, The Batik Library hosted introductory batik workshops at the Indonesian Trade Promotion Centre (ITPC) in Vancouver. When I attended the opening session on the morning of May 20, I had no idea what to expect. I walked in with the faintest knowledge of what batik was and left with a deep appreciation for the ancient art form and the cultural history behind it.

Bernarda Antony from The Batik Library taught us that batik is a traditional Indonesian wax-resistant dyeing method used to make designs on fabric. This textile technique, she explained, is also practiced in other parts of Asia. However, artisans on the island of Java in Indonesia are considered to be experts in this practice, having developed a diversity of styles and techniques. Batik uses tools made of copper to apply a hot natural wax mixture (of beeswax, tree sap, etc.) to the fabric in a pattern. Cold-dyeing is used to colour the other parts of the fabric, and the dye-resistant wax is then removed by boiling the fabric in water, leaving a beautiful design behind. 

We worked around a small table in the centre of the room, surrounded by displays of Indonesian trade goods such as woodwork, food products, and of course, batik textiles. First, we practiced using a wooden stick with a copper application to hold a small amount of hot wax and drip it out of the pointed end. Depending on the angle of your wrist, the wax would flow out either in a controlled way or suddenly all at once causing big splotches. The cloth was so thin it was almost see-through, and Antony explained the thinner the fabric is, the easier it is to do batik on. This was because the wax had to seep through to the other side of the cloth in order to successfully imprint the design and resist the dyeing process. 

To make this practice easier and to prevent burns from the wax seeping through, we held up the cloth in an embroidery hoop while working. Antony explained that traditionally, Indonesian artisans would work balancing the fabric on their palms and that the heat transferring onto their skin was accepted as part of the practice. 

Whatever smidge of extra confidence I brought to this workshop as an artist immediately vanished while practicing. The experience I had with paintbrushes melted away. I moved onto a batik pattern I had traced in pencil on a cloth with a “fuck it” mindset and promptly annihilated the symmetry and detail. The wax in the little applicator of my drawing tool cooled down about every 30 seconds — a lot faster than I expected — and I had to keep pausing to rest the tool in the melting pot. After attempting the repeating motifs of my traced pattern multiple times, I went freehand on a new cloth and on a bigger scale with less detail.  

I learned a lot from Antony about the history and cultural significance of batik, but I learned even more from doingbatik was a teacher itself. It taught me a deep understanding and appreciation of batik artisans and their works. I looked at the batik pieces in the ITPC with new eyes and was flabbergasted at the skills honed with patience and grace. 

With the calming music playing in ITPC and the cozy smell of the natural wax mixture, I felt strangely connected to nature — the walls seemed to fall away into a peaceful, green utopia. Practicing batik meant being forced to slow down, take slow and deep breaths to steady my hand, and focus on the present moment with each careful stroke. As a person who vibrates to the fast-paced rhythm of the contemporary world, I felt soothed by the meditative ancient practice of batik

To learn more about The Batik Library and potential future workshops, check out their website and their Instagram. To learn more about ITPC Vancouver, check out their website or visit them in-person.