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What is Batik?

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Making block-prints. By means of a printing block dipped in molten wax the printer lays the foundation for the pattern before the fabric can be soaked in dye. Printing blocks are hung on the wall behind the artist.

Batik is a technique for decorating textiles, by which parts of the textile that are not to be coloured are covered in molten wax. The wax prevents the textile from absorbing the dye during the decorating process.

The word batik is of Indonesian origin, and is related to a Malay word for dot or point, "titik" and the Javanese word "amba", meaning ”to write”.

The technique

The technique of covering or ’reserving’ parts of a textile with some paste or liquid material in order to create a pattern has been found in many different parts of the world. Theories about the origin of the technique are uncertain. It is known from India, Sri Lanka, China, Japan, Southeast Asia, Turkestan, and West Africa.

Since the 16th century the art of batik has been documented in the Malay Archipelago, and particularly in Java the art was developed to a very high standard.

When the Javanese invented the canting, a small utensil for tracing lines with wax, they managed to create the finest handdrawn textiles called tulis (tulis translates directly to write).

In the 20th century the invention of the copper block, cap, was developed by the Javanese. This tool revolutionised batik production, as it became possible to make high quality designs and intricate patterns much faster than one could possibly do by hand-painting.

The origin

The origin of batik production in Malaysia is not easy to trace. However, it is known for certain that the Javanese influenced Malay batik-making technically as well as in the development of designs. At an early stage the Malaysians used wooden blocks in order to produce batik-like textiles. As late as the 1920s Javanese batik makers introduced the use of wax and copper blocks on the East Coast.

The production of handdrawn batik in Malaysia is of recent date and is related to the Javanese batek tulis. Commercial production started in the 1960s. This craft has developed its own particular aesthetic and design, peculiar to Malaysia. The new Malaysian batik is clearly different from the Javanese tradition of hand-painted batiks.


The batik process

There are two main types of batik in Malaysia today; hand-painted and block printed. These types differ in production techniques, motif and aesthetic expression, and are often classified according to the tool that has been used. The painter uses the canting, a small copper container with one or more differently sized pipes. The container is attached to a handle made of wood or bamboo. The canting is filled with molten wax and used to trace the outlines of the pattern on the fabric.

Printing is done by means of a metal block made by welding together strips of metal. In former times emptied tin cans were utilised. The block is dipped into molten wax and pressed against the fabric in order to make the pattern.

The wax is usually composed of bee's wax, paraffin wax, resin, fat and a synthetic wax mixed together in varying proportions. The mixing builds on individual experience and skill. Each component has special qualities that affect the appearance of the finished textile. Bee's wax melts at a low temperature, is flexible, attaches easily to the textile surface, and is easily removed. Paraffin wax, yellow as well as white, is brittle and cracks easily so that the dye penetrates to the textile and creates a marbled look. Resin binds the ingredients together and makes the wax cling better to the textile. Animal or vegetable fat adds flexibility to the wax mixture. Often wax mixtures are used again.

The price of each ingredient can also affect the mixture. The mixture used for block prints tends to be cheaper than that used for hand-painted silks.


Dyes from local plants and insects were used in traditional textile decoration. One example is the use of leaves from the indigo plants to obtain deep blue colour shades. Today the use of chemically produced dyes is common. In Malaysia reactive dyes are preferred because they are convenient, have clear and brilliant colours, and fasten easily to textiles containing fibres of cellulose as well as silk. The chemical formula of the dye will determine the method for fixing the colours. The colour can for instance be fixed by using sodium silicate, or by exposing the material to air.

The range of colours varies from traditional combinations dominated by blue and brown, to brilliant red, turquoise, blue, pink, orange and green. In hand-painting different shades are obtained by diluting the colour with water during the painting process.


Fabrics of different qualities and structures are used in the production of batik. These can be cotton, viscose, rayon and silk. Silk is mostly used for hand-painting. Industrially produced textiles have to be boiled or washed in order to remove finish and other residues before waxing and colouring can take place. To make the colour fasten well the fabric is treated with starch made from rice or cassava. For fine work some oil is also added to obtain a smoother surface that makes it easier to control the waxing. Finally the fabric is ironed to remove creases. In earlier times the fabrics were smoothened by being beaten with a wooden club.

Hand-painted batik

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Making hand-drawn batik. The outlines for the pattern have already been traced in molten wax. Now the colours are filled in with a brush.

Hand-painting of batik in Malaysia builds on traditions from the Javanese hand-painted batek tulis. In Java the pattern was traced on both sides before the fabric was soaked in the dye.

In present-day Malaysia the process is as follows:

The prepared and measured-out fabric is stretched over a metal or wooden frame. The pattern is traced with a soft pencil.

The canting is filled 2/3 with liquid wax, and the utensil is held at an angle against the cloth. The artist has to be extremely precise and careful to obtain a smooth flow of wax. The utensil will have to be dipped frequently into the wax pot to keep the optimal temperature.
If the wax is too hot it will penetrate the fibres too deeply, and is difficult to remove. If it is too cold it will not fasten properly.

When the waxing is finished on one side of the fabric, it is left to dry. If the wax has not penetrated the fabric properly the operation is repeated on the other side. The next step is painting the parts of the fabric that are not covered in wax. The painter uses brushes of different sizes, and larger areas may be coloured with a sponge. The shade can be varied by adding water or more colour. The colour has to dry before fixing. Finally the wax is removed in hot water, and the fabric is rinsed several times in order to remove excess dye and residues of wax.


The measured-out cloth is put on a padded table. The printer has the wax pot at his side. The block is dipped into the pot to be filled with wax, and then it is pressed against the cloth. The process is repeated until the entire cloth has been filled with wax patterns. The printer can change between different blocks as needed for the design. When the waxing is finished the cloth is soaked in dye. The colour fastens to the areas that have not been waxed. From now on the original white colour will only be visible when the wax has been removed from the cloth.

For polychrome patterns the process of waxing and soaking will continue until the required number of colours have been obtained. Usually the printer will start with the lighter colours and end up with the dark ones. Finally the wax and excess colour are removed by boiling and rinsing the fabric. The fabric is then hung to dry.

There can be local variations in the process. Instead of going from light to dark colours, it is possible to start with giving the entire piece a dark colour, usually blue or brown. Then outlines and parts of the pattern can be printed in wax, and the fabric is soaked in a chemical solution that removes the colour from the unwaxed areas. Then follows the usual procedure going from lighter to darker colours. When this procedure is used the outlines become more dominant.

Hand-painting and block-printing are often combined, and this method will be an easier way to give the textiles more colours and freer patterns. In contemporary Malaysia a number of techniques are used to produce batik-like textiles. For example, by adding a layer of wax to an ordinary screen print it is possible to make a cracked pattern and make it look more like genuine batik. It is often difficult to see whether or not a textile is real batik. A good criterion of real batik is if the two sides of the fabric are the same.

Published Mar. 27, 2020 10:45 AM - Last modified Dec. 21, 2020 11:30 AM