Batik is the Javanese word for wax writing. Historically it is an art form that originated in Indonesia for the creation of printed fabric. Contemporary artists employ it not only as a technique for designing cloth for clothing, but as a painterly medium for creating wallhangings and home furnishings.

In the batik process, hot wax is used as a resist and cold water dyes are the fabric colorant. The process consists of tracing patterns onto cloth, blocking out area after area with molten wax, and submerging the fabric in a series of dye vats so that a varied color range will settle into unwaxed areas. This process continues, color upon color, until the design is completed. The majority of wax is removed from the fabric by ironing the textile between sheets of newsprint. Hardly any special equipment is needed to do batik. Check the material list for what you’ll need to assemble, and then set aside a day to do batik in your backyard.

First you must select a fabric that is 100 percent cotton, linen, or silk—in other words, a natural fabric with no synthetic fibers. This allows the cold water dyes to soak in properly. It is also a good idea to wash the fabric before you dye it, by hand or by machine, to remove any sizing. When the fabric is dry, it is ready to be used. Set up a worktable for yourself, preferably outdoors near an electric outlet and not too far from a water faucet. Spread an old, thick piece of plastic, such as a shower curtain, over the table surface. The wax peels off plastic easily.

Next, if you are using a drawing for your design, transfer it from paper to cloth using a soft pencil. First tape the drawing to the window. Then tape the cloth over it and trace the pattern as it shines through onto the cloth. Measure off the contour of your design. A good project is a pillow. Make your design fit within a space 15-by-15 inches and leave an inch all around for hemming.

Meanwhile you will need to heat wax in an old electric frying pan to a temperature of 300° to 325°F. Set this frying pan either on your table or next to it. Keep a box of baking soda nearby in case of fire. Wax is a combination of four parts paraffin to one part beeswax.

Once the wax is melted to the right temperature, put some stiff brushes and a tjanting into your wax pot.

A tjanting is a drawing instrument that has a cup and spout from which molten wax is poured. The tjanting allows the flow of liquid wax to be controlled as delicately as the user’s own handwriting. Hold it as you would a pen. You can buy a tjanting at a weavers and dyers supply shop. Any stiff brushes will do. They are used to paint the wax onto larger areas of the material.

Remember the notion of resist. You are covering those areas with wax that you do not want to dye. If you accidentally drip wax onto the fabric in a spot where you don’t want it, try to incorporate the mistake into your design. The first waxing will block out areas you want kept the color of the natural undyed fabric.

When you have finished your first waxing, prepare your first dyebath. Buy a small package of yellow, red, blue, and black dye at the weavers and dyers supply store. Try to get procion cold water dyes. Follow the package dye instructions. Make your first dyebath pale yellow, pink, or blue, and remember to add specified amounts of washing soda and plain salt to fix the dye. It is helpful to dye a scrap of fabric to see if the result is the color you want. Remember, the fabric dries twice as light as it appears when wet. Add more water if the bath is too intense, more dye if it is too light. Plastic tubs make ideal dyeing containers. Also be sure to wear rubber gloves whenever you handle the dye powder or liquid. And cover your mouth and nose with a kerchief when spooning out dye powder—it is hazardous to your health when inhaled.

To dye, wet the cloth first with plain water, then immerse it in the dyebath. Let it remain there for five minutes while stirring it around with your rubber gloves. Squeeze it out over the dyebath so excess liquid runs off.

Then lay it on a sheet of old newspaper and sponge it off before hanging it to dry on the clothesline. Use plastic clothespins because they don’t leave marks.

Squeezing the cloth will cause it to crackle. Crackle is the most characteristic feature of batik. It is a delicate network of hair-thin lines that develop throughout the design when dye is allowed to seep into cracks in the waxed areas. You can control the amount of crackle by squeezing less and by rewaxing areas to keep them smooth. Learning to control the amount of crackle in a batik is one facet of craftsmanship that this medium demands.

The cloth must be completely dry before you can wax it again.

When it is dry, set it on the plastic sheet and wax out those areas you want to remain the last dye color.

Now dye it again and notice how the new dye color merges with the one underneath. A good dye series to follow for your first batik is pink, yellow, medium blue, and navy. Generally we dye from light to dark.

When you have dyed your cloth for the last time, and the cloth is dry, you are ready to remove the wax. Also, it is worth mentioning that it is wise to dye several cloths at one time because the dye with fixer in it lasts only four hours.

Lay a blanket on the table surface for padding. Cover it with old newspaper, and cover that with plain sheets of unprinted newsprint. Lay the waxy fabric on top, and cover it with plain, unprinted newsprint above. Now iron out the wax with an old iron.

Keep removing the sheets which pick up wax, and put down clean sheets. Iron until you’ve gotten as much wax as possible out. You can send the batik to the dry cleaners to remove the last traces of wax, but this is an optional step. It is also possible to boil the wax out. Heat an old pot of water to boiling. Add soap flakes, and submerge the batiked fabric. Stir it around with a long stick, and lift the cloth out after a few minutes. Now rinse it under lukewarm water and hang it up to dry. You may lose a little dye color in the boiling process. Less is lost with dry cleaning. Your batik is finished. The idea behind working outside is to keep the mess away from the kitchen.

Supply List

table

plastic clothespins

plastic sheet

newsprint

stiff brushes

pencil

tjanting

tape

newspaper

fabric (100 percent natural fiber), cotton preferred

old iron

plastic tubs

old pot

stirring stick

soap flakes

rubber gloves

scissors

paraffin, beeswax, or batik wax (non-iodized)

sponge

dyes—red, yellow, blue, black (small packages)

blanket

washing soda

clothesline

salt

[photos] Photos by Jed Clark