Batik textiles are such an integral part of Javanese culture that it is difficult to imagine a time when the Javanese did not possess them. Yet the batik process, as we know it, may not be very old. Scholars debate whether or not the wax-resist dyeing process was brought to Java from India, where it has been known for centuries. Although names for various batik motifs have been traced to Javanese literary works dating from the 12th century, in fact, the terms batik and tulis (as applied to textile design) do not appear in Javanese court records until the Islamic period, when Indian traders where already active in the archipelago.
No one disputes, however, that Javanese batik is by far the finest in the world. There developed in Java, possibly in the 17th or 18th century, a tool known as the canting, a pen used to apply molten wax to cloth and capable of executing very detailed designs. A complex technology of wax and resin compounding, dye preparation and fixing, and a whole repertoire of elaborate motifs developed.
Starting with patience
Batik is produced on Sumatra, Sulawesi and Bali, but none can really compare with that of Java. The reason is quite simple: fine batik requires extraordinary patience. Beginning with a white silk or cotton cloth, the first step in handmade batik is to sketch a design. Areas that are not to be colored in the first dyeing must then be covered with wax. This can take hundreds of hours of painstaking labor. The cloth is the immersed in a prepared dye solution and dried. When natural dyes were used, repeated immersions and dryings were used, and a single dyeing would take months.
Next, the cloth must be re-waxed in preparation for the second dyeing. Sometimes this is accomplished by boiling out all the wax and re-waxing the entire cloth, but sometimes it involves scraping certain areas and adding wax to others. The dyeing and re-waxing process is then repeated as many times as is necessary to produce the number of colors required.
Dragons and clouds: At one time, the designs cataloged numbered over 1,000, and the regional styles numbered more than 20, primarily in central Java (Yogya and Solo) and along the northern coast. In central Java, batik-making was the preserve of aristocratic women, whereas on the north coast, it was an industry pursued by Chinese, Arab and even by Dutch artisans.
The differences in coloring and design were considerable. In central Java, certain motifs where set aside exclusively for the court and members of the aristocracy. There included kawung (large ovals arranged in fours like leaves of a clover), ceplok (an eight-pointed flower motif deriving from the Indian patola), sawit or garuda wings (of a mythical Hindu bird), and the parang rusak barong, or broken sword motif, that consists of diagonal rows of interlocking scrolls.
Two primary colors were used, indigo and soga, a brown dye obtained from the bark of a tree. These came in many shades, and elaborate dye recipes called for the addition of substances like palm sugar, bananas, fermented cassava and chicken meat.
On the north coast, yellows, mauves, ochres, greens and pale blues were more popular, showing Chinese, European, and Islamic influence. In Cirebon, a Chinese clouds motif that symbolizes mythical energy was incorporated in all of the courtly batik designs. In one of the most famous motifs, the mega mendung, or menacing rain clouds, they appear in bright contrasting shades of red, blue, pink or green, like some supernatural storm.
Chinese dragons and phoenixes appeared together with Hindu naga and elephants and European lions, and some central Javanese motifs where executed in uncharacteristically bright colors. The most popular designs were of European origin, however: bouquets of flowers with hovering hummingbirds, or elegant, long-legged storks and herons.
It is fair to say that at the turn of the century, everyone in Java wore batik. The advent of batik cap (batik produced with the use of a stamp, the cap) revitalized the industry during the 1890's as even the peasants were then able to afford this cruder, mass-produced product. Batik was also widely exported from Java to other islands.