The Indonesian island of Java is the principal source of the brilliant textiles known as batiks. The terms batik derives from the Malay word meaning to draw with a broken dot or line and refers to the wax-resist process by which patterns are imposed on fabric. Many countries, especially in Asia, produce wax-resist textiles, but the Javanese have developed the most sophisticated method for executing the process. A liquefied wax compound is literally drawn on the surface of the cloth in order to keep either the pattern itself or the background areas from taking the dye. Each color thus requires separate application, leading to a multi-step production.
Although there are hints of earlier processes and textile types that perhaps led to batik, there is no evidence that the batik methods we know today are older than the early 19th century. The technique flourished in Java as a result of the introduction of fine imported cotton and the invention of the canting, an implement with a narrow tube fed from an attached reservoir for precise drawing with melted wax. Later in the 19th century, a further boost was given to production, though not to quality, with the development of the cap, a stamp for applying the wax resist much more expeditiously than drawing by hand. Some batik textiles combine both resist processes.
Traditionally, women have been the primary producers of batik. Dyeing, on the other hand, is a craft done by both men and women, though indigo-dyeing falls solely to men. The range of patterns, some identified by name, numbers well over a thousand. Javanese batik makers have always been open to a broad range of sources for their patterns and motifs: from local Javanese and Hindu works to Chinese, Arabic, and Western inspirations, including stories such as Cinderella and cartoons like Flash Gordon. Batik fabrics are mostly made into traditional garments such as sarongs (tubular skirts), skirt cloths, head scarves, shoulder cloths, and breast cloths. This display features a diverse selection of pattern and functional types, all from the museum's rich collection, along with materials that further explain the batik process.
Sarong (tiga negri), 20th century. Indonesia, Java. Gift of E. M. Bakwin Indonesian Textile Collection.