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24. Batik – The Asian Sewist Collective Podcast
Patterns & Designers mentioned
Dawn Jeans (4 in 1!) Pattern by Megan Nielsen Patterns
The Basque Dress by Stitch Witch Patterns
Sundanese people, Wikipedia
Selection and Preparation of the Cloth for Batik, Batik Indonesia
Brief History of Batik, Hari Batik Nasional 2018, PPI Australia Official on YouTube
How to Make Batik Tulis, Batik Cap & Batik Printing, Adib Fahri on YouTube
Indonesian Batik, Textile Research Centre
Batik Motifs, Google Arts & Culture
Batik Kawung, Wikipedia
Batik parang, Wikipedia
Batik Megamendung, Wikipedia
Batik Motifs, Google Arts & Culture
Batik: A cultural dilemma of infatuation and appreciation, The Jakarta Post
The Art of Batik, Full Moon Loom
“This is cultural appropriation, Batik is a cultural product…”, Herman Saksono on Twitter
Here’s How You Spot the Real Fake Batik, aNERDgallery
Trading Hands & Trade Secrets: A Batik Collaboration, Leesa Hubbell on Robert Kaufman
About Lunn Fabrics, Debra Lunn & Michael Mrowka, Lunn Fabrics
Batik After 10 Years of World Recognition, Bianca Adriennawati on Medium
Ada: It’s not even that it’s like, all the parts that need to be serged or serge. It’s just the fact that I think I have to make like, 10 buttonholes now, on my machine. And I tried to make the first one by hand, and then I was like, fuck it, I’m just going to tack the buttons on so I can see if I could get away with less buttons. You can’t, no, no, turns out, no. Welcome to the Asian Sewist Collective podcast. The Asian Sewist Collective is a group of Asian people from around the world brought together by our shared appreciation for fibre and textile arts, and our desire to see more Asian representation in the sewing community.
Nicole: In this podcast, we explore the intersection of our identities, and our shared sewing practice as we create a space for Asian sewists and our allies.
Ada: I’m your cohost, Ada Chen, and I’m recording from Denver, Colorado. Denver is the traditional territory of the US, Cheyenne and Arapaho peoples. I’m a Taiwanese American marketer turned entrepreneur and these days you’ll find me running my own natural skincare business called Chuan’s Promise, that’s C-H-U-A-N-apostrophe-S promise, and sharing my marketing tips on my blog. Most importantly, for this podcast, you can find my sewing at @i.hope.sew on Instagram,
Nicole: And I’m your cohost, Nicole. I’m based outside of Chicago, the original homeland of the Council of the Three Fires, the Ojibwe, the Potawatomi, and the Odawa people. I’m a Filipinx-American woman, a lawyer by day and a sewing enthusiast the rest of the time. You can find me on Instagram at @nicoleangelinesews. Before we get started, I just want to acknowledge that I appear to have been pronouncing Potawatomi incorrectly for the last couple of seasons, and I apologize. I grew up hearing it as Potawatomi [PAH-tah-wah-toe-mee] and for some reason I changed it to Potawatomi [PAH-toh-wah-TOE-mee]. I imagine I did look into it, and it wasn’t just a decision that I made, but after some review, Potawatomi [PAH-tah-wah-toe-mee] is the correct, even though Anglicised way to pronounce that name of that tribe. Potawatomi [BOH-duh-way-WAH-doe-mee] is how we would, how it would be pronounced in Potawatomi. Anyway, I just want to apologize for getting that incorrect.
Ada: Welcome back for season three. Before we dive into this week’s episode, Nicole, can you tell us about your current sewing project?
Nicole: I can. For those of you who are watching on YouTube, you can see this work in progress behind me. I am working on the Stitch Witch Basque sleeveless top. The Basque dress comes in a top and a dress version and has sleeveless and sleeved versions. This is a sleeveless version behind me. And, my podcast friends and some of you listeners might know that my grandpa passed away last week at the time of this recording. And after he passed, I wanted to try to make something for the funeral. Not because I felt like I needed something new for the funeral, but it’s just how I wanted to spend my time. I wanted to be by myself, wanted to be my my sewing machine, doing something with my hands. It could have been anything, but I just wanted to make a top. So, I finished everything but the buttons, and then I tried it on. And, whoops, it was too small, unfortunately, when I tried it on. I was like…
Nicole: I know, I know. I should have measured myself, I didn’t. I went on my measurements from like, a month ago. But, about a month ago, family came into town from Australia just to be with my grandpa in his last days. And that meant a lot of food. So it’s kind of like, I probably should have measured myself, but it’s fine, it’s fine. I did deconstruct it to loosen the side seams and then the back seam to give it a little bit more like, extra. It might still be too small, but it’s all right, there’s someone in my family who can have it. What I really wanted to do was add terno sleeves…
Nicole: …To this top, because it’s already designed to have puff sleeves, like, added on to it, so the armscye’s already designed for that. And I wanted to be able to do all of that, but it just didn’t work out. I’m still going to work on it and make the terno sleeves, but I might wear to a work gala? I don’t know. We’ll see. We’ll see. It’s actually silk from the AIBI – the Apparel Industry Board Incorporated – fabric sale that Ko-fi subscribers will have seen my haul from. And there’s like, an acetate lining in there, which I don’t know where I got it from, but it’s all black and super luxe feeling. Like, when I put it on even though didn’t fit, it felt really good. But if it works, it works. If it doesn’t, I’ll just size up next time. What are you working on, Ada?
Ada: Well, first of all, I’m sorry about your grandpa. I know we’ve talked a bit about this offline, but I definitely relate to the… When you’re in the, probably, depths of grief, just wanting to be alone with your machine. And I too, was sewing lots of black garments. It was… It was weird. I don’t think everybody grieves the same way, but I do think that sewing offers that nice respite, I think, from having to actively engage with other people. You asked what I was sewing. I, like you, made something that I had made or cut out I guess based on measurements from a while ago and I still haven’t tried it on so I can’t tell you if it is too small or too big. I’m guessing it’s just right or too small? But I made the Megan Nielsen Dawn jeans, view D, so the shorts version, and they’re kind of, like, a high to mid rise waisted jean or rough denim, I guess, stiffer fabric, bottom weight pant. And, this is my first jeans pattern, I did not do the button fly or the zipper… I didn’t do any fly. I mean, I made the fly, I tacked it on but I was like, I’m not going to install this, for a toile I’m not wearing outta the house. Like, it’s made from a remnant and some scraps, so it was purely for fit, just to see in a non-stretch, rigid, thicker fabric, how that would work. And yeah, it’s sitting on my table, it’s done… But I haven’t tried it on. And I think I cut it out, it was been in my work in progress or queue or pile or whatever you want to call it, next to my sewing space for probably about over a year at this point. It was a project that I definitely cut out in the depths of grief being like, I’ll make some grief jeans. And here we are.
Nicole: Yeah, well, it’s, uh… People often say it’s about the process, right? It’s not the finished product. I’ll be honest, it’s about the finished product for me. Like, uh, I do want to be able to wear this. But, you know, in these instances, it’s like, what, you know, your jeans, the shirt… It’s what the process was able to give to us when we needed it, so I think that’s really cool.
Ada: So, welcome to another episode where we’re going to do a deep dive into a specific textile and today’s going to be all about batik fabric. Our loyal listeners know this already, but in case you didn’t know, we’ve covered other textiles and fabrics in detail in previous episodes. So, in season one, episode eight, we covered all you need to know about silk and how to incorporate it into your sewing practice.
Nicole: It was a good episode, I remember, and I learned a lot. But you’ve heard me say a million times that I’ve learned lots of new things while on the podcast. But in season two, episodes 13 and 14, we talked about being mindful when selecting fabrics to sew with. So, we spent a good portion of those episodes diving into mainstream fabrics and their characteristics. So, you can find all of those episodes in the same podcast app wherever you’re listening to us right now.
Ada: So let’s get started on batik! Batik is a technique used to decorate cloth using a combination of paraffin, which is a type of wax, beeswax and resin, and then obviously, dye. The hot wax is applied to select areas of the cloth and then dye is applied on top of the cloth. And the parts of the cloth that are covered in wax end up resisting the dye and remaining in the cloth’s original color. This technique can also be called wax resist dyeing. And simple batik might just use one layer of wax and dye, but the process I just explained can be repeated as many times as you need in order to create different elaborate and colorful designs, so it’s kind of like, layering. And depending on the wax mixture and how it’s applied, the outcome on the fabric can be totally different.
Nicole: Batik is an ancient technique of dyeing fabric, which hails from Java, Indonesia, and evolved from Indian fabrics. FYI, Indonesia’s capital city, Jakarta, is on Java’s northwestern coast. So, Northwest is here for me, there for the listeners, in case you’re trying to get your bearings. And there are records that suggest that this wax resist dyeing technique goes all the way back to the sixth or seventh century, although it’s not exactly clear within Javanese history when this process came into being. We found an article that states Gujarati traders, i.e. traders from Gujarat in India, brought resist dyed clothes to Java in the sixth century that evolved into batik. And, then there is an ancient Sundanese manuscript out there that claims Sundanese people have known about the batik techniques since the 12th century. The Sundanese are a Southeast Asian ethnic group, native to the west part of Java. They are Indonesia’s second most populous ethnic group, second to the Javanese people.
Ada: Side note, did you know that there are 1,340 recognized ethnic groups in Indonesia?
Ada: Right, mind blown. But given that Indonesia consists of over 17,000 islands, it’s not that far of a stretch. And some of you might be wondering why Nicole and I are pronouncing it as BAH-tick instead of bah-TEAK, or buh-TEAK. The latter is just another instance of a foreign word being westernized or anglicized, kind of like Nicole mentioned earlier in this episode, and the word batik is Javanese in origin, Javanese being a language spoken by the Javanese people from central and eastern parts of Java. Batik may come from the Javanese word amba, which means to write, and titik, which means to draw or make a dot. Apologies if I have butchered those pronunciations, we have looked up many Google Translate and YouTube videos. Another word that batik could originate from would be batikan, which means drawing or writing in Javanese.
Nicole: I don’t know any Javanese or Indonesian, but whenever I heard it, like, let’s say I’m watching a movie, and I’m thinking of like, martial arts movie, Iko Uwais, but it always struck me as very similar sounding to Tagalog, which is the language, national language in the Philippines. It’s not really the words, it’s the pronunciation, it’s the sound of the language, just the pacing of the words. And, I felt like, when we were preparing for this episode, the word batikan was also a Tagalog word, and I wasn’t sure why. So, this is just a side note for anyone that’s interested in listening about it, but I texted my mom. I was like, mom, is batikan a Tagalog word? And she’s like, yeah, it means to be famous, or to be well known. Yeah, I was like, whoa, languages, y’all! But, so you know, in pronunciation, it makes sense to me that BAH-tick is probably the closest to the original pronunciation. And based on how some of the other Javanese words that we’re going to be pronouncing today, my guess is that they use mostly short sounds. So, it makes sense to me that BAH-tick is probably the closest accurate pronunciation. And based on how we’re pronouncing some of the other Indonesian words, my guess is that they mostly use short vowels like they do in Tagalog. I think it’s the same in Spanish too. So you have your, AH, EH, EE, OH, and OO, instead of, A E, I, O and U. So batik would be BAH-tick and not bah-TEAK. I’m definitely not an ethnolinguist, so it’s just an observation, I thought it was cool. But I guess, all you need to know is that we, here, at the Asian Sewist Collective, try our best to provide pronunciations according to the language it was written in. Let’s get us back on track. And it’s interesting to see how prevalent batik is in different cultures. There are three main techniques that we’ll cover shortly, but you can see regional differences in how the wax resist dyeing technique is done by the Javanese, the Sundanese, Malay and Balinese people. There are also cultural and religious differences and how batik is done. In our research for this episode, we saw evidence of native Indonesian, Hindu, Islamic, Chinese, Indian and Japanese influences in the use of batik even if it’s referred to by a different name. If you’d like to see examples of what batik dyed cloth looked like in different cultures, check out this YouTube video that will link to in our show notes called, A Brief History of Batik.
Ada: And Nicole, before we dive into the nitty gritty on how batik is made, I remember that during our episode planning and our season planning, you mentioned something along the lines of not wanting to claim that batik was created by and fully owned by Asian folks. Do you want to dig into that a little bit?
Nicole: Yeah, yeah. So a short disclaimer, before I start talking about this perspective that I thought about. We weren’t able to find clear cut evidence to fact check the Wikipedia page on batik. Surprise, we all know how, you know, reliable community generated content can be. So I invite you to you know, go down your own research rabbit hole and take a look at what we’re about to say and you know, draw your conclusions from it. Modern History suggests that the Dutch introduced batik to Africa, especially in South Africa. However, it seems that batik was practiced in Africa long before the colonizers showed up. In fact, the art of batik is traditional to many indigenous groups across the globe, although the technique itself may be referred to by a different name. In Egypt, batik-like material was used to embalm and wrap mummies. Samples of batik had been found in Egyptian mummies from as far back as the fourth century BCE. Then, the Yoruba tribe in Nigeria use wax resist dyeing techniques to make cloth as well. In lieu of wax, they use cassava starch, rice and other ingredients boiled together to create a smooth and thick paste. Other ethnic groups in Senegal and Mali also produced similar cloth using rice paste and mud respectively. So while the fabric we’re discussing today batik hails from Indonesia, it’s probable that the process of using wax resist dying is a part of other cultures all around the world. And this might be a crude analogy, but the boat wasn’t invented by any one people and then spread around the world, people kind of figured it out based on what they had, and what their needs were. So I don’t think it’s too far fetched that, you know, wax resist dyeing, or a similar process occurred in other parts of the world. We just are covering more information about Indonesia today. So, in any event, the word batik as we’re using it is associated with the specific process we’re going to be talking about today.
Ada: Yeah, when you brought up cassava starch and rice, I’m like, oh, those are ingredients in a lot of Asian cultures as well, and so, who knows? I love learning about history, I’m a huge history nerd, social studies and history used to be some of my favorite subjects in school. And I don’t think I am overstepping if I say that you and I are not claiming batik fabrics, and we’re not Indonesian. And I wanted to just point out that it was white colonizers who sought to change the narrative around this, and many other textiles and techniques, like, that’s a whole separate bunch of episodes. But this dates back a couple hundred years. And in present day, I don’t know if I’m overanalyzing it or not, but it feels like another place where currently white supremacy is trying to drive a wedge between people of color. Like, if we look at who owns the IP for a lot of wax print designs, especially the very popular ones, where it’s produced and who’s consuming it. I think it’s important to point out that this wedge, which you know, applies outside of fabric and sewing, basically pits different groups against each other, and that only benefits our shared oppressor, because it makes it more difficult for marginalized groups to come together against that oppression. So, back to textiles and sewing. How does one make batik textiles? Well, there are a few methods but batik starts the same way. Natural materials such as cotton or silk are used so that the fabric can absorb the wax that is applied in the dye resist process. This fabric has to have a high thread count, i.e. a dense weave, so that the intricate design qualities of batik will show up properly on the fabric. If you think about it, the tight weave ensures that the wax also just doesn’t fall through the fabric like a sieve or strainer and actually like, sticks to and resists the day. Once the right fabric is selected, the piece of cloth is washed and boiled. In some cases this is repeated many times before applying the resist to remove all traces of starches and anything else like lime or chalk that might interfere with the dyeing process but might be left on the fabric from the weaving process. Similar to the process of scouring before dyeing, if you’re dyeing fabric at home nowadays, you want the class to be completely clean so it can better accept the dye. Back in the day, cotton and silk making processes would create these additives and fabrics so the washing and boiling would remove them to prep it for dyeing. And then after all that washing and boiling, the cloth is pounded with a wooden mallet or iron to ensure that it’s smooth and supple, which facilitates the dyeing process because you don’t want to be dyeing something wrinkly. And in our research we found that with modern machine made cotton textiles, the finer stuff doesn’t really need all of that pounding and ironing versus like, a traditionally made fabric that might have needed it because they would have been less malleable, they would have been a little more stiff. Strict industry standards dictate the quality of cloth used in this process. And the cloth quality is often written on the edge of the design, like, you can see it along the selvedge.
Nicole: Well, after all that now comes the fun part. Patterns are drawn on the cloth with pencil and then later redrawn using hot wax, which is usually a mixture of paraffin or beeswax with plant resin, which as we said earlier, functions as a dye resist. This mixture is called malam. It’s the tools that are used to apply the resist which gives rise to the different techniques. There’s batik tulis, considered to be the most traditional method of batik. A pen like instrument called a canting is used to draw patterns with the resist. Canting means a sprouted bowl. A canting is made up of a small copper reservoir with a spout on a wooden handle. The resist is poured into the reservoir and comes out of the spout to form dots and lines of the cloth. Batik tulis creates intricate and beautiful patterns that are finer than the other two methods that we’re about to cover. To cover large surface areas, a stamp called a cap may be used instead. So this technique is called batik cap. The stamp is made of copper and usually measures at least 20 by 20 centimeters, and a brush can also be used to cover large areas efficiently. This is called batik lukis or painted batik.
Ada: The cloth must be drawn on both sides of the fabric and dipped in a dye bath multiple times, as many times as you need to get the colors of the fabric right. And once the dyed cloth is dried, the resist is removed by boiling and scraping the cloth because again, it’s a mixture of wax and resin. And then the areas that were covered by the resist will keep their original color. The results are pretty amazing. If you’ve seen batik in person, which I’ve just… A handful of times from far away, it’s like, kind of harder to tell, but up close you can see that it is truly a unique process and unlike quote unquote fake handmade printing done digitally and then printed onto fabric, there’s unique variations, right, throughout the design that you can see when you look at it up close.
Nicole: And we’ll talk about the difference between like digitally printed and painted and what some of the opinions are on that later on. But with regards to creating the batik itself, I love how specific the technique is and how individual the results are. And one day, I do hope to see artisans actually making batik and, on a travel jaunt somewhere, I think that would be really cool. As you can imagine, batik textiles play a huge part in the entire lives of people in Indonesia. It shows up a lot around pregnancy and birth. During the seventh month of pregnancy, an event is held where the mother must try on seven batik cloths, each with motifs that represent good wishes for the child. After the child is born, they are often carried in batik slings that are also decorated with symbols to bring the child luck. Then at the other book end of life, the dead are shrouded in batik cloth befitting the occasion as well. Motifs used in this occasion symbolizes hope that spirits will have an easy and smooth journey on their way to God.
Ada: In between those two events, people regularly wear clothes made of batik textiles and everyday designs in business and academic settings. Batik has seen a resurgence in popularity, especially after its UNESCO designation, which we’re going to talk about in a moment. Special varieties of batik textiles are incorporated into garments for marriage. There are certain batik designs that are reserved for brides and bridegrooms, often symbolizing and wishing for harmonious marriages, good luck, happiness and children.
Nicole: Batik also shows up in puppet theatre, traditional dance and other art forms. For instance, different styles of cloth make up traditional costumes of Javanese dance. And last but not least, batik garments form the traditional costume of the royal palace. Some of these royal garments are used in certain rituals such as the ceremonial casting of royal batik garments into a volcano to prevent eruptions. Motifs play an important part in batik design. For example, motifs are used to signify the nobility and rank of the wearer in royal garments. Motifs have two main categories, geometric and nongeometric. They also tend to be geographically specific, either influenced by traditional patterns from the area or by neighboring countries. I’ll do my best to describe what they look like, but I highly recommend you Google these motifs as they are highly fascinating and beautiful. You can also find some photos of the motifs in the links in our show notes. I’ll start off with some Indonesian motifs. There’s Kawung, a native Indonesian design, which is made up of circles that are neatly arranged geometrically. The circles are supposed to be similar to a Kawung fruit, which is a type of palm fruit and seen as a representation of authority in Javanese society. The Kawung motif can be interpreted to mean power, justice, or even perfection and purity. It was also formerly used only by the Javanese royal family. Another Indonesian motif is a Parang it looks like a letter S that is elongated and repeated side by side arranged in rows sloping 45 degrees. This shape is taken from ocean waves depicting a spirit that never goes out. The arrangement of the letter S intertwining with no breaks symbolizes continuity. This means the motif depicts strength and never giving up. And unsurprisingly, batiks with this motif are also worn exclusively by the royal family.
Ada: There are also some Hindu-Buddhist motifs out there too. There’s a Garuda or Sawa, which features diamond shapes surrounded by several bird wings. This motif represents the mythical bird Garuda in Hindu and Buddhist mythology, and it’s a symbol of power, force and speed. Floral motifs are also used in conjunction with curves, color and looser lines. The lotus blossom is frequently featured as it is considered sacred in Hindu-Buddhist belief systems. Other flowers that are also commonly depicted are the frangipani, hibiscus and lilies.
Nicole: Other notable motifs include the Megamendung, this originates from Cirebon in West Java but is a Chinese-influenced motif made up of clouds. Originally it has seven color gradations blues interspersed with shades of red, and it’s meant to symbolize patience. There’s a lot of motifs out there, but I’ll wrap up our list with ceplok and nitik. Ceplok is a generic name of a whole series of geometric designs based on squares, rhombuses, circles, stars and so on. Nitik comes from the word tik, which we said earlier, means dot. Nitik features a delicate combination of dots and small lines which imitates woven fabric. It’s inspired by woven patola clothes brought by Gujarati traders in the 13th century.
Ada: It’s not really a surprise that Indonesian batik was added to UNESCO’s Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity list in 2009 when Indonesian batik plays such a huge part in religion, culture and the everyday lives of folks who live in that country. Indonesian Baltbatikic is internationally recognized as a historical fabric of human civilization. UNESCO, if you don’t know, stands for the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization. They aim to promote world peace and security through international cooperation in education, arts, sciences and culture. So by including Indonesian batik on their list, UNESCO essentially wants to promote awareness and visibility of this heritage, both nationally and worldwide, especially so that batik can continue to live on through younger and subsequent generations.
Nicole: So we talked about how biotech is done by hand. But nowadays you can also find batik that’s printed or factory made. There’s some controversy about these kinds of batik. In an article by The Jakarta Post that’s in our show notes, an owner of a major batik business in Indonesia argues that what makes batik is its pattern, and that digital printing is merely the practice of batik that we previously described evolving over time. And on the flip side, a major Indonesian designer, Era Soekamto, who is the creative director for Iwan Tirta, says that factory made batik is valid so long as it preserves the methods of canting, drawing and wax processing. In case you didn’t know, Iwan Tirta was an Indonesian batik designer and huge advocate for Indonesian and Javanese culture, and is often described as a batik maestro. Era acknowledges that factory made batik can lower its price so that everyone can wear it, but again mentions its practices have to be preserved in a particular way.
Ada: Another concern about modern batik, I’m using batik in quotes, is how much of it is actually imported into Indonesia. And that’s a growing concern too, because the value of imported batik has increased by 24.1% from 2014 to 2015. Now that was a few years ago, but it’s estimated to be worth over $20 million in US dollars annually. And imported batik is such a hit because demand far exceeds the number of artisans who can generate batik for folks to consume. If you think about that whole process, it is a pretty time consuming and labor intensive process to create batik. In that same Jakarta Post article, various experts and artisans discuss this dilemma and the need to produce batik at a larger volume. Ultimately, though, handmade batik made into a garment can be extremely costly, and mass produced batik that we see nowadays can push clothing pricing down to an affordable 250,000 to 450,000 Indonesian Rupiah, which is about 15 to 30 dollars US. That’s not insignificant considering the average wages and standards of living in Indonesia.
Nicole: Ada, it’s funny you should say that demand for batik surpasses whatever supply local artisans can make because some of it is being exported. The US is a major importer of batik, importing about 37% of all traditional batik, and this amount is growing. The numbers we found in our research, like Ada said, are a little outdated, but batik exports went from 22 million US dollars in 2010 to 340 million US dollars in 2014. Although I do want to point out that India, Malaysia, Singapore, China and Sri Lanka are also part of these numbers. They produce and export batik fabric as well. Other countries that consume a good deal of batik include South Korea, Japan, Germany, Britain and the Netherlands.
Ada: It seems that the delicate and beautiful batik fabric is loved by many people of many cultures. So I can already hear some of you asking, how does cultural appropriation play into batik? And this is going to be kind of difficult for Nicole and I to answer, because we are not from cultures that primarily claim this textile as part of their heritage, and we’re not here to do the work for you, as we’ve said before on this podcast. But because wax resist dyeing itself is a technique commonly used across so many cultures, it’s kind of hard to say. It was also hard for us to find anything during our research for this episode that would give us real conviction in saying things like, yes, if you’re not Javanese, you can’t use it. A lot of it’s quite gray. For instance, we found a Twitter thread where China Xinhua News, a Chinese state-affiliated media outlet, posted a video with English text stating that batik is a traditional craft common among ethnic groups in China. There was no mention of Javanese people or culture. However, I do want to point out that the Chinese word for wax resist dyeing, 蜡染 “la ran”, 蜡 “la” as in like wax of a wax candle or wax you would use in wax resist dyeing, and 染 “ran” like, dyeing of fabric or dyeing your hair, translates into “batik” in Google Translate. So, it may have been a case of something being lost in translation. And remember, as we said earlier, similarly dyed textiles have also been seen throughout Chinese history and other cultures’ histories. Though, this being a tweet from Chinese state media, I can see it being one of those things where they totally claim to inflate… Claim something, right, like, something cultural to inflate their own sense of cultural worth, which is basically misinformation. And it does appear that batik is kind of the default term for similar techniques in English, so, again, possibility that this term was mistranslated. Translations are done by humans and then inputted into computers and things like Google Translate. So, instead of deep diving on that, if you are dead certain that you must have batik fabric, we invite you to sit with it and do your own research. Think about your position in society compared to the people whose cultures or where batik hails from. And think about those people and who’s profiting from this entire ordeal. You’ve heard us say it a lot, and we sound definitely like a broken record at this point. And don’t bother your friends who descend from cultures that have created batik, unless you have that kind of relationship with them already. But don’t come at us in our DMs and ask us to be your cultural appropriation judges.
Nicole: Yeah, please don’t be that person. If you still want to buy batik fabric, and I don’t blame you, the real thing is gorgeous, as far as I can tell, I have not held it myself. But you should do it right. So in your search for batik, just a quick Google search, you’ve probably come across Robert Kaufman batik fabrics. So let’s pause for a little bit to talk about that. According to an article on their website, which we’ll include in our show notes, their, quote, one of a kind artisan batiks are produced on the island of Java in Indonesia by skilled dye masters. However, as we dug into this article, some more, some red flags popped up. And these batik fabrics are a result of a collaboration between Robert Kaufman and Lunn Fabrics. The founders of Lunn Fabrics who are a white couple, were sent to Solo, a city in Java in 2003, to learn about batik, which at that time they had never done before. The article claims that, quote, the complex layers of stamped wax pattern and mottled color were easily deconstructed by this couple who thoroughly understand the concept of resists and who can think in dyes. Yikes, uh…
Nicole: It feels a little weird. Yeah, to say that out loud, you know, and to be explicit about saying that, two people who are completely new to batik can come in and pick up a practice that has been going on for several centuries. I think, don’t be that person that devalues this UNESCO world heritage practice by saying that it was simple, and we’ve never done it, but we could totally figure it out.
Ada: Right? This is not the place for that kind of attitude. Here’s another cringy line from that article. Quote, already acclimated to the high humidity and the intensely polite social manner of the Solonese, and with plenty of talented Javanese asking to work with them, the Lunns were perfectly poised to jumpstart Artisan Batiks with Robert Kaufman, end quote. Not really sure where the humility and politeness of local folks has to do with anything, and I just feel like this was a lot of cringy centering of whiteness here, rather than letting the work of the local artisans and experts speak for themselves. And here’s another problematic quote that makes me feel like the culture from which batik hails from is being erased. Quote, in solo, the Lunns encountered interesting problems, like how to train their Javanese collaborators to see what they see and to think critically about quality, end quote. Yikes. I mean, it feels like they’re just implying, like, anything that comes from Asia is not, could not have like, high quality.
Nicole: If you don’t listen to us on YouTube, you should, because my face is getting frozen and like, the same instinctual, like, grossed out face while you’re talking, Ada. I think the centering of whiteness is, is really gross, like, the idea that people were clamoring to work with them. It brings up an image of people of color, like, laying themselves down at the feet of these white folks who are teaching them how to do their own craft. Like, that’s, that’s the imagery that I get. And these aren’t words that we wrote, these are the words that they’re using to promote their batiks and I am thoroughly grossed out by it.
Ada: Yeah, the whole article, if you read it. I mean, I will say the article is a few years old, but still, it… When you read it, it feels really white saviour-y to me, like, oh, we went on a missions trip and saved all the people, like, getting a little bit of that vibe here. And I guess I’m like, wondering, are Robert Kaufman and the Lunns paying these Javanese artisans a fair wage? Like, what is this batik that they’re producing, like as well? Are they cutting corners somewhere because they realize how expensive it is to produce real traditional batik? Listeners, if any of you have purchased Robert Kaufman batik, hit us up, let us know what the quality is like, send us some pictures. Those we will gladly accept in our DMs.
Nicole: Yeah, please. I do want to, you know, know from folks who have purchased the batiks and if you’ve had any experience with it. And Ada, to your point about fair wages, our researcher for this episode found some information on the Lunns’ website. They claim that they are protecting the health of their batik workers and improving their quality of living through various practices which includes health care for employees and their family, an extra month’s bonus pay each year, maternity leave for women and an incentive bonus for productivity and good quality. It also says that the Lunns created the Ganesa Study Center, a nonprofit free lending library in Central Java. 5% of all Lunn Fabrics sales goes towards supporting this library.
Ada: That’s good to hear. Although, of course, we don’t really have more than just their word to go on here, right? Like, I would want more details on like, how long their mat leave is, is it paid? And what is this incentive bonus? And to actually hear from the workers themselves about how working for the Lunns compares to working elsewhere.
Nicole: Yeah, in circumstances where a company is profiting off of the culture and technique of a culture that is not their own, like, transparency to me is really important. I really want to know what that company is doing. But anyway, let’s go back to the topic of buying batik. And many of us will probably ask, how do I find good quality and authentic batik? You should start by looking at the budget closely yourself, if you can, such as you know, you can go in person, we have our internet shopping these days, but you know, if you can see in person, here are some things to look for. No real batik is perfect. You will most certainly see misaligned dots, uneven line thickness, opacity, color, bleeding in certain spots and wax residue on the cloth. And it’s what to expect when someone’s drawing on cloth with a canting. But it’s that organic appearance that gives the fabric its cultural significance and value. The color scheme of batik can also help you determine if what you’re looking at is the real deal. Handmade batik uses natural dyes made from leaves and flowers, which results in batik having a range of earth tones as opposed to the brighter and vibrant and larger variety of colors in printed batik. So traditionally made batik that resembles the color of soil is sometimes called batik sogan.
Ada: Another telltale sign is by checking out the underside of the batik. Printed batik mass produced via machine would have an obvious reverse side with faded colors, kind of like when you turn over printed quilting cotton because only one side of the fabric is getting printed with the textile printer. Most of the time, especially with batik tulis, the wax mixture is drawn on both sides prior to hand dyeing the fabric, but some batik is only waxed on one side and the wax mixture may not penetrate through to the other side. Like I said, most of these fabrics are dense, heavy weaves. So this criteria can get a little tricky. Some of the Indonesian batik cities with established batik workshops may have labels with registration numbers attached to every cloth or apparel, which would indicate certified authentic batik. Now many of the things we have kind of advised you to look out for will probably be difficult to do online just based off of pictures so if anyone would like to share online stores known to carry authentic traditionally made batik, please DM us on Instagram or shoot us an email. We will add them to our website and our show notes.
Nicole: Yes, please. I would love to have my first foray into batik be somebody that is authentic and ethically sourced. So I’ll take all the recommendations, thank you very much. Also listeners, if in your research, you find anything more about wax print making it in Africa before Dutch colonizers introduced it there, feel free to hit us up and start a discussion. I’ll definitely be looking into it more after we’re done today.
Ada: Thank you so much for joining us on this week’s episode of the Asian Sewist Collective podcast. If you like our show, please consider supporting us on Ko-fi. Your financial support helps us with overhead expenses and allows us to give back to our all volunteer team. You can make a monthly or one time donation at ko-fi.com/asiansewistcollective. You can find this link in our show notes, on our website and on our Instagram account. Check us out on Instagram at @asiansewistcollective That’s one word, asiansewistcollective. YUou can also help us out by spreading the word and telling your friends. We would appreciate it if you could rate, review and subscribe to this podcast on Apple Podcast, Google Podcasts, Pocket Casts or wherever you get your podcast.
Nicole: All of the links and resources mentioned in today’s episode will be in the show notes on our website. That’s asiansewistcollective..com. And we’d love to hear from you. Email us with your questions, comments or even voice messages if you want to be featured on future episodes at email@example.com. This episode was brought to you by your cohosts Ada Chen and Nicole Angeline. This episode was researched by Aarti Ravi, produced by Mariko Abe, and edited by Sareena Granger and Henry Wong. Thank you so much to the other members of our collective who made this week’s episode a reality. This is the Asian Sewist Collective podcast and we’ll see you next week.