Friday, January 22, 2016

Batik, Indonesia's national treasure

Batik is Indonesia’s traditional fabric craft, one of Indonesia's national treasures and prides, and a UNESCO-designated Masterpiece of Oral and Intangible Heritage of Humanity. Walking down Yogyakarta's Malioboro Street, all manner of batik souvenirs line the street - shirts, bags, pouches, wallets - filled with intricate patterns and a riot of colour.

On a typically sunny Indonesian morning, I'm on the back of an ojek (a motorcycle taxi) and winding through busy streets to go learn how batik is made. Batik Winotosastro is one of Yogyakarta's oldest batik factories and I'm there to have a go at creating some myself.

The first thing that strikes me about Winotosastro is how organised everything is - this is clearly a place which manufactures a lot of batik and has their workflow down to a fine art. Batik at Winotosastro is all about intricate, fine, beautiful patterns, and lots of stamping to get the most perfect result every time.

There's a shelf full of metal stamps with patterns from florals to peacocks to tigers and geometric beauties, both for the border outline and the inner main pattern. The stamps are heavy metal, and after choosing my patterns I take them to a workstation, where - much to my surprise - it is a worker who helps me perfectly place my stamps in a perfect square border around the edge of my fabric.

The stamps are loaded with hot wax from a heavy but shallow iron bowl, and then it is simply a matter of perfect alignment and making sure that the wax is heavy enough to penetrate the fabric on both sides. This is why a worker helps you with the outline - because a perfect outline is difficult to accomplish and the wax must be even. A trained eye knows exactly how to navigate the corners so that they are placed at perfect 45° angle to each other, how to ensure that the lines are straight, and that the rough edges between stampings look seamless.

Once the wax is placed, it is very difficult to change the pattern. A friend calls batik a lesson in going with the flow - it might not turn out exactly as we want it to, so all we can do is to work with whatever happens.

After the outline comes my turn at having fun. I get to play with placing the stamps - tigers and peacocks, in my case. My shaking hands are guided by a worker who helps me place them properly, then I count to 3 to ensure the wax penetrates both sides of the fabric, and when I lift the stamp off there has been a perfect wax print on the fabric. It's art class on easy mode, and even I - with less artistic talent than a sea cucumber - can see that this is going to turn out just fine.

Then comes the nervewrecking bit, when I'm asked to personalise and customise the batik with a personal quote or my name. I'm bad at this part - I always want to have a perfect quote on something so final, and nothing comes immediately to mind, so just having finished reading The Hobbit the day before Tolkien is on my mind. Google, of course, is ready to help.
Still round the corner there may wait
A new road or a secret gate,
And though I oft have passed them by,
A day will come at last when I
Shall take the hidden paths that run
West of the Moon, East of the Sun.
It seems fitting, travelling, to use a Tolkien walking song.

Although my handwriting is scrawny and looks terrible, and I've erased several versions of my personalised quote already, the artisan who uses a canting pen to fill in my pencil with wax somehow manages to make it all look not just nice but even good.

My own practice attempt at using the canting, on the other hand, is a right mess, with wax spilling all over my practice cloth. No wonder they get the professionals to fill in words for you and fix any mistakes. 

At Winotosastro, they use chemical dyes to achieve brilliant colour; the deep blue colour I've chosen goes through a few rounds of dyeing to achieve a beautifully rich navy.

After dyeing, the wax is removed with hot boiling water, which melts the wax clean off the fabric. It reveals the white colour underneath, and the hot wax is skimmed off the top of the water to be reused. The fabric goes through a few rounds of being plunged into boiling water and cold water to ensure that the dye has set and to remove any final traces of wax.

Finally, the batik is finished with a flat iron which quickly dries the fabric, and then hemming the edges with an old pedal-operated sewing machine. It has been an hour of watching the transformation from a plain piece of white fabric to my personalised design, and the speed with which everyone works amazes me.

The workshop was less hands-on than I'd expected - but the creation was mine, and now I have a little piece of Indonesia I can say was entirely hand made and my own.

This trip was sponsored by Yonderbound.

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