Image: Narrative Made for Confluence 20+ exhibition
Confluence 20+

Photofile: Indonesian Batik

Batik, the wax-resist dyeing of fabric, is an ancient art — one whose fundamental techniques date back to Egypt in the 4th Century, BCE. Over centuries of trade, the geometric and natural patterns used in batik design took on the local influence of Chinese, European, Indian, and Japanese cultures. Wherever the art took hold, one can find evidence of the seemingly endless identities and historical stories told through the colors, textures, and motifs of this fabled cloth.

But perhaps it’s Indonesia’s island of Java where batik has flourished most. Recognized in 2009 by UNESCO as a Masterpiece of Oral and Intangible Heritage of Humanity, Indonesian batik producers are carrying on the old traditions while, at the same time, exploring new ways to sustain them in the modern era.

Contributor Sharon de Lyster, founder of Hong Kong-based design studio Narrative Made, has partnered with SukkhaCitta, an Indonesian-based artisan-made clothing producer. Sharon has collected SukkhaCitta’s research notes and images into this photoessay of Javanese batik practitioners creating coastal batik at the Batik Tobal workshop in Pekalongan and in a family workshop in Jlamprang.

Indonesian Batik Workers
: Confluence 20+


The word ‘batik’ comes from the word ‘titik’ which, in Indonesian, means ‘a dot’. It’s said that, during the olden days, Batik was created only for personal use and ceremonial purposes. Demanding extreme delicacy and patience, the process itself involves hot wax applied with a ‘tjanting’ (a pen-like tool) to the cloth that will resist the dye.

Most hand-drawn Batik (‘batik tulis’) are made by women. They sit together in a small circle with a small steel pan where the wax is heated to keep it liquid. The wax itself is made using a combination of bees wax, pine wax, and paraffin — and the recipes differ from each workshop.

This particular design is inspired from the ‘Buketan’ motif that is iconic of Pekalongan. Eliza van Zuylen (1863 – 1947), a Batik artist from the Netherlands, first created the motifs inspired from European flower bouquets/arrangements. ‘Buketan’ motifs carry the history of European influence in the country.

Starting from an outline, batik artists skillfully trace the motifs with melted wax using a tjanting, then cover areas where the design needs to be undyed with more wax. Then colors are hand painted to achieve gradient effects before covering those parts with wax to avoid successive dyeing. The dyeing process allows a background color to penetrate the whole piece of fabric. Finally, the piece is boiled to remove the wax and then dried.

Batik Tobal was created in 1971 by the Kadir family in Pekalongan. Driven by a passion to share Batik’s beauty with the world, they created open-air spaces and sustainable water management – a rarity in the whole of Pekalongan.

Despite the growing popularity of Batik domestically, local batik workshops including Batik Tobal have had difficulties in evolving to cater to the modern international market. Unable to compete, almost 50% of their artisans lost employment.

Indonesian Batik — Detailed shot of application
: Confluence 20+


In a hilly mountain village in Jlamprang, a family-based community strives to build a livelihood with indigo growing and batik work.

Women in this community are relatively young and, hence, there is less understanding of the heritage of the craft which sometimes results in free-form artistic drawings within their batik work.

Farming is the main, albeit unstable, occupation for the broader community. It pays about USD$1 per day while, with proper capacity-building, batik work can provide 6 times that income. Currently the indigo batik workshop operates within a home, hosting up to 10 persons.

The ‘Sojourner’ Bandana

Made with home-grown indigo dye and hand-drawn batik. The ‘Sojourner’ Bandana’s design was inspired by the idea that local harvesters, instead of picking up dropped grains, leave them for the poor and the foreigners living among them — giving voice to the idea that abundance should be shared.


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Indigo Dye Drying — Indonesian Batik
: SukkhaCitta


[alert type=white ]Corrections: An earlier version of this article misattributed images and field research made by SukkhaCitta to the author and contained some incorrect image credits. We regret the error.[/alert]