The art of batik is one that if often overlooked, but dating back to as early as the sixth century it is known as one of China’s ancient handicraft techniques.
Along with the bandhu method (tie dyeing) and the calico method (block/stencil printing), batik is one of the three major printing crafts in Ancient China. A highly skilled and time consuming craft, batik is a type of wax printing that prevents the dye from reaching certain areas of the fabric. The wax, beeswax being the most commonly used, is applied to the fabric using a tjanting (a tool that holds and dispenses the hot wax). This tool allows the artist to control the pattern laid down by the wax with a great deal of precision. However, in ancient times a thin blade of a bronze knife would have been used. The wax has to penetrate the fabric completely before applying the dye otherwise the process will not work. Once the wax is dry, the fabric is dyed in a cold-water vat of soluble dye, or alternatively can be painted on. When the dyeing process is complete the fabric is then washed in hot water; this dissolves the wax, which in turn reveals a pattern in a contrasting colour to the dyed fabric. Naturally, this could be the finished piece but a batik artist may apply several layers of colour, adding numerous layers of wax and re-dyeing the fabric to create a multi-coloured and more detailed fabric.
It is still unknown when batik was invented, but an old folks tale tells us something:
“Long ago, there was a girl living in a stone village called Anshun, now a city in Guizhou Province. She was fond of dyeing white cloth blue and purple. One day, while she was working, a bee happened to alight on her cloth. After she took away the bee, she found there was a white dot left on the cloth, which looked very pretty. Her finding led to the use of wax in dyeing.”
Batik is believed to have existed in China as early as the Western Han Dynasty (206 BC-24 AD). In ancient times, batik was a tradition that was passed down from generation to generation; this however, is no longer the case. As Chinese society evolved, this process was abandoned. There are now only two communities in China that have preserved the tradition of batik, the Zhuang and the Miao ethnic groups. These two communities live in small enclaves in Guizhou, Guangxi, Sichuan and Yunnan, Provinces in South West China. The Miao group in particular use wax printing along with embroidery and weave for their designs, using mainly hemp and cotton. They also put great emphasis on their costumes, which are made up of decorative fabrics that are achieved by pattern weaving and wax resist. Batik printing has been an essential part of all the women’s lives in these remote parts of China and will continue to be used for many years to come.
Batik designs are often taken from the artists memories or ancient tales relating to the artists culture. The designs are bold, vibrant and powerful, each telling a different story.
Through time the style of batik has changed considerably; traditionally the designs were very geometric but nowadays, the designs have been modernised and more figurative designs are used such as flowers, birds and fish. However, it stands true that batik ‘displays the unique enchantment of Chinese art.’
I find this process truly inspiring; each design is unique and eye-catching with rich patterns and elegant colour. Everything a textile designer loves!
Since originating in China, batik became yet another “Silk Road” commodity that was exported all over the world. Whilst there are very few in China that still practice this technique, batik is renowned in other parts of Asia, in particular Indonesia.
As China continues to evolve, their passion for ancient traditions and practises is one that is still incredibly fascinating, and will continue to inspire many for years to come.