The textile-dyeing craft of batik originated between 1,500 and 2,000 years ago, becoming most prevalent on the Indonesian island of Java and since spreading to all corners of the world. There are now batik designers and communities everywhere from Togo to China, although south-east Asia – Indonesia and Malaysia in particular – remains its stronghold. While the process is very labor intensive, requiring skilled craftsmanship to create the elaborate designs, batik has, in recent years, been taken up and reinterpreted by a whole generation of young practitioners who are breathing new life into the centuries-old tradition. Here we meet three Malaysian designers who are spearheading this batik boom.
‘In south-east Asia, it’s typical for mothers to collect batik fabrics with plans to convert them into wearables for weddings and other occasions,’ says Pei Shern, founder of the women’s batik brand betterthanblouses, or BTB. ‘More often than not, the fabrics and the task of converting them are passed down to their offspring.’ A former doctor from Penang, Malaysia, Pei inherited one of these bundles of batik from her mother during a spring clean and decided to turn it into simple tops, which she then sold at a pop-up market in 2018. She launched her brand a year later. Pei now has a shop in Penang, offering ready-to-wear and made-to-order clothes. BTB is part of a new wave of batik brands that are shifting the look from elaborate and ceremonious to pared-back and practical, while retaining the heritage and beauty of the craft. Pei prizes batik’s durable, quick-drying and lightweight nature, matching simple tops with skirts and bottoms in an unconventional way. ‘Most people wouldn’t be so bold as to pair a printed top with a different bottom,’ she says.
Ruby Yeo first had the idea of starting her own batik brand while briefly living in Warsaw with her husband. ‘When I was in my 20s, I started going to a tailor to get dresses, skirts and kimonos made from batik fabric,’ says Ruby, who’s from Sarawak, Malaysia. ‘I would wear them proudly when I traveled and lived in Europe. The compliments that I received really sparked joy in me as it introduced people to one of Malaysia’s beautiful traditional arts.’ Ruby now runs her own brand, Niah+Co. Besides light dresses and tops, she has applied batik to everything from earrings to face masks. ‘It took time to get started due to the difficulty of finding a suitable tailor to bring my designs to life,’ she says. ‘The process takes months to finish and every piece is unique. There’s also so much identity and meaning behind every distinctive pattern and motif, which usually correspond to a specific ethnic group.’
The essence of the batik boom is respectful irreverence – straying away from traditional patterns and modes of dressing. Fern Chua, who runs the womenswear brand FERN, which has a flagship store in Kuala Lumpur, designs her dresses based on influences from her travels. She took up sewing to rehabilitate a broken hand, quickly found a new passion and, in 2013, pitched her business idea to MyCreative Ventures, a government venture fund that gave her the capital to launch. ‘My first collection was called Kiso in Winter, which was inspired by my experience of a blizzard in Japan,’ she says. Every FERN piece is hand-painted by local artisans. ‘I’ve spent hours practicing the batik art, using many different techniques, and incorporating unconventional tools and materials to create patterns, rather than using only the traditional methods,’ she adds. Fern thinks that younger people are returning to batik because they’re tired of the wasteful nature of fast fashion. ‘They’re bored of what it has to offer,’ she says. ‘The rising awareness of consumers and a desire for more ethical production helps to propel the popularity of batik.’
How batik is produced
Batik techniques vary from region to region. It always, however, begins with a natural roll of cloth (often linen or cotton). The artisan then typically hand-draws a pattern before ‘blocking off’ parts of the cloth with a canting – a pen-like tool containing liquid wax. The wax seals the area underneath so that, when the cloth is dyed, those parts remain untouched. Using boiling water, the wax is then removed and re-dyed, adding a new color to the formerly waxed parts. This can be repeated numerous times. It’s effectively a way to dye fabrics in a layered and intricate manner. The type and cost of batik varies drastically. Whereas in the past the technique was the sole domain of skilled artisans, advances such as block-printing (a bit like screen-printing but using a dyed block) and even machine manufacturing have made batik more accessible.