Two main types of batik are produced in Malaysia today -- hand-painted and block-printed. The difference lies in the production techniques, motif and aesthetic expressions; each is often classified according to the tool used.
The painter uses the canting, a small copper container with one or more differently sized pipes. The container is attached to a handle made of wood or bamboo. The canting is filled with molten wax and used to trace the outlines of a pattern on the fabric.
Printing is done by means of a metal block made by welding together strips of metal. In former times emptied tin cans were utilised. The block is dipped into molten wax and pressed against the fabric in order to make a pattern.
Individual skill involved
The wax is usually composed of bee's wax, paraffin wax, resin, fat and a synthetic wax mixed together in varying proportions. The mixing outcome depends on individual experience and skill. Each component has special qualities that affect the appearance of the finished textile.
Bee's wax melts at a low temperature, is flexible, attaches easily to the textile surface, and is easily removed. Paraffin wax, yellow as well as white, is brittle and cracks easily so that the dye penetrates the textile and creates a marbled look. Resin binds the ingredients together and makes the wax cling better to the textile. Animal or vegetable fat adds flexibility to the wax mixture. Often wax mixtures are used again.
The price of each ingredient can also affect the mixture. The mixture used for block prints tends to be cheaper than that used for hand-painted silks.
Dyes from local plants and insects were used in traditional textile decoration. One example is the use of leaves from the indigo plants to obtain deep blue colour shades.
Preference for reactive dyes
Today the use of chemically produced dyes is common. In Malaysia reactive dyes are preferred because they are convenient, have clear and brilliant colours, and fasten easily to textiles containing fibres of cellulose as well as silk. The chemical formula of the dye will determine the method for fixing the colours. The colour can, for instance, be fixed by using sodium silicate, or by exposing the material to air.
The range of colours varies from traditional combinations dominated by blue and brown, to brilliant red, turquoise, blue, pink, orange and green. In hand-painting, different shades are obtained by diluting the colour with water during the painting process.
Fabrics of different qualities and structures are used in batik production. These can be cotton, viscose, rayon and silk. Silk is mostly used for hand painting. Industrially produced textiles have to be boiled or washed in order to remove finish and other residues before waxing and colouring can take place.
To make the colour fasten well, the fabric is treated with starch made from rice or cassava. For fine work, some oil is also added to obtain a smoother surface that makes it easier to control the waxing. Finally the fabric is ironed to remove creases. In earlier times, the fabrics were smoothened by beating them with a wooden club.
Traditional hand-painted batik
Hand-painting of batik in Malaysia builds on traditions from the Javanese hand-painted batek tulis. In Java, the pattern was traced on both sides before the fabric was soaked in the dye.
In present-day Malaysia, the prepared and measured-out fabric is stretched over a metal or wooden frame. The pattern is traced with a soft pencil. The canting is filled with two-third of liquid wax, and the utensil is held at an angle against the cloth. The artist has to be extremely precise to obtain a smooth flow of wax. The utensil will have to be dipped frequently into the wax pot to keep the optimal temperature. If the wax is too hot it will penetrate the fibres too deeply, and is difficult to remove. If it is too cold it will not fasten properly.
When the waxing is finished on one side of the fabric, it is left to dry. If the wax has not penetrated the fabric properly the operation is repeated on the other side. The next step is painting the parts of the fabric that are not covered in wax. The painter uses brushes of different sizes, and larger areas may be coloured with a sponge.
The shade can be varied by adding water or more colour. The colour has to dry before fixing. Finally, the wax is removed in hot water, and the fabric is rinsed several times in order to remove excess dye and residues of wax.
Wax patterns in block printing
The measured-out cloth is put on a padded table. The printer has the wax pot at his side. The block is dipped into the pot to be filled with wax, and then it is pressed against the cloth. The process is repeated until the entire cloth has been filled with wax patterns.
The printer can change between different blocks as needed for the design. When the waxing is finished the cloth is soaked in dye. The colour fastens to the areas that have not been waxed. From now on the original white colour will only be visible when the wax has been removed from the cloth.
For polychrome patterns, the process of waxing and soaking will continue until the required number of colours have been obtained. Usually the printer will start with the lighter colours and end up with the dark ones. Finally, the wax and excess colour are removed by boiling and rinsing the fabric. The fabric is then hung to dry.
Chemical solution is used
There can be local variations in the process. Instead of going from light to dark colours, it is possible to start with giving the entire piece a dark colour, usually blue or brown. Then outlines and parts of the pattern can be printed in wax, and the fabric is soaked in a chemical solution that removes the colour from the areas not waxed. The batik piece changes from lighter to darker colours. When this procedure is used the outlines become more dominant.
Hand painting and block printing are often combined, and this method will be an easier way to give the textiles more colours and freer patterns.
In contemporary Malaysia, several techniques are used to produce batik-like textiles. For example, by adding a layer of wax to an ordinary screen print it is possible to make a cracked pattern and it looks more like genuine batik.
To a layman, it is often difficult to ascertain whether a textile is real batik. A good criterion of real batik is to find out that the designs on two sides of the fabric are the same.