Thursday, 8 March 2012

Elephant No. 158: Batik

Lately I've run across several references to batik, so I thought I'd try it for today's elephant. Fair warning: this is not traditional batik with special wax, a tjanting and multiple dyes, but a simpler form of batik with crayons and one colour of dye. The type with multiple dyes would take longer than the time I have today, simply because of the time it takes to let the fabric dry in between dye baths—so crayons it is.

Although there is some debate about its origins, batik likely comes from the island of Java in Indonesia. It is also a traditional art in other Asian countries such as Malaysia, Japan, China, India, Sri Lanka and Singapore; African countries such as Egypt, Senegal and Nigeria; and the Central Asian republic of Azerbaijan. In its purest form, batik involves the hand-application of layers of clear wax, coupled with immersion in multiple dye baths, working from light to dark.

Traditional Javanese batik is rooted in Javanese cosmology. Three of the most commonly used colours—indigo, white and dark brown—represent the Hindu gods Brahma, Vishnu and Shiva. Some patterns indicated lineage and family affiliation; others were reserved for the nobility. One type of batik—known as batik prada, or "gold batik"—included gold dust applied with an egg white glue. The gold would remain even when the cloth was laundered.

Sample of Javanese batik prada.

Dyeing textiles with a wax-resist technique is an ancient practice. Egyptian mummies from as far back as the fourth century B.C. were wrapped in linen that had been soaked in wax. The wax was then scratched with a sharp tool. In Java, China, India, Japan and West Africa, wax-resist fabric was produced at least as early as the seventh century A.D. In many cultures, batik draws on the natural world and everyday life for its inspiration. Flowers, fish, animals, people, and deities are common subjects.

In Europe, batik was not really known in the West until the 1817 publication of The History of Java, by Sir Stamford Raffles—who had been British governor of the island before Indonesia came under Dutch control in 1800. Over the next century or so, travellers to Southeast Asia would bring back samples of batik, and when batik was displayed at the 1900 Exposition Universelle in Paris, it became something of a craze.

As demand for batik grew, new manufacturing processes emerged—partly due to the Dutch, who had taken an active interest in promoting Indonesian batik. Indonesian batik eventually split into two types: batik cap (pronounced "batik chap"), which involves the use of copper printing blocks; and batik tulis (literally "written batik"), which is produced with the traditional hand-drawn technique. Interestingly, when batik was introduced to Malaysia in the 1920s by Indonesian immigrants, it was batik cap. The more traditional hand-drawn batik tulis was a much later "innovation".

During the nineteenth century, Javanese batik techniques had been introduced to West Africa by Dutch and English traders. Although peoples such as the Yoruba and Wolof were already familiar with wax-resist dyeing, Javanese influence led to the adoption of larger motifs, more colours and thicker lines.

Yoruba batik from Nigeria, where traditional indigo dyeing is also an art form.

In Azerbaijan, silk batik has been known for centuries. The technique originates in the Turkic village of Basgal in the centre of the country: a site which was once on the ancient trade route known as the Silk Road. Azerbaijani batik uses a block-printing technique. Following the fracturing of the U.S.S.R., Azerbaijani batik declined for a time, but has since been revived.

In India and other South Asian countries, batik involves very similar processes to Javanese batik, but is often more pictorial in nature. In China, batik is primarily produced by traditional cultures. Made almost exclusively for clothing, Chinese batik is produced by decorating hemp or cotton with hot wax, then dipping the fabric in indigo dye. Traditional patterns include flowers, dragons, and the phoenix.

Indian batik of elephant god Ganesha.

Over the past fifty years or so, batik has found its way into cultures all over the world. Interest in traditional arts during the 1960s led to the rediscovery of batik in Western culture, as well as revived production in traditional batik-manufacturing countries. Today, batik is used to produce fabric for clothing, as well as table linens, wall hangings, upholstery fabric, and many household accessories. There are also a number of well-known batik painters around the world.

Depending on its quality and craftsmanship, batik can be relatively inexpensive (for factory-printed fabric with a batik pattern, but no wax) to several thousand dollars. The latter is generally batik tulis, which normally takes several months to produce.

Although the popularity of batik has had its ups and downs, batik is currently very  popular, particularly in Asia. In October 2009, UNESCO declared Indonesian batik a Masterpiece of Oral and Intangible Heritage of Humanity, which comes with a requirement that Indonesia preserve this heritage. In response, the Indonesia government suggested that every Friday be "batik day", encouraging workers to wear batik on Fridays. Fashion designers have also embraced batik, incorporating it in everything from haute couture to uniforms for flight attendants.

Although the technique for making traditional batik is relatively straightforward, it is a labour- and time-intensive activity requiring considerable skill and patience. Starting with a piece of natural-fibre cloth, the artist uses a tjanting to apply liquid wax. The tjanting is a special tool with a small bowl to hold the liquid wax, and a fine spout or tip to drip or paint the wax onto the fabric. For repeating patterns, batik can also be produced with printing blocks made of wood, copper or brass. In this case, the block is dipped in liquid wax, then quickly applied to the fabric surface.

Traditional tjanting.

Batik relies on the principle that adding wax to fabric will prevent the fabric from absorbing dye. This means that, wherever the wax has been applied, the dye will not be able to penetrate. The cloth under the first layer of wax will thus remain the colour of the original cloth (usually white).

Wooden batik printing blocks from Turkey.

The wax is usually a mixture of beeswax and paraffin. The beeswax bonds well to the fabric, while the paraffin creates the characteristic cracks. The traditional proportion of beeswax to paraffin is three parts beeswax to one part paraffin.

Once the first layer of wax has been applied, the fabric is gently crumpled to crack the wax. The fabric is now immersed in a dye bath, using the lightest colour of dye first. The fabric will dye wherever there is no wax, including the cracks. The process is then repeated, with the artist painting over whatever parts he or she doesn't want dyed with the second colour, and so on until the desired number of dye colours has been used.

To remove the wax, the piece is either ironed between layers of paper, rinsed in hot water, or treated with dry-cleaning fluid.

Although I'd love to do traditional batik for today's elephant, there aren't enough hours in the day for me to dye things several times. So I'm reverting to a form of batik I once did as a child, involving coloured crayons "painted" onto a piece of cotton fabric, and a single dye bath.

To start, I cut a small piece of unbleached muslin. If I were doing traditional batik, I'd use white fabric, but since this is going to be completely coloured and dyed, I thought this fabric would be fine.

Most instructions suggest stretching the fabric over a canvas stretcher or other frame. This is primarily to keep the wax from sticking to whatever is underneath. I didn't really feel like doing that, so I just put my piece of fabric on top of a piece of glass. I also didn't bother to draw anything on the fabric, although most instructions will suggest that this is a good idea. This was either hubris or laziness on my part—or perhaps both—but it worked out well enough.

To melt the crayons, I pulled out the griddle I had used for my encaustic experiment experiment. I bought a bunch of small disposable tart tins and placed them on top. Since I was going to use low heat and was planning to work quickly, I didn't bother putting the tins in a water bath, although that wouldn't be a bad idea, to keep the wax from doing nasty things.

I chose a couple of greys, some pink, two greens, red, yellow and purple, thinking I might add a flower or two. When the batik is ironed, the colours of the crayons are what create the colours in the batik, substituting for several colours of dye.

For brushes, I used some inexpensive stiff synthetic brushes. I think I got all of these for $1.50, so they were quite disposable if I didn't feel like cleaning them. (I did clean them, however. This is as simple as pressing the brush into the griddle until any residual wax melts, then wiping it in a paper towel.)

I started the painting by sketching a loose elephant outline with grey crayon wax. I applied it a bit too thickly at first, which isn't really a good thing when using crayons, as it's more likely to flake off. It's better if the paint is liquid and applied relatively thinly. Oh well.

After this, I just kept adding more wax, using whatever colours I liked and layering them. I sometimes blended colours in the tins, cleaning my brush in between by running it along the surface of the griddle and wiping it on paper towels.

This was the final piece before I was ready to dye it.

And this was the reverse. It didn't look to me like there was enough saturation, but it's been so long since I've tried this that I didn't know if this would be a problem.

I chose what I thought would be a nice olive green for the dye.

Because this was enough dye for several pounds of fabric, and I only had a small square of muslin, I made a small batch. I think I added about a teaspoon (5 ml) of dye and a half-teaspoon or so (2 ml) of salt. The salt is to help the dye set. The dye crystals looked brown to me, but I thought maybe it would dye differently than it looked here.

I added a couple of litres of boiling water to dissolve the dye, and let it cool for a bit so that it wouldn't do something weird to the wax in my design. I crumpled my piece very gently, then dunked it into the dye for a couple of minutes, as I didn't want it to be too dark.

I was deeply disappointed when I pulled it out of the dye and rinsed it. Instead of a nice olive, I had an unattractive khaki colour. I was not pleased.

At this point, it was still wet, so I hung it to dry for a couple of hours.

The next step was to iron out the residual wax. To do this, I placed newspaper on my ironing board, with a sheet of white paper on top of the newspaper, then paper towels on top of that. I put my piece on top of all that, then reversed the order of the layers. Newspaper is used to cushion the piece and do some of the absorption; the white paper is to help with absorption and to keep the ink of the newspaper from imprinting on the design; and the paper towels do most of the absorption. Obviously, to keep the iron relatively clean, you don't want it ironing directly across the paper towels.

It took about fifteen minutes to iron out the wax. I used a firm hand, but pressed into the piece, rather than smoothing the iron across it. This both helps to remove as much wax as possible at a time, and helps to prevent smearing if your wax is too thick, as mine was.

The red virtually disappeared during the ironing process, which may be a function of its particular pigment. But the rest was pretty resilient. The oily look around the final elephant is residual oil from the crayons. And, although some of the wax looks like its still sitting on top of the fabric, it's actually ironed right through to the other side. To make sure, I even flipped it over and ironed the reverse.

I don't hate it, but I'm not particularly happy with the background colour. It makes the whole thing look a little dull, and the elephant doesn't pop as much as I expected it to. But it was an interesting exercise, and is both simple and relatively quick. The main issue is waiting for the piece to dry after it's been dyed.

I'll probably try this again, but next time I'll test the dye colour first. And, if I ever have a sixteen-hour day to play with, I may even give traditional multi-dye batik a try.

Elephant Lore of the Day
Long thought to be extinct, the Javan elephant may have been found again on Borneo. The Borneo pygmy elephant, long thought to be native to Borneo, may in fact be a remnant population of Javan elephants, accidentally saved from extinction by the Sultan of Sulu centuries ago.

Borneo pygmy elephants are found only on the northeastern tip of that island, and their origins have long been shrouded in mystery. Their appearance and behaviour differ from those of other Asian elephants, and scientists have always wondered why Borneo elephants have never spread beyond their small range.

In a 2008 article co-authored by the World Wildlife Fund, it was suggested that the Borneo pygmy elephant is a descendant of elephants brought to Borneo centuries ago by the Sultan of Sulu (now part of the Philippines). Elephants were common gifts among rulers for centuries, and were often shipped between islands throughout the Indonesian archipelago and other parts of Asia. The assumption is that these elephants may simply have been left behind in the Borneo jungle.

Elephants became extinct on Java in the eighteenth century, and were hunted to extinction on Sulu during the nineteenth century. If the Borneo pygmy elephants are actually Javan elephants, it would be the first known elephant translocation in history that has survived to modern times.

Part of the  mystery was solved in 2003, when DNA testing by Columbia University and the World Wildlife Fund determined that Borneo elephants were genetically distinct from mainland Asian elephants and Sumatran elephants. This left Java or Borneo itself as the most likely place of origin.

Today, there are only 1,000 of the elephants left in the wild, mostly in the Malaysian state of Sabah, which is in the northern part of the island of Borneo. Some of the elephants are being tracked with radio collars to help researchers study their behaviour. Unfortunately, the Borneo pygmy elephant prefers the same lowland habitat that is attractive to humans for timber, oil and rubber plantations, which makes its future uncertain.

Borneo pygmy elephant wearing radio collar.
Photo: Cede Prudente

Elephant's World (Thailand)

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