The arts and crafts of Indonesia have for many centuries played an integral part in local religious and cultural life. Far more than mere decoration, woven cloth and painting, in particular, were regarded as a means of revealing the divine nature of the universe, playing important roles in rites of passage and temple ceremonies.
Today, the age-old skills developed in the courts of pre-Islamic Java are deployed in a wider range of contents than ever, and travelling around the country you’ll have numerous opportunities to see them being made and used in traditional ways. Light and vibrant, hand-decorated cloth and paintings also make perfect souvenirs, sold in markets and boutiques across the region.
Indonesia is situated at the meeting point of two of the world’s population groups, Asians in the west and Melanesians in the east. The great majority of Indonesians are related to the peoples of eastern Asia, although over the centuries there also has been considerable mixing with Arabs, Indians, and Europeans. In the eastern islands, however, most of the people are of Melanesian origin.
The Indonesian national motto, “Bhinneka tunggal ika” (“Unity in diversity”), makes reference to the extraordinary diversity of the Indonesian population that has emerged from the ongoing confluence of peoples, languages, and cultures. The country includes more than 300 different ethnic groups and more than twice as many distinct languages, and most of the major world religions, as well as a wide range of indigenous ones, are practiced there. Notwithstanding this diversity, most of the people are of Malay ancestry, speak Austronesian (Malayo-Polynesian) languages, and profess Islam.
The barriers of the mountains and the sea have protected the character and traditions of many groups. Away from the major cities and areas of dense population, there are significant variations from one valley to the next and almost from one village to the next. In many cases the highland groups of the larger islands—Borneo, Sumatra, and Celebes—were relatively untouched by international influences until the arrival of Christian missionaries during the 19th century; these upland peoples continue to reflect great cultural diversity. Each island or group of islands east of Java also has maintained its own distinct character, in many cases strongly influenced by different religions. In particular, Bali—with its long tradition of Hindu and Buddhist influences rooted in local religious practices—is quite different in character and customs from any other part of Indonesia.
Indonesia: Ethnic composition
Most of the several hundred languages spoken in Indonesia have an Austronesian base. The major exceptions are found in western New Guinea and some of the Moluccas, where different Papuan languages are used. The Austronesian language family is broken into several major groups within which languages are closely related though distinctly different. On Java there are three major languages—Javanese, Sundanese, and Madurese—while on Sumatra there are dozens, many of which are divided into distinct dialects. Within the Toraja group, a relatively small population in the interior of Celebes, several languages are spoken. In eastern Indonesia each island has its own language, which is often not understood on the neighbouring islands. Similarly, languages often differ from one village to the next in the interior of Kalimantan.
Indonesian (Bahasa Indonesia) is the national language. It evolved from a literary style of Malay language that was used in the royal houses of the Riau-Jambi area of eastern Sumatra, but it also has much in common with other Malay dialects that have long served as regional lingua francas. The differences between standard Malay and standard Indonesian reside largely in their idioms and in certain items of vocabulary. In 1972 Indonesia and Malaysia agreed on a uniform revised spelling of the language so that communications could be improved and literature more freely exchanged between the two countries.
Because it has no distinctive expressions based on social hierarchy and is not associated with one of the dominant ethnic groups, the Indonesian language has been accepted without serious question and has served as a strong force of national unification. Since the early 20th century it has been the main language of print in different parts of the country; it also served as the medium of political communication among members of the nationalist movement leading up to the revolution and declaration of independence in 1945. Writers of ethnic Chinese and Sumatran origins produced novels, plays, and poetry in the language, from which a modern Indonesian literature was born. Today the Indonesian language is the mother tongue for some city dwellers and a second language for most Indonesians. It is the medium of instruction in universities, and it is used in scientific, philosophical, and legal writings and debates. Radio stations, television channels, and films employ it (they rarely use local languages), and most popular songs with a national audience are written in the Indonesian language as well. (There are, however, locally popular groups that write and perform songs in regional languages and dialects.)
Indonesian Textile – Techniques
The techniques, symbolism and culture surrounding hand-dyed cotton and silk garments known as Indonesian Batik permeate the lives of Indonesians from beginning to end: infants are carried in batik slings decorated with symbols designed to bring the child luck, and the dead are shrouded in funerary batik. Clothes with everyday designs are worn regularly in business and academic settings, while special varieties are incorporated into celebrations of marriage and pregnancy and into puppet theatre and other art forms. The garments even play the central role in certain rituals, such as the ceremonial casting of royal batik into a volcano. Batik is dyed by proud craftspeople who draw designs on fabric using dots and lines of hot wax, which resists vegetable and other dyes and therefore allows the artisan to colour selectively by soaking the cloth in one colour, removing the wax with boiling water and repeating if multiple colours are desired. The wide diversity of patterns reflects a variety of influences, ranging from Arabic calligraphy, European bouquets and Chinese phoenixes to Japanese cherry blossoms and Indian or Persian peacocks. Often handed down within families for generations, the craft of batik is intertwined with the cultural identity of the Indonesian people and, through the symbolic meanings of its colours and designs, expresses their creativity and spirituality.
A Brief History
Although experts disagree as to the precise origins of batik, samples of dye resistance patterns on cloth can be traced back 1,500 years ago to Egypt and the Middle East. Samples have also been found in Turkey, India, China, Japan and West Africa from past centuries. Although in these countries people were using the technique of dye resisting decoration, within the textile realm, none have developed batik to its present day art form as the highly developed intricate batik found on the island of Java in Indonesia.
Although there is mention of ‘fabrics highly decorated’ in Dutch transcripts from the 17th century, most scholars believe that the intricate Javanese batik designs would only have been possible after the importation of finely woven imported cloth, which was first imported to Indonesia from India around the 1800s and afterwards from Europe beginning in 1815. Textile patterns can be seen on stone statues that are carved on the walls of ancient Javanese temples such as Prambanan (AD 800), however there is no conclusive evidence that the cloth is batik. It could possibly be a pattern that was produced with weaving techniques and not dying. What is clear is that in the 19th century batik became highly developed and was well ingrained in Javanese cultural life.
Some experts feel that batik was originally reserved as an art form for Javanese royalty. Certainly it’s royal nature was clear as certain patterns were reserved to be worn only by royalty from the Sultan’s palace. Princesses and noble women may have provided the inspiration for the highly refined design sense evident in traditional patterns. It is highly unlikely though that they would be involved in any more than the first wax application. Most likely, the messy work of dyeing and subsequent waxings was left to court artisans who would work under their supervision.
Javanese royalty were known to be great patrons of the arts and provided the support necessary to develop many art forms, such as silver ornamentation, wayang kulit (leather puppets) and gamelan orchestras. In some cases the art forms overlap. The Javanese dalang (puppeteer) not only was responsible for the wayang puppets but was also an important source of batik patterns. Wayang puppets are usually made of goat skin, which is then perforated and painted to create the illusion of clothing on the puppet. Used puppets were often sold to eager ladies who used the puppets as guides for their batik patterns. They would blow charcoal through the holes that define the patterns of clothing on the puppets, in order to copy the intricate designs onto the cloth.
Other scholars disagree that batik was only reserved as an art form for royalty, as they also feel its use was prevalent with the rakyat, the people. It was regarded an important part of a young ladies accomplishment that she be capable of handling a canting (the pen-like instrument used to apply wax to the cloth) with a reasonable amount of skill, certainly as important as cookery and other housewifery arts to Central Javanese women.
Selection and Preparation of the Cloth for Batik
Natural materials such as cotton or silk are used for the cloth, so that it can absorb the wax that is applied in the dye resisting process. The fabrics must be of a high thread count (densely woven). It is important that cloth of high quality have this high thread count so that the intricate design qualities of batik can be maintained.
The cloth that is used for batik is washed and boiled in water many times prior to the application of wax so that all traces of starches, lime, chalk and other sizing materials are removed. Prior to the implementation of modern day techniques, the cloth would have been pounded with a wooden mallet or ironed to make it smooth and supple so it could best receive the wax design. With the finer machine-made cotton available today, the pounding or ironing processes can be omitted. Normally men did this step in the batik process. Strict industry standards differentiate the different qualities of the cloth used today, which include Primissima (the best) and Prima. The cloth quality is often written on the edge of the design. A lesser quality cloth which is often used in Blaco.
Batik Design Tools
Although the art form of batik is very intricate, the tools that are used are still very simple. The canting, believed to be a purely Javanese invention, is a small thin wall spouted copper container (sometimes called a wax pen) that is connected to a short bamboo handle. Normally it is approximately 11 cm. in length. The copper container is filled with melted wax and the artisan then uses the canting to draw the design on the cloth.
Canting have different sizes of spouts (numbered to correspond to the size) to achieve varied design effects. The spout can vary from 1 mm in diameter for very fine detailed work to wider spouts used to fill in large design areas. Dots and parallel lines may be drawn with canting that have up to 9 spouts. Sometimes a wad of cotton is fastened over the mouth of the canting or attached to a stick that acts as a brush to fill in very large areas.
Different kinds and qualities of wax are used in batik. Common waxes used for batik consist of a mixture of beeswax, used for its malleability, and paraffin, used for its friability. Resins can be added to increase adhesiveness and animal fats create greater liquidity.
The best waxes are from the Indonesian islands of Timor, Sumbawa and Sumatra; three types of petroleum-based paraffin (white, yellow and black) are used. The amounts mixed are measured in grams and vary according to the design. Wax recipes can be very closely guarded secrets. Varying colors of wax make it possible to disguise different parts of the pattern through the various dying stages. Larger areas of the pattern are filled in with wax that is cheaper quality and the higher quality wax is used on the more intricately detailed sections of the design.
The wax must be kept at the proper temperature. A wax that is too cool will clog the spout of the canting. A wax that is too hot will flow too quickly and be uncontrollable. The artisan will often blow into the spout of the canting before applying wax to the cloth in order to clear the canting of any obstructions.
Creating batik is a very time consuming craft. To meet growing demands and make the fabric more affordable to the masses, in the mid-19th century the . cap. (copper stamp – pronounced chop) was developed. This invention enabled a higher volume of batik production compared to the traditional method which entailed the tedious application of wax by hand with a canting.
Each cap is a copper block that makes up a design unit. Cap are made of 1.5 cm wide copper stripes that are bent into the shape of the design. Smaller pieces of wire are used for the dots. When complete, the pattern of copper strips is attached to the handle.
The cap must be precisely made. This is especially true if the pattern is to be stamped on both sides of the fabric. It is imperative that both sides of the cap are identical so that pattern will be consistent.
Sometimes cap are welded between two grids like pieces of copper that will make a base for the top and the bottom. The block is cut in half at the center so the pattern on each half is identical. Cap vary in size and shape depending on the pattern they are needed for. It is seldom that a cap will exceed 24 cm in diameter, as this would make the handling too difficult.
Men usually handle the application of wax using cap. A piece of cloth that involves a complicated design could require as many as ten sets of cap. The usage of cap, as opposed to canting, to apply the wax has reduced the amount of time to make a cloth.
Today, batik quality is defined by cap or tulis, the second meaning hand-drawn designs which use a canting, or kombinasi, a combination of the two techniques.
Traditional colors for Central Javanese batik were made from natural ingredients and consisted primarily of beige, blue, brown and black.
The oldest color that was used in traditional batik making was blue. The color was made from the leaves of the Indigo plant. The leaves were mixed with molasses sugar and lime and left to stand overnight. Sometimes sap from the Tinggi tree was added to act as a fixing agent. Lighter blue was achieved by leaving the cloth in the dye bath for short periods of time. For darker colors, the cloth would be left in the dye bath for days and may have been submerged up to 8 – 10 times a day.
In traditional batik, the second color applied was a brown color called soga. The color could range from light yellow to a dark brown. The dye came from the bark of the Soga tree. Another color that was traditionally used was a dark red color called mengkuda. This dye was created from the leaves of the Morinda Citrifolia.
The final hue depended on how long the cloth was soaked in the dye bath and how often it was dipped. Skilled artisans can create many variations of these traditional colors. Aside from blue, green would be achieved by mixing blue with yellow; purple was obtained by mixing blue and red. The soga brown color mixed with indigo would produce a dark blue-black color.
The outline of the pattern is blocked out onto the cloth, traditionally with charcoal or graphite. Traditional batik designs utilize patterns handed down over the generations. It is very seldom that an artisan is so skilled that he can work from memory and would not need to draw an outline of the pattern before applying the wax. Often designs are traced from stencils or patterns called pola. Another method of tracing a pattern onto a cloth is by laying the cloth on a glass table that is illuminated from below which casts a shadow of the pattern onto the cloth. The shadow is then traced with a pencil. In large batik factories today, men usually are in charge of drawing the patterns onto the cloth.
Once the design is drawn out onto the cloth it is then ready to be waxed. Wax is applied to the cloth over the areas of the design that the artisan wishes to remain the original color of the cloth. Normally this is white or cream.
Female workers sit on a low stool or on a mat to apply the wax with a canting. The fabric that they are working on is draped over light bamboo frames called gawangan to allow the freshly applied wax to cool and harden. The wax is heated in the wajan until it is of the desired consistency. The artisan then dips her canting into the wax to fill the bowl of the canting.
Artisans use the wax to retrace the pencil outline on the fabric. A small drop cloth is kept on the woman. s lap to protect her from hot dripping wax. The stem of the canting is held with the right hand in a horizontal position to prevent any accidental spillage, which greatly reduces the value of the final cloth. The left hand is placed behind the fabric for support. The spout does not touch the fabric, but it held just above the area the artisan is working on. To ensure the pattern is well defined, batik is waxed on both sides. True tulis batik is reversible, as the pattern should be identical on both sides.
The most experienced artisans normally do first waxings. Filling in of large areas may be entrusted to less experienced artisans. Mistakes are very difficult to correct. If wax is accidentally spilt on the cloth, the artisan will try to remove the unwanted wax by sponging it with hot water. Then a heated iron rod with a curved end is used to try and lift off the remaining wax. Spilled wax can never be completely removed so it is imperative that the artisans are very careful.
If the cap method is utilized, this procedure is normally done by men. The cap are dipped into melted wax. Just under the surface of the melted wax is a folded cloth approximately 30 centimeters square. When this cloth is saturated with wax it acts like a stamp pad. The cap is pressed into the fabric until the design side of the cap is coated with wax. The saturated cap is then stamped onto the fabric, leaving the design of the cap. This process is repeated until the entire cloth is covered. Often cap and canting methods are combined on the same piece of cloth.
Better quality batik may be waxed utilizing canting in one part of Indonesia and then sent to another part of Indonesia where the cap part of the process is completed. On better quality cap fabric great care is taken to match the pattern exactly. Lower grade batik is characterized by overlapping lines or lightened colored lines indicating the cap was not applied correctly.
After the initial wax has been applied, the fabric is ready for the first dye bath. Traditionally dying was done in earthenware tubs. Today most batik factories use large concrete vats. Above the vats are ropes with pulleys that the fabric is draped over after it has been dipped into the dye bath.
The waxed fabric is immersed in the dye bath of the first color. The amount of time it is left in the bath determines the hue of the color; darker colors require longer periods or numerous immersions. The fabric is then put into a cold water bath to harden the wax.
When the desired color has been achieved and the fabric has dried, wax is reapplied over the areas that the artisan wishes to maintain the first dye color or another color at a later stage in the dying process.
When an area that has been covered with wax previously needs to be exposed so that it can be dyed, the applied wax is scraped away with a small knife. The area is then sponged with hot water and resized with rice starch before it is re-immersed in the subsequent dye bath.
If a marble effect is desired, the wax is intentionally cracked before being placed in the dye bath. The dye seeps into the tiny cracks that create the fine lines that are characteristic of batik. Traditionally, cracks were a sign of inferior cloth especially on indigo color batik. On brown batik, however, the marble effect was accepted.
The number of colors in batik represents how many times it was immersed in the dye bath and how many times wax had to be applied and removed. A multicolored batik represents a lot more work that a single or two-color piece. Numerous dye processes are usually reflected in the price of the cloth. Nowadays, chemical dyes have pretty much replaced traditional dyes, so colors are endless and much more liberally used.
Special Treatments to the Batik Cloth
Prada or Gold Cloth
For special occasions, batik was formerly decorated with gold lead or gold dust. This cloth is known as Prada cloth. Gold leaf was used in the Jogjakarta and Surakarta area. The Central Javanese used gold dust to decorate their Prada cloth. It was applied to the fabric using a handmade glue consisting of egg white or linseed oil and yellow earth. The gold would remain on the cloth even after it had been washed. The gold could follow the design of the cloth or could take on its own design. Older batiks could be given a new look by applying gold to them. Gold decorated cloth is still made today; however, gold paint has replaced gold dust and leaf.
Batik Home Furnishings
One of the distinct pleasures of living in (or visiting) Indonesia is the opportunity to purchase some truly magnificent home furnishings made of batik. As the fabric is truly unique to Indonesia, this is definitely the best place to purchase authentic batik! Batik factories can product batik to your order, with custom colors and designs in large rolls, ready to use for your home decoration projects. The 100% cotton fabric is usually preshrunk in the batik dying process and other fabrics are usually available with the batik design, should your design requirements warrant. Higher end shops also have design consultants who can help you with the layout of the room you are planning to design with your batik fabric and work with you on additional furnishings (pillows, bed covers, and cushions) to complete your color scheme.
Schematic drawing of a form of couching.Drawing by Martin Henze.
Couching is an embroidery technique in which laid threads are placed on the surface of the ground material. The laid threads are then fastened down with a separate thread (couching thread) using small tying down couching stitches (often an individual overcast stitch).
This form is frequently used for a line, outline or border. The couching threads may be of the same colour as the laid threads or in a contrasting tone. If more than one line is laid on the ground material, then this technique can be used to cover large areas of ground material relatively quickly, especially if the laid threads are relatively thick. This technique is often (incorrectly) called laidwork.
Couching can be found in many parts of the world, including Europe, India, Indonesia, Japan and the Middle East.
Beadwork in Indonesia is an ancient tradition most prevalent on the islands of Sumatra, Kalimantan, Timor and Sulawesi, where decorative beadwork pieces have been used in ritualistic ceremonies for millennia. In Bali, beadwork has been traditionally used as ornamentation for sacred items. For example, white beads are sewn onto Lontar leaf temple baskets in preparation for offerings. This is a unique method which involves utilizing two needles simultaneously. The Balinese are seemingly the only culture in the world to employ this technique.
Beadwork has become popularized over the years, so that today, there are many wholesalers and retailers in Bali, both foreign and Indonesian, who create a wide variety of intricate and striking beaded designs on sandals, purses, clothing, and many other items.
Ikat (literally means tie and in the malay language it means “to bind”) is a dyeing technique used to pattern textiles that employs resist dyeing on the yarns prior to dyeing and weaving the fabric.
In ikat the resist is formed by binding individual yarns or bundles of yarns with a tight wrapping applied in the desired pattern. The yarns are then dyed. The bindings may then be altered to create a new pattern and the yarns dyed again with another colour. This process may be repeated multiple times to produce elaborate, multicolored patterns. When the dyeing is finished all the bindings are removed and the yarns are woven into cloth. In other resist-dyeing techniques such as tie-dye and batik the resist is applied to the woven cloth, whereas in ikat the resist is applied to the yarns before they are woven into cloth. Because the surface design is created in the yarns rather than on the finished cloth, in ikat both fabric faces are patterned.
A characteristic of ikat textiles is an apparent “blurriness” to the design. The blurriness is a result of the extreme difficulty the weaver has lining up the dyed yarns so that the pattern comes out perfectly in the finished cloth. The blurriness can be reduced by using finer yarns or by the skill of the craftsperson. Ikats with little blurriness, multiple colours and complicated patterns are more difficult to create and therefore often more expensive. However, the blurriness that is so characteristic of ikat is often prized by textile collectors.
In Indonesia ikat textiles are produced throughout the islands from Sumarta in the west to Timor in the east and Kalimantan and Sulawesi in the north.
Songket is a fabric that belongs to the brocade family of textiles of the Malay world (today, Indonesia, Malaysia, Brunei, Singapore and Southern Thailand). It is hand-woven in silk or cotton, and intricately patterned with gold or silver threads. The metallic threads stand out against the background cloth to create a shimmering effect. In the weaving process the metallic threads are inserted in between the silk or cotton weft (latitudinal) threads in a technique called supplementary weft weaving technique.
The term songket comes from the Malay word sungkit, which means “to hook”. It has something to do with the method of songket making; to hook and pick a group of threads, and then slip the gold and silver threads in it. Another theory suggested that it was constructed from the combination of two terms; tusuk (prick) and cukit (pick) that combined as sukit, modified further as sungki and finally songket. Some says that the word songket was derived from songka, a Palembang cap in which gold threads was first woven.
The Malay word menyongket means ‘to embroider with gold or silver threads’. Songket is a luxury product traditionally worn during ceremonial occasions as sarong, shoulder cloths or head ties and tanjak, a headdress songket. Songket were worn at the courts of Kingdoms in Sumatra especially the Srivijaya, as the source and the origin of Malay culture in Southeast Asia.
Songket is traditionally considered an exquisite, luxurious and prestigious traditional fabric, only worn for special occasions, religious festivals, and traditional social functions. It has become a required garment for brides and grooms for their weddings, as in the traditional wedding costumes of Palembang, Minangkabau and Bali.
Today, songket is mostly worn in traditional settings as traditional costumes for weddings or any traditional ceremonies. Several efforts has been conducted to promote songket as a popular fabric for fashion, either locally and abroad. During the Dutch colonial era, West Sumatran songket were exhibited in the Netherlands. The Sawahlunto Songket Carnival was held in Sawahlunto, West Sumatra in August 2015. The songket carnival featured a parade and exhibition with participants from numbers of songket studios across West Sumatra. The carnival, held on 28 August 2015, was recorded in the Indonesian Museum of Records for the most people wearing songket at a same time, with 17,290 people wearing Silungkang songket during the event.
Several exhibitions has been held to preserve and promote the traditional art of songket making, such as the songket exhibition held in 2015 by Jakarta Textile Museum, which showcased around 100 pieces of songket from various Indonesian provinces.
Today, songket has become a source of inspiration for contemporary fashion designers who draw ideas from this traditional art.
Pelangi refers to the patterns made by resist-dyed dots. Before the dyeing process can take place, the cloth must be bleached first. Then according to the complexity of the pattern to be dyed, a variety of methods are used to mark the design on the cloth. To achieve symmetry and save time, fine cloth is folded into two, four and as many as eight times. The pattern is marked out by nails. The cloth is dampened and then pressed on the nails.
The method used now a days is for the designer to draw or block print the design on the cloth. The tier then has to pinch a series of dots along the line, often using a specially long implement that slips over the finger of the left hand. The pinched dots are individually bound tightly with a continuous thread to ensure no seepage of dye. The cotton binding keeps the dye from reaching that part of the cloth, so that when it is removed a small white circle is revealed. Within this simple method, many variations are possible.
The tip of the cloth maybe left unbound to give a colored center to the circle. The cloth may be dyed before tying, thus giving a wider variety of colored dots. Bits of padding may be inserted into the circle before tying to create a variety of shapes resembling lozenges, cowry shells and squares.
After the tying is complete, the dying process has to be carefully planned. It must start with the lightest color first, usually yellow. The cloth is immersed in a dye bath and then dried. It is then returned to the tier for ties to be made on the dots which are to remain yellow. At this stage, individual dots can be applied in other colors which are then concealed by tying. The cloth is then dyed in deeper shades, notably, green, red or purple. Sometimes, larger tied patterns and highlights may be dabbed with a color-soaked pad by hand. Dyes can also be discharged or eliminated by immersing in a solution of caustic soda ash.
It takes several days to complete a complex silk pelangi.
In Indonesia the pelangi technique is often combined with tritik. With tritik, the resist is stitched into the cloth, usually using strong pineapple thread that will not break when pulled tight, or these days, plastic, to gather the cloth. Tritik patterns are typically linear, the cloth is compressed along the line of stitching thus forming a resist and preventing the dye from seeping in.
As the name suggest, tritik resembles small droplets of water running around a single line. Borders of many pelangi slendangs or shoulder wraps are decorated in this way.
A less common method of dying borders was brought to Indonesia from South India. This involves folding the area not to be dyed and clamping it firmly between two boards, then dipping the border into the dye bath. Some earlier Lawon textiles of Sumatra may have employed a combination of tritik and this method of decoration.
Indonesia is a country that is steeped in culture and tradition, and known for its outstanding array of traditional crafts. Ranging from Teak wood furniture, to artisanal wood-carving and decorative ceremonial weapons, Indonesian craft is something to be admired. Textiles, in particular, are likely the most notable and far-reaching of the Indonesian craft practices. The variety of textile techniques from Indonesia have been inspiring artists and designers alike for many years.
– Rutuja Shinde