Batik Designs: A Southeast Asian Cultural Identity (Part 1 Of 3)

The era of Asian culture is here and thriving like never before. There is increasing popularity of the Southeast Asian fabric called ‘batik’. Especially with the younger generation, we can already see their rage today with things from the past. Their new obsession is to go thrifting for vintage clothes and items in the flea market. Polaroid photography is another popular blast from the past as well. The past becoming their new present. Nonetheless, an ancient and beautiful fabric like Batik is no exception. There is mounting interest in batik and its techniques, bringing modern ways to experience this ancient culture. One can observe batik artworks in museums, buy an item of batik, or make their own batik designs.

A woman tracing out wax onto a batik fabric with a canting.
Each of the batik designs is different and special. Especially when it is handmade.
Photo by AnglesNViews from Pixabay

What Is Batik?

Like most ancient practices, batik has many influences since long ago from other cultures. Naturally branching out to form different versions. The origin is unknown. However, scholars have traced them back to the Javanese influence in the 16th century. The name batik originates from the Javanese. It derives from the Javanese word ambatik: amba meaning ‘large’ or ‘wide’, and nitik meaning ‘dot’ or ‘make a dot’. Its name describes the batik technique.

Two women sitting down and making batik using canting.
Batik is naturally a detailed form of art. It contributes to its beauty.
Photo by Camille Bismonte on Unsplash

The batik technique is a method of designing a fabric. Essentially, it is a wax resisting dye. The outline of the design is drawn by molten wax. Which melts away at the end of the process. The molten wax is painted on using three main methods: drawn by hand, stamped by blocks, and screen painted. The fabric is then dipped in dye. It can also be applied by hand. Then the areas covered with wax will resist the dye. The final outcome is a beautiful design. A white border hugging the different patterns.

Different Types Of Batik Designs

Batik does not have categories. Rather, it is known by the regions where it is influenced from and produced by. Most of the regions are very similar. Some might not even be able to tell the difference. But you need to look closer. It depends on the regions’ culture and beliefs. Thus, batik designs may vary in the types of motifs in their patterns. The colours used could be the effect of their societal and political influences in the past. Some might just even be a by-product of all the cultures mixing together over time. Hence, creating something totally different or beautiful to look at. Even so, the following are some popular examples of batik styles:-

1) The Oldest Batik Designs In History

The inland batik is the oldest batik design. It originates from the Javanese. Spanning hundreds of years back to the kingdom of Yogyakarta and Surakarta. Most of the patterns stuck to strict rules. They were solely reserved for royalty. Consequently, black, brown, copper, and indigo were the major colours. If we look at batik styles from this period, most of them would look similar to each other.

A design of an Inland style with repetitive patterns and usage of dark colours.
An example of an inland batik. It looks quite dull and serious.
Photo by Adrian Hartanto on Unsplash

2) A Bright And Pretty Batik Design

Malang batik originates from the city of Malang located in East Java, Indonesia. Its distinct style is famous because of its bright colours such as green, red, and purple. It uses a lot of flower and plant motifs in this style of batik. On the contrary, there isn’t much meaning to the designs. However, abstract motifs can express a message if done properly. In the end, the wax outlines the borders of the patterns leaving a white border around the motifs.

A Malang style design with leaves and bright colours.
An example of Malang batik featuring leaf motifs with bright colours.
Photo by yayangart from Pixabay

3) Batik Designs With A Mix Of Cultures

Banten batik is unique. It is different from the batik styles of other regions. This was largely attributed to the Chinese and Arab immigrants’ cultural influences in Indonesia. Their designs do not include depiction of live beings. This is due to the Islamic influence from the Arabs. In addition, this style uses bright pastel colours. It is thought to represent the joy and kindness of the Banten people.

A Banten style that has bright colours and geometric shapes.
Banten batik is well-known for its cheerful colours and dynamic shapes.
Photo by pisauikan from Pixabay

4) The Most Popular Batik Design

The most common and popular batik design that people use in Indonesia is the Kediri style. It is also the preferred design amongst designers. It gives an elegant and unique look. Whereas the distinct feature of this style is the spotted motif. In addition, the artists paint the patterns in very fine detail. Thus, giving it a spotted effect from afar. Fashion designers use Kediri style often in their collections. It attracts people who want to look elegant.

A Kediri style batik in green with detailed patterns with different shapes.
Kediri batik stands out distinctively with its intricate spotted effect.
Photo by pisauikan from Pixabay

Finding Quality Batik

When you go shopping for some batik, there must be a way to identify low-quality batik from the high-quality ones. Not surprising that the more similar the design is to the traditional design, the more desirable the batik is. And of course, pricier too.

1) Natural Dye, Naturally Better

First, natural dye uses organic materials. Namely plants and crushed insect shells. These are harder to obtain. An indigo plant can make blue dye. As well as crushing dried cochineal insects can produce red colouring. This makes it rarer, and hence more expensive. Fabrics that use natural dye are darker. Thus, limiting to earth tones like the colours of soil and leaves. On the other hand, chemical dyes can produce a broader range of colours. Hence, resulting in brighter coloured fabrics. Look for darker coloured batik when shopping if you want batik with natural dye.

A woman tracing wax on a fabric.
A high-quality batik is made with persistence and skill.
Photo by 3422763 from Pixabay

2) Look At Both Sides Of The Batik Designs

Anything handmade is more valuable than machine or factory-made. The batik industry is no different. Making batik is a long process. Good quality batik requires precision and experience. When it comes to batik, a high-quality one is handmade. The mass production of batik has designs that might look similar to handmade ones. But I’ll tell you how to tell the difference. Common machine-printed batik would have symmetrical and opaque colours on both sides of their fabric. Hand-printed batik is only distinct on the front surface. Hence the back surface is always a faded look of the front pattern.

3) A Beautiful Mess With Batik Designs

The biggest takeaway is that organic designs are made by human hands. There will be imperfections. And they do not perfectly align with the neighbouring block or pattern. There might even be signs of ‘mistakes’. Nevertheless, this gives each batik its own unique personality. It might even look messy. But there is beauty in imperfection. A perfectly aligned pattern can be mundane and boring.

The Right Time For Batik Attire

Both Indonesia and Malaysia consider batik as their national cultural identity. More so Indonesia. Malaysia on the other hand has a more diverse cultural influence. It is suitable for any formal occasion such as a formal dinner or even office attire. Specifically, Malaysia actually recommends civil servants wear batik to work on Thursdays. Indonesia however is more stringent for the right time to wear batik. In the past, batik was exclusive to Javanese royalty. Today, it symbolises the grace of a competent woman.

A man wearing a traditonal Indonesian attire that includes batik.
One of Indonesia’s cultural uniforms. Batik is a component of its attire.
Photo by Visual Karsa on Unsplash

Welcoming The Modernisation Of Batik

Today, people come to Indonesia and buy batik as souvenirs. Fashion designers are also using batik to create modern apparel. Men can wear batik shirts to stand out from the crowd. And dresses incorporating batik make women more elegant. You can also find batik upholstery in furniture or any household accessories.

Two batik masks next to each other.
Batik is versatile and has been used in a vast variety of items. For instance, these fabric masks don beautiful batik motifs.
Photo by ugglemamma from Pixabay

Moreover, one modern interpretation of batik found today is tie-dye batik. You start with a plain white t-shirt. Draw the design with molten wax by mimicking the batik technique. You can use a plastic fork or any type of stamp. Then, spray different colours of paint on different parts of the t-shirt. Thus, getting that tie-dye effect.

On top of that, nations express their cultural identity by using batik as well. Famous examples are Malaysia and Singapore Airlines which include batik as a part of their flight attendants’ uniforms.

Where Can I Buy My Own?

And now you know Southeast Asia’s love for batik. So what do you look for when buying batik? You might be excited to see one yourself. And even buy one of your own set of batik items. Batik Boutique offers batik-made apparel for both men and women. Along with scrunchies and headband accessories.

Batik Boutique is a social enterprise, dedicated to enhancing the lives of people living in poverty. When a batik item is sold, the artisan behind the art is guaranteed to benefit from it. As a result, it positively impacts marginalised communities. Creating greater job opportunities, sustainable income, and skills for financial independence.

A man and woman wearing batik clothes.
Wearing batik really feels like we are a part of the culture and tradition.
Photo by Farhan Abas on Unsplash

This Could Be Your First Experience With Batik!

If you think the batik face masks are cool, you can get one just like it here. For a more hands-on experience, you can make your own batik at their workshops. Located in their studio in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia, or virtually in your home. This art form is the window to discovering more about Southeast Asian culture. Especially more so in Indonesia and Malaysia. That is why Batik Boutique also provides group reservations for their workshops. It’s a meaningful and fun way to learn more about the society we live in.

Nevertheless, share with us your first experience with batik in the comment section below. Was it one of the styles in this article? And does it check all the boxes for high-quality batik? We’d like to hear from you! Interested to know the difference between factory made and cottage industry batik? Then don’t miss the next episode where we will explore the various producers of batik. Spoiler alert: There’s more to batik than just Indonesia and Malaysia.

Do you have a batik apparel? If so, when and where do you wear it?
2 votes

About Dina GHAZALI

Raised abroad almost her entire life, Dina is well exposed to the multi-cultural world around her. Penned her innermost thoughts on paper as a child, and eventually fell in love with writing. Aims to be a successful writer one day.

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