“Production is behind,” the head artisan tells me. “It’s been raining all week, so the floor where we paint the batik has been wet. It floods here in Indonesia.”
Oh, I know. I came home at 5 a.m. from a night of drinking in Bali to an Airbnb flooded four inches deep in water. All the flimsy bras and panties in my 45lb pack were drenched. As my mother always said, that’s life on the island of Java.
I was on the Silk Road to source batik for my company’s upcoming “heritage” curation, eager to find yards of fine textiles, those similar to the ones my mother held onto while migrating to America from Indonesia. Finding identical yards of naturally-dyed, handmade batik to support a collection was harder than I thought. I was slowly realizing why this industry hadn’t made big moves in the mass-markets out West despite its allure: Good fabric takes time to make.
Batik is the ancient art form of wax-resistant dyeing. You’ve seen its lovechild in the Madiba shirts Nelson Mandela donned in South Africa and its predecessor in “crackled” Indian sarees. Yet, the 2000-year-old craft reached its highest expression in Indonesia. Wax is intricately hand-placed onto fabric, then dipped in dye. The fabric is eventually boiled to remove the wax, thereby exposing a pattern underneath the dye. Then re-waxing and re-dying is done as needed.
I met the artisan Dewi at her workshop in Yogyakarta, the cultural capital of Indonesia. Dewi is part of a diminishing population keeping this craft alive. She led me up a makeshift wooden scaffolding, showcasing cloth of every color drying under a patch of sun.
Batik is an integral part of Indonesian life and ceremony even though it was historically reserved for the aristocracy. Each motif has its own story, its own power. The unabashedly-named Semen Rama pattern, for instance, looks like exotic birds swimming in enticing tendrils. The motifs actually symbolize the eight paths to virtue from the Indian epic Ramayana, enabling the wearer to lead a “semi” (translation: robust) life.
“What’s this one about?” I ask Dewi, pointing to a geometric square motif with florals. “Chastity,” she explains, much to my reddened cheeks. That one may be sacrilege for me to sport.
It took four months to create a decadent two-meter silk floral I’ve been ogling. Each square inch required painstaking work: hours of maneuvering wax on a pen-like canting or stamping the entire piece by hand. The average Indonesian salary of $280 a month can’t afford such luxuries, which is why the majority of batik production is increasingly becoming machine-made. Why spend hours on one meter of fabric when you can digitally mass-produce it to meet consumer demand?
“It’s a challenge for those of us who want to preserve this tradition and make it more sustainable,” says Dewi.
It’s a story I’ll hear again and again from artisans I meet in Surakarta, Bali, and Madura. Higher food prices have led to weakened consumer purchasing power, while fluctuating global exchange rates lead manufacturers to seek alternatives to quality dyes, most of which are imported. It’s a lose-lose situation where machine printers pump out less-intricate batik designs with cheaper, synthetic dyes that have negative impacts on environmental and worker health.
Still, artisans like Dewi are hoping to lead the charge by harking back to their indigenous roots and using eco-friendly dyes that can be found locally in nature: blues from indigo plants, browns from soga trees, and reds from noon fruits. Though more time-consuming to extract, it ensures consumer and worker safety while preserving the environment. She hopes other batik manufacturers will also prioritize their craft in the face of fast fashion.
“This is the batik process that four generations of my family taught me, and I don’t intend on changing that anytime soon,” she says.
Meanwhile, I came back from Indonesia with a smaller curation than I had imagined. I don’t know if these type of piece will still exist centuries from now. They remind me of my mother’s cloth, adorned with different stories to tell, some with names salacious enough to raise eyebrows.