It seemed she was writing on cloth as she deftly worked the pen-like instrument.

The only difference was that she was spreading wax on the stencilled design. She was preparing batik.

An ancient art that is believed to have originated in China, more specifically in Yunnan, batik is popular in the South Asian nations, with Indonesia in the lead.

The art form has also flourished in India, Sri Lanka, Bangladesh, Iran and the Philippines, and many West African countries.

Till today, batik is the main attire of Yunnan women, who consider it part of their heritage.

Batik is not just an art but a craft too. Today, it is worked on not just by hand but by machines.

The difference is that machine batik is waxed only on one side, while traditional batik requires the cloth to be waxed on both sides.

Contemporary styles are very different from the more traditional, formal styles.

We had the opportunity to visit Heladiva Collections in Rajapihilla Mawatha, a small batik factory in Kandy, Sri Lanka, which still carries the tradition forward.

The process

It was here that the woman wielded the tjanting needle — a wood-handled tool with a metal cup and a tiny spout out of which wax seeps on to the stencilled design.

Like her, other women covered different parts of the motif on both sides of the cloth with hot wax before dyeing. For larger areas, a brush may be used.

Commonly, a mixture of beeswax and paraffin wax is used. Beeswax holds to the fabric while paraffin wax allows cracks to develop — a batik characteristic.

Though black, red and orange are the popular colours, batik is not restricted to these.

Sometimes, several colours are used to create a piece. Dyeing begins with the lightest colour and ends with the darkest in a series of steps that include waxing, dyeing and drying.

After the final dyeing and drying, the fabric is dipped in a solvent for leftover wax to dissolve. It can also be ironed between paper towels or newspapers.

Technology chips in

The invention of the copper block brought about a revolution in batik production.

It became possible to make high-quality designs and intricate patterns much faster than when done by hand.

In this method, known as Batik Cap (pronounced “chop''), a copper block is used to apply melted wax on the
designs.

Batik designs can be worked on silk, cotton, wool, leather, paper and even wood and ceramics.

The origin

The name batik is said to have originated from the Javanese amba, which means to write, and titik, which means to dot or point.

It is also said to have been taken from becik, which means to tattoo with the use of a needle.

The word was first recorded in the English language in The Encyclopædia Britannica in 1880 and was spelt “battik''.

It was attested in the Malay Peninsula during the Dutch colonial period as mbatek, mbatik, batek and batik.

The word is now used in both contemporary Indonesian and the Malay languages.