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From Bali to Bangkok, before you bargain for batik; how to understand and appreciate the fabrics, designs, quality.

From Bali to Bangkok, before you bargain for batik

How to understand and appreciate the fabrics, designs, quality

It hits your eye as soon as you step from the gangway of your cruise ship or plane. From Bangkok to Bali, Singapore to Hong Kong, you see it in hotel gift shops, fine department stores, and market stalls. It's the profusely patterned fabric known as batik, made by a method of wax-resist dyeing brought to a high art in Indonesia over the last 400 years. While batik's indigo blues, Ming yellows, creamy tans, earthy reds, and pretty pastels still splash the dress of native villagers (and city folk on ceremonial occasions), the cloth also has strong appeal for souvenir shoppers. Before you buy, it's a good idea to understand how batik is made and why prices may vary widely. We give some basics here; for more details, we suggest a few books, including one that's brand-new and lavishly illustrated.

First, the fabric. Most batik is cotton; common grades are biru (slightly coarse), prima (finer textured), and primissima (fine, smooth surfaced). Primissima can cost double the price of biru. Silk batik can easily cost up to six times more than cotton kinds.

Design, by hand or by stamp, To appreciate how painstaking the design process can be, you should take a first-hand look. Visitors to such central Java cities as Jogjakarta and Solo or to Bali can stop by numerous free workshops open to the public (ask at your hotel).

There are two basic methods of applying designs in wax--by hand drawing and by stamp. The first, called tulis, is more intricate and the results are more expensive. Artists use a canting (pronounced chanting, formerly spelled tjanting), a bamboohandled tool with a little copper bowl to fill with melted wax. The wax drips out through one or multiple spouts to create the design in wax lines or dots. The most prized designs use thousands of minute dots for detail (see picture at right).

The other method, introduced in the mid-19th century, uses a stamp-block known as a cap (pronounced chop, formerly spelled tjap), made of copper sheet and rod. Artisans dip the cap in a basin of melted wax, then apply the design over and over.

Often a design will be started with the cap method and elaborated with tulis.

For a quick quality check when shopping, turn a batik over: on the best examples, the design will be equally sharp on both sides, meaning that the identical design was applied in wax to both sides of the fabric. If you see a design break in a cap batik, the workmanship is inferior.

How many colors? How intricate a design? Both tulis and cap batiks get colored in the same ways. Each major color requires a separate step of waxing and dyeing. For small color areas, dye is sometimes painted on. When the cloth goes into its first dye bath, all areas of the design that will not be that color are covered with wax to resist the dye. Next, areas dyed with the first color are waxed over, and wax will be scraped off areas to receive the second color. Sometimes a dozen colors are applied.

Between dye baths, the cloth is soaked in a lye solution to set the color. It can take a year or more to produce a 2-yard piece with an intricate multicolored design.

Batiks in the traditional style of central Java are mainly indigo blue-black and brown; secondary colors are deep red and brownish yellow. Designs tend to be geometric, even when they incorporate flowers and birds. In contrast, more flamboyantly colored patterns, with motifs ranging from Chinese dragons to Victorian-looking swans and peonies, have roots along Java's north coast. Here, batikmakers felt the impact of European and Chinese designs, and benefited from a widened palette of imported dyes. Many multicolored examples in pastel shades are made in the north-coast town of Pekalongan, long a batik center.

What will you pay? The commonest way to buy batik is in big rectangles, measuring about 40 inches by 2 1/2 to 3 yards, which Javanese wear wrapped around the waist, draping to the ankles.

Rule of thumb is to buy what you like. There's no need to pay for a lot of little dots if you prefer a simple stamped batik. In shops with fixed prices, cottons run from about $4 to $92; you'll find wide selections of good design on good cotton in the $16 to $48 range. Some of the finest Egyptian cottons run up to $300. Silks start around $100 and can run to $700.

Be prepared to bargain at market stalls and with street vendors (they'll endlessly fold and unfold samples until you buy or walk away). Their first price is usually two to three times what they'll accept. Nice cottons can usually be found in the $3 to $20 range. Examine batiks carefully; some are old and may have holes.

Nowadays, you'll also see batik used for everything from bedroom slippers to men's shirts. Slippers can cost a couple of dollars, a set of napkins and tablecloth under $15, blouses and shirts $8 to $45.

To read before you shop. The following books give more details about batik, and are worth seeking out at a well-stocked bookstore or library.

Photo: Shoppers eye flower design on sarong-size piece of batik. Third floor of Jakarta's Sarinah department store offers a dizzying array

Photo: Drawing in melted wax dripped from tiny spouted tool (canting), artisan applies design that will resist dye, remain white

Photo: She's daubing dyes in areas of design; these areas will be waxed over before cloth is immersed in dye of background color

Photo: Finished batik has highly intricate design, almost entirely composed of tiny dots

Photo: Before open-air stalls along a Sumatra street, vendors show batik skirts to a tourist who has already bought one
COPYRIGHT 1986 Sunset Publishing Corp.
No portion of this article can be reproduced without the express written permission from the copyright holder.
Copyright 1986 Gale, Cengage Learning. All rights reserved.

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Date:Feb 1, 1986
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