History & Culture / Southeast Asia

What is batik? Unweaving the fabric of an identity

by Dewi Fitzpatrick
Length 8 min

What do Malaysia Airlines, Singaporean Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong and an Indonesian public school teacher all have in common? While this may feel like the beginning of a bad joke, it can be answered in one word: batik.

What does the word “batik” mean?

For Malaysia Airlines, Singapore Airlines, and Garuda Indonesia, batik is part of their uniform, and important to their corporate identity.  In Singapore, batik is considered National wear, and Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong often wears batik to formal occasions, notably at the National Day Parade, or on state visits. An Indonesian public school teacher, along with various other state employees, dons batik on a Friday, the unofficial batik day of the week. But what is batik?

Nowadays, the word batik is understood as an item of clothing. It is often referred to as a shirt (for men), or a dress or skirt (for women) made of fabric decorated with the batik patterns common in Indonesia, Malaysia, or Singapore.

But the word batik has many meanings and connotations. In Indonesia, specifically in Java—the heart of batik—research suggests that the term originated some time between the 10th and 14th century. It may have derived from the Sundanese word ambatik, which means to draw. Others believe the word is an amalgamation of the words babat (story) and titik (dots) meaning “to tell a story with dots”. Today, batik is understood in three ways: as fabric decorated with the distinctive ornamental patterns that define batik;  the clothing items made out of that fabric; or as the unique practice of waxing and dying through which batik is created.


How is batik made?

Batik can be made on cotton, silk, and even linen. There are two ways in which batik is created: batik tulis and batik cap. Tulis, means to write, and refers to the use of a canting—a small, handheld ‘pen’ consisting of a bamboo stick attached to a metal scoop with a sprouted tip—to draw patterns with hot wax.

A canting is a traditional tool used to draw patterns in hot wax on fabric in order to create a resist for the repeated wax and dye process.

A canting is dipped into hot wax and held like a pen. By tilting the tool, the artist can control the flow of the wax out of the tip. Image: British Museum.

Cap means stamp. In this process, stamps of patterns or designs are pre-fabricated in metal forms. These are then dipped in hot wax, and stamped onto fabric. The cap can be a handheld stamp, or in modern times, a mechanised stamp that runs through machinery.

A cap or metal stamp with a pre-fabricated pattern is used to create repetitive patterns on fabric using hot wax.

Photo by Agto Nugroho on Unsplash.

In today’s market, batik cap is significantly more affordable than batik tulis as it is mass-produced over a shorter period. Batik tulis is considered to be of superior artistic quality, and designs created by the batik artists are more unique. Often, batik tulis are displayed as tapestry-like pieces and their use as garments is confined to special occasions.

a woman comparing the cost of batik cap and batik tulis

Types of batik

Historically, the different types of batik in Java can be categorised by location and can be divided into two broad categories: batik pesisiran (coastal) and batik pedalaman (rural). In coastal Javanese regions, such as Pekalongan, Cirebon, and Indramayu, batik was seen as a wearable good with economic value. Given its proximity to trade and foreign influences, coastal batik is also more varied in design. The batik patterns found here are brighter and more varied in colours, adorned with motifs of animals such as birds, butterflies, and flowers.

In comparison, the treatment of batik pedalaman is more serious and spiritual. It is rich in tradition and classical elements, and is seen as a heritage treasure developed for the royal families of Surakarta and Yogyakarta. In fact, royal decrees have been issued in the court of Mataram in Surakarta, Central Java, throughout the 18th century that stipulated which patterns were considered larangan—forbidden to the general population and reserved exclusively for the sultan and his family. These palace motifs expressed notions of power, fertility and safety—qualities which the sultan was expected to embody.

Rural batik is usually made up of just two—at maximum three—colours created through the use of natural dyes, made out of tree bark or leaves. The meaning behind the design is often incredibly spiritual and philosophical, with colours and patterns representing specific cosmic spaces, such as the relationship between humans and God/s. As Hinduism was an integral element to the royal courts of Java at the time that batik developed, Hindu mythology and its symbolism of colours can also be seen in batik design. For instance, blue symbolises worldly knowledge, whilst white symbolises the mandala and black is the colour of Lord Vishnu.

A primary school boy wearing a state school uniform that is consists of a batik top.

A boy wearing a primary state-school uniform which incorporates batik. Photo by Janis A. on Unsplash.

Today, batik is readily available in Indonesia and used for a wide variety of things. From household items like cushion covers and coasters to clothing items and scarves, batik has become a fashion commodity. Batik is considered formal wear in Indonesia, and is often worn to work on Fridays, or as attire for weddings and formal events. It is also often the uniform of choice for various employees in Indonesia, from students, teachers and state officials to bank tellers, waiters and waitresses.

Why is batik important?

Batik was inscribed on the Representative List of the Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity by UNESCO in 2009, giving it international recognition as a “historical fabric of human civilization”. This propelled its popularity both within Indonesia and in Southeast Asia. But batik has always carried a significance in the archipelago. Batik’s importance can be attributed to its place in the country’s cultural heritage, and  the intricate craftsmanship required to produce it.

Batik also visually represents the history of the region and its cultural influences: it shows the importance of Hindu mythology in ancient Javanese kingdoms, the role of the royal family, and who the influential traders of Java were. The settlement of Chinese merchants in the northern coastal towns of Java also gave rise to Peranakan style batik. This batik was heavily influenced by Chinese motifs inherent to Taoism, Confucianism, and Buddhism such as the lotus, peacocks, dragons and cranes. Interestingly, the presence of bright colours reflects the use of chemicals such as indigo-sol, also introduced by Chinese traders. By the nineteenth century, Dutch settlers began to set up batik workshops in coastal towns of Java. This batik featured very European motifs such as Little Red Riding hood, cupid flying over a half-moon, tulips and most commonly bouquets of European flowers. The batik trade in this century also thrived thanks to Arab traders, who supplied raw materials to Chinese and European batik workshops and then sold the finished products on the market. Batik design influenced by Arab motifs and the spread of Islam featured calligraphy and religious professions of faith.

While batik-only ateliers exist, nowadays, there is a rising trend of fashion designers incorporating batik into their collections. Some critics argue that young Indonesians love batik blindly for its popularity without knowing enough about its rich history.

But batik has never been locked in history. If anything, the proliferation of batik and its uses reflects its ability to adapt to societal changes. Coastal batik was a commodity which saw the introduction of motifs from around the world, while rural batik was considered spiritual and philosophical for those who understood its elements. What remains constant is its cultural standing. Batik will remain a tapestry and a reflection of its past.


  • art history,
  • batik,
  • culture,
  • heritage,
  • Indonesia

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