Batik and Tie Dye Techniques

Batik and Tie Dye Techniques

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by Nancy Belfer

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In this comprehensive, generously illustrated handbook, textile artist and teacher Nancy Belfer leads readers step by step through the technique required to successfully create imaginative and beautiful batiks and tie-dyed textiles. Even beginners, following the instructions in this thorough, thoughtful guidebook, can create colorful and exciting textiles that will


In this comprehensive, generously illustrated handbook, textile artist and teacher Nancy Belfer leads readers step by step through the technique required to successfully create imaginative and beautiful batiks and tie-dyed textiles. Even beginners, following the instructions in this thorough, thoughtful guidebook, can create colorful and exciting textiles that will add distinctive touches to clothing, home furnishings, and more.
The author first reviews the early uses of dyes and the application of resist dye processes to textiles, then explores the history and tradition of batik, emphasizing the traditional Javanese batik method. She then covers every facet of the process of designing and making batiks, from selecting proper equipment and supplies, setting up a studio and making preliminary drawings and sketches to preparing the wax, applying the wax to cloth, applying dyes, and setting color.
Ms. Belfer follows a similar format in reviewing the history and traditions of tie dye and the art of designing with tie resist techniques, clearly demonstrating each stage of the process, including tritik, clamping, and discharge methods. Over 100 photographs and 28 diagrams make it easy to follow the various procedures. A helpful list of materials and equipment suppliers rounds out this excellent guide.

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Batik and Tie Dye Techniques


Dover Publications, Inc.

Copyright © 1992 Nancy Belfer
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-0-486-13804-6


Early Uses of Dyes

Dyes are a kind of magic, a delight to the eye and a joy to use. Even a brief inquiry into the early discoveries and uses of these coloring agents conveys a sense of mystery and glamor. Primitive people in many different parts of the world discovered that certain root, leaf, or bark material could be treated to produce color in a fluid form. Its application was both religious and functional—the embellishment of body, clothing, and utensils.

Ancient Chinese writings, 2500 B.C., mention the use of dyes on cloth. The Peruvians, during a time corresponding to the first centuries of the Christian era, worked with well over a hundred distinct hues in their textiles. The superb mastery of dyeing skills, which developed in India, was praised throughout the Roman world; excavated cloth fragments indicate a tradition going back some 5,000 years.

In Greek antiquity, myths often allude to dye colorings. Of intriguing interest is one of the few truly fast dyes in use at this time: purpura, extracted from gland secretions of mollusks along the Greek coastline. It was known to the Phoenicians and has been traced back to Minoan Crete. The term "purple" was applied to the range of red to blue violets made from these shellfish secretions, a colorless liquid that oxidized when it was exposed to air. Hills of crushed shells today identify the remains of extensive dye works. The color was difficult to process and was used only to dye the finest garments, robes, and cloaks worn throughout the Mediterranean world as a distinctive mark of luxury.

Purple has since become a symbol of aristocratic pomp and celebrity, the color of royalty. Strangely enough, knowledge of this color, known as Tyrian purple, became lost during the Dark Ages. It was rediscovered by a French scholar in the middle of the nineteenth century, about the same time chemically made dyes were first introduced in England.

Numerous plants, certain insects and shellfish, as well as some minerals, have been found to be sources of colorants. Knowledge of the preparation and usage of natural dyes evolved slowly over centuries of trial and error experimentation. The formulas and recipes were often carefully protected secrets, subject to cloak and dagger intrigues and trade conflicts among rival countries. In India, where resist dyeing probably originated, the complex technology involved in the formulation of dyes and mordants was mastered to an unparalleled degree of perfection. Indian textiles have been known and prized by Europeans since the sixteenth century.

In the resist-dye techniques, the dyeing of the cloth cannot be thought of as the application of pigment to surface; there must be a chemical reaction between the coloring agent and the fiber so that the color becomes a permanent, integral part of the fabric. In order to achieve this affinity between dye and cloth, and also to insure fastness and color control, the use of a mordant became necessary.

Mordants are chemical solutions that can be used before, during, or after the dye bath; they prepare the fiber for receiving the color and also control the actual hue obtained. The same dye used with different mordants will produce different colors. Some commonly used mordant substances are organic acids (acetic, tartar, tannic), inorganic acids (sulphuric), and salts (alum, tartar emetic, Glaubers salt). If a certain color is to be duplicated, the preparation of the dye solution as well as the mordant must be exactly the same.

Some of the oldest and most widely known of the natural dyes are:

Indigo—probably first used in India but known throughout East Asia before recorded history. This dye produces the familiar deep blue color so prevalent on Javanese batiks.

Madder—also originated in India; deep, rich reds are produced from powder formed by grinding the roots of the madder plant. Cochineal—a range of brilliant reds; the grains are prepared from a dried insect, cocus cacti. This dye was first known in South America and Mexico.

From here the list can be greatly expanded to include numerous additional plants as well as certain species of insects, shellfish, minerals, and metals. The ingenious early development of fabric colorants from a variety of natural ingredients paved the way for the complex industrial dye technology we take for granted today. While there is still interest in the preparation of natural dyes, most textile artists prefer working with synthetic dyes in resist-dye applications.


The Resist-Dye Processes in Textiles

The various types of resist-dye processes can be best defined according to the type of resist that is used and the manner of its application.


Using hot liquid wax, lines and shapes are drawn onto cloth with brushes, special tools, or stamps. The wax penetrates the cloth forming a resist. The unwaxed sections of the fabric are dyed; the sections of the fabric protected by the wax resist remain free of the dye. This process is known as batik throughout Indonesia, India, and the Orient.

In traditional batik, there is a characteristic network of fine, weblike lines scattered over the surface of the cloth, due to the deliberate crushing of the fabric prior to the final dye bath. As traditional methods are simplified and adapted to present-day interpretations, many variations are possible. The fabric can be taken through several overlapping applications of wax and dye, thus increasing the complexity of the design, or the work can be completed with a single application of wax and dye, as in silk painting, eliminating a final crackle-producing dye bath.


Historically, the use of water-soluble flour pastes which are applied to cloth in different ways, is well-known throughout Asia and parts of Africa. In Nigeria, the term adire eleko refers to the indigo-dyed decorative fabric made with cassava-flour paste applied with cut blocks and stencils. Other variations include applying the paste uniformly over the entire surface of the cloth, then forming the design by scraping through with a comb or similar tool.

In the impressive textile traditions of Japan, several techniques using starch paste resists of rice flour have been perfected over several centuries. The most familiar are tsutsugami, the freehand drawing on fabric with the resist applied through a cone or pastry tube, and katazome, in which the resist is applied through delicately-cut paper stencils.


The term tie dye is generally used to identify several related resist-dye processes on fabric that call for different ways of folding or pleating the cloth, followed by the selective placement of bindings, ties, and knots to compress the fabric before it is placed in the dye bath. The tight compression of the cloth in certain sections keeps the dye from entering; the portions of the cloth not compressed receive the dye coloration. The overall pattern emerges when the bindings, ties, or knots are removed and the fabric is unfolded.

Although early examples of tie-resist textiles have been found in many cultures, including Pre-Columbian Peru, these processes are most prevalent in East Asia, particularly Indonesia where the term plangi originated. In India the term bandhana is used and the elaborate tie dye patterning found on Japanese kimonos is called shibori.


Tritik, an Indonesian term, is a related bound resist technique in which rows of small running stitches are sewn into the cloth in various configurations to form a predetermined pattern. When the sewing thread is very tightly pulled, the fabric gathers up and compresses, thus forming a resist to the dye. The stitches can be made in straight or zigzag rows, or can outline a specific shape. When the threads are cut and the fabric is opened, the stitches emerge as tiny undyed dots contrasting with the dyed background.

In many examples of tritik found in textiles from Indonesia and West Africa, the stitched resists are frequently combined with other tie dye processes to obtain patterning of great complexity.


Controlled placement of resists in clearly defined shapes or figures can be accomplished using clamps. In this adaptation of an ancient Japanese technique called itajime or jam-dyeing, duplicate pieces of cut plywood, thick plastic, or coins are evenly lined up on each side of folded fabric and tightly clamped together. This forms the resist; after dyeing, the clamps and blocks are removed to reveal the pattern.


History and Tradition in Batik

Where does batik come from? There is no certainty, but several theories speculate on the origins of this intriguing craft. The word "batik" is Indonesian in origin, but the concept itself was probably first devised either by the Egyptians or, according to other scholars, on the Indian archipelago. It is known that liquid or paste starch resists preceded the use of wax.

In the fourth century B.C., the Greeks invaded India and returned with many textiles. This indicated an already well-established tradition in weaving, as well as cloth painting and dyeing. The images were geometric or highly stylized arrangements of flowers, fruits, birds, and animals; the craftsmanship was of the highest quality. With increasing migration of people and expanding trade routes, knowledge of wax-resist dyeing spread throughout Asia.

About 300 or 400 A.D. Indian traders and merchants introduced the technique to the Javanese peoples of Indonesia, who developed it in their own unique manner to the very high degree of excellence so admired today. Since the textile arts were of great importance to these people, the batiks of Indonesia give us an unusually complete and unbroken tradition that can be traced for centuries.

The volcanic island of Java, where the batik art was perfected, was invaded by Hindu tribes from India who remained and were powerful rulers for 1,300 years. During the Medieval period, Arabs came, also by way of India, introducing the Moslem religion. The sultans of these empires were supreme rulers with elaborate palaces and numerous court attendants; they lived storybook lives of richness and splendor. The usual preference for finery throughout Asia is for silk, but the Javanese, because of their ancient batik tradition, favored cotton. Cotton was easy to grow and in a tropical climate, a comfortable fabric to wear. Batik decoration was used only on garments, rather than ceremonial cloths or decorative hangings. At one time a sultan decreed that batik making was a "royal art" to be practiced only by the women of the court. This ruling, of course, could not be enforced for long; the craft was too deeply ingrained among the people, but it serves as evidence of the value and high regard given these garments.

For centuries batik was practiced by the native villagers with a precision and concern for detail that we marvel at today. Time was of no importance; they employed infinite patience, working and reworking motifs handed down from one generation to another. A Dutch anthropologist, traveling through Java over thirty years ago, gives an account of some of these native village practices:

I enjoy a visit to a village. There the meek woman sits quietly on a self-woven mat on the ground before the bamboo frame over which the white cotton is hanging loosely. On her back, tied in a "slendang," a baby lies asleep; other children are crawling or running about the house; chickens everywhere—this is a humble house.

At her left is the earthenware little stove, the anglo, on which the charcoals melt some beeswax in a small iron vessel. She dips the tjanting, her only instrument into the liquid wax, blows then onto its thin outlet ... and finally starts to make her design on the thin cotton. No pattern, no sketches on the cotton—her heart and imagination figure design the batik.

The women were responsible for the designs and the waxing; the men, for the dyeing and finishing. The ingrained superstitions of many centuries played their part in the ritual of batik work. These skills were thought of as benevolent gifts from the spirits of ancestors. Good work was done only on a "good" day with tools that were blessed. Offerings of incense, rice, and flowers were prepared to win the favor of the spirits. While the waxing demanded great skill, the dyeing procedures were extremely complicated and time-consuming; a slight error in mixing could prove ruinous. If the color was faulty, the evil spirits were surely at work.

All the traditional patterns had whimsical names—"a carefree life" or "moonshine charm"—which assist in identification. Certain patterns were reserved exclusively for the family of the sultan and his highest-ranking officers. These were forbidden for use on other garments. The workmanship and dye coloration had to be perfect; this meant no sign of wax crackle, for any break in the wax meant faulty handling. Batiks with such "defects" had to be destroyed so that the evil spirits would not molest the ruler.

Some aspects of batik making changed when the tjap, or copper hand stamp, came into use in Java about 100 years ago. It had been known in other areas for centuries. After the stamp is dipped into a bed of molten wax, the design motif is imprinted onto the cloth. The principle is that of block printing, with the hot wax taking the place of the ink. The stamp was made by inserting the edges of thin strips of copper into a wood base, conforming to a preplanned design. A second stamp was made of the reverse of each motif for printing on the back of the cloth.

This device has obviously made it possible for a batik to be completed in far less time than the tjanting method requires. The stamp, which so greatly speeded up the process, marked the beginning of the movement to change batik making from a folk craft or "cottage industry" kind of activity to the small factory type of production that is prevalent today. There are several thousand of these factories in Java today. With some exceptions, aniline dyes have almost completely supplanted natural colorants. The last generation has seen many changes in the social structure which have added to the breaking down of the handcraft traditions that existed, unchanged, for so many centuries.

To the Western eye, the design character of Javanese batiks seem to be bound to a precise scheme of geometric repetition. Although some designs seem more rhythmic than others, there is a lack of dramatic interplay of the motifs. In the culture of these peoples, tradition was very strong—in fact so strong that any deviation from ritual was a moral offense. This attitude was bound to have its effect on the designs of the textiles. The artist as a unique personality was simply of no concern, especially as batik was a folk art, practiced among the villages. There was never a thought of changing intentionally the basic scheme of a design as it was passed from one generation to the next in a particular locality. These batiks should be viewed today on the basis of strong cultural traditions.


1. Preparation of the cloth

washed in hot water
soaked in solution of castor oil or coconut oil
oil boiled away
cloth dried in sun
placed in starch solution
again dried in sun
cloth pounded and beaten with wooden hammer

2. Application of the wax

design drawn on the cloth

tjanting tool—used to apply wax to outlines and linear motifs

penembok—tool with a flat, wide spout, used for filling in larger sections

tjap—a hand stamp, allowing the motif to be printed on the cloth (wax always applied to both sides of the cloth)

3. Dyeing the cloth

cloth placed in indigo vat until the correct shade of blue is obtained (several days)

fabric rinsed and dried

wax scratched away from sections of the cloth that are to be dyed the next color (e.g., brown)

additional wax applied to the sections that are to remain the indigo blue shade

cloth dyed in the brown dye bath

cloth rinsed and dried

(some sections of the cloth will be blue, others brown; where the brown covers the unwaxed areas of blue, the resultant color is black)

4. Removing the wax

fabric boiled in water to remove wax


Contemporary Design if in Batik

There are certain fairly precise procedural steps involved in the making of a batik. This does not imply, however, that there is a set of mechanical rules to be mastered which, if followed consistently, lead to ever-predictable results. Working within a few basic guidelines, the "how" of making a batik becomes a fluid, personal means of expression. Certainly the nature of the technique is a fundamental aspect of those expressive qualities, but there are opportunities for an unusually wide range of graphic and color effects. Batik is a technique most responsive to the uniqueness of the individual temperament.

As the designer becomes proficient in handling the waxes, tools, and dyes, he gains instinctive knowledge of the variety of visual effects possible. Along with this increasing technical competence, he develops an increasing sense of judgment in building color and form relationships. As in any creative media, mastery of the technical aspects is very much related to the qualitative concerns that often seem so elusive. Because of this, improvisation is suggested for the beginner as the most compatible means of allowing a personal imagery to unfold.


Excerpted from Batik and Tie Dye Techniques by NANCY BELFER. Copyright © 1992 Nancy Belfer. Excerpted by permission of Dover Publications, Inc..
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

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