Contemporary Batik in the Pesisir Tradition


This is a batik from the workshop of Sutoyo Slamet from Wiradesa, Pekalongan, also mentioned in my previous post on Pesisir batik. What stands out immediately for me in his work, is the delicate artistry and precision of the waxing. The canting his pembatik use has an opening so small, it can barely be seen with the naked eye.

Sutoyo’s pembatik (the person applying the wax)  range in age from 25 to 65 and they all started as beginners, or just average batik makers ten years ago when Sutoyo decided to try to produce batik halus, the finest quality. With training and persistent patience, they have gained the skill necessary to become the foundation for Sutoyo’s batik production. They each have a repertoire of hundreds of patterns (issen-issen) and when to use them. Note details of the batik above and below, how each leaf, each blade of grass, each petal, each feather has an internal life of its own, enhanced by the delicate lines, dots,  and flourishes created by the pembatik. This more than any other aspect identifies the batik as being in the Pesisir tradition.

In earlier times men also applied the wax with the canting, but now there are very few men who have the required skill. The designer is not unlike the director of a play. But in drawing the design on paper and conceiving and supervising the plan for the production from start to finish, he also writes the script.

There are many aspects involved in this process starting from the graphic design, always a linear drawing, to transferring the design to the cloth, the application of wax with the canting, to the the coloring, immersion in a dye bath or painting on the dye with a brush, and finally the removal of the wax to reveal the finished results. Usually the designer makes the drawing and directs the entire process, employing others who are expert in the various skills needed. Rarely can the designer master all of the skills required for each step. 


 I had the pleasure of meeting Sutoyo Slamet on a recent trip to Pekalongan, the rare batik designer who has mastered each step, and who can  easily sit down with the women around the pot of wax, joining them in applying the delicate lines on the cloth. He colors all of the batik himself as well and is an excellent draftsman of beautiful balanced compositions.  

I was impressed not only with his work, but also the way in which he works. His workshop is like his batik, clean and bright. It was clear that his staff is devoted to him and to their work, and they take great pride in their skill and the quality of the batik they produce.

Here are some examples of their incredible skill in applying the wax to the drawing on the cloth.

Batik Pesisir, Yesterday and Today

Batik Pesisir was produced in coastal areas of northern Java and Madura that were exposed to sea trading and  consequently  was influenced by cultures from other parts of the world. It was distinguished from the batik that came from the rest of Java which emanated originally from the keraton, or royal courts, and was fundamentally free from foreign influences.  Pesisir batik was generally more colorful, and used floral motifs, Chinese and Arabic motifs, birds, animals, sea creatures, and motifs from nature.

This is a sarung  signed  The Tie Siet, Pekalongan and reflects the trend during the 1920’s for Chinese batik makers to imitate the success of the Indo European batik makers of the previous generation in supplying “buketan” motif batik for European tastes.

From the collection of Rudolf Smend, Cologne, Germany


The Chinese taste at the time favored a softer, pastel color pallette.


This batik from Lassem circa 1920 has exotic animals such as lions, elephants, and camels.  Also from the collection of Rudolf Smend.OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAOLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

This is a detail from a contemporary batik from Wiradesa, Pekalongan, a batik producing center on the northern coast of Java by Sutoyo Slamet.      It can be considered pesisir both geographically and stylistically.



In contrast to the coastal or pesisir batik, that which came from the keraton in Central Java was of a much more limited color palette, using shades of sogan brown and indigo blue depending on which court it came from. The motifs were highly symbolic with specific cultural significance, some even reserved solely for the use by members of the royal court.

This is a batik from Surakarta (Solo) circa 1970 from the collection of Daniel Gundlach, San FranciscoOLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA CJBTK50, Kain panjang, cotton Solo 450.

This batik is by Nyonya (Mrs.) Lie Boen from Kudus in the 1930’s.  Considered pesisir, it is characteristic of batik from the few makers in that area near the northern coast of Java, by it’s detailed background using traditional keraton (court) motifs from Central Java, such as this parang motif in the traditional sogan color, with the buketan popular at the time in coastal batik.  Already at this time styles were being mixed up and composed into unique combinations. From the collection of Rudolf Smend, Cologne, Germany.OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA


This is a detail from a contemporary work from Batik Setyowijaya of Yogyakarta in Central Java, composed of  traditional nitik patterns in sogan color from Yogyakarta.  It is a unique and intricate composition of traditional motifs.OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

Much has changed in the the production of batik in Java in this last century. Styles have been mixed and there is no longer exclusivity of use. The traditional parang and kawung patterns originally reserved for members of the court are now worn everyday by anyone and are often combined into one composition with bouquets and butterflies originally seen only on pasisir batik. It would be very difficult to determine the origin of a contemporary batik today.

This is a contemporary batik by Solikhin Ahmad of Artho Moro Batik from Wiradesa, Pekalongan that combines parang rusak, a traditional pattern from the royal courts of Yogyakarta and Surakarta, with typical floral motifs of coastal, Pesisir batik, in natural dye colors. OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

In the past, there were distinguishing characteristics that identified the origin of a batik, for example the batik from the court of Yogyakarta were predominantly shades of blue and cream, and those from the court of Surakarta (Solo) were sogan brown, with black.

Lassem batik was distinguished for its rich red coloring. This is a  pesisir batik sarung from Lassem  made in the 1930’s. The rich red coloring was only possible in Lassem or possibly Semarang. The peacocks in the composition suggest that it was for a European customer. From the collection of Rudolf Smend, Cologne, Germany. DIGITAL CAMERA


Besides color, certain patterns can help identify batik from certain areas as well. But not always.  For example the mega mending pattern (clouds) is considered unique to Cirebon. The delicate shading is achieved by successive lines of wax and immersions in the same dye bath color, in this example, blue. This is a contemporary piece commissioned by The Language of Cloth made by Bu Bun of Cirebon. Detail Bu Bun


Undoubtedly the most skillful examples of this motif are made in Cirebon. This one has seven gradations! But here are some other examples of mega mendung made in other areas of Java.

This one is a political statement about the environment created by the artisans of The Language of Cloth in Kliwonan, Sragen, Central Java.IMG_0384 Pabrik Blk and wht

In this batik the artist Hanafi of Pekalongan uses the gradation technique to outline ginko leaves instead of clouds, giving the batik a glowing quality. The color is natural indigo.

IMG_4204 - Version 2


Itajime, clamp resist shibori

The resist in these scarves was achieved by clamping some wood scraps together on folded raw silk from Phnom Srouk Province in Cambodia and dipping them into an indigo vat. When the clamps and wood blocks are removed the pattern is revealed.


BATIK to raise environmental consciousness

I love batik that tells a story. By this I do not mean the European-influenced fairytale batik of the last century produced in Java during the Dutch colonial occupation in Indonesia, that depict snow white or little red riding hood. I mean batik that tells us something about real life. I have always loved the mega mendung motif batiks of Cirebon, East Java, and have in the past used the cloud symbol to tell the story of carbon pollution from the exhaust of modern transportation. Recently I have had the opportunity to work with a very skilled husband and wife team from Cirebon who specialize in producing magnificent mega mendung batik. The mega mendung motif is characterized by a series of gradations of color forming stylized cloud-like patterns. Bu Bun and her husband, Pak Uripah have produced the only 9 gradation mega mendung batik I have ever seen. They agreed to produce this latest story batik design, using the cloud again as a symbol of the carbon pollution from coal-burning electricity generating plants.

The format is the tradition kain panjang, 2.5 meters by 105cm, on primissima cotton, using chemical dyes.


It took approximately 7 months to complete. There are seven gradations of grey to black. Each gradation is a separate application of color followed by a submerging of the entire cloth in the dye bath. The background is covered with wax to protect it from the grey dye bath until the last gradation. Then all of the wax is removed, the gradations and other details are covered with wax, so that the background can be dyed red. Then all of the wax is removed and the cloth is finished.


The skill of Bu Bun is evident in the clean  even lines of the gradations. This requires infinite skill with the canting. The even gradation of color demonstrates the great skill of Pak Uripah in mixing the dyes to achieve just the right variation of each gradation.


I want to also give credit to Mbak Atie who is my expert agent and coordinator for the batik of Cirebon. She personally supervised and assisted Bu Bun and Pak Uripah in planning each stage of the production. Her knowledge of the process was invaluable.






Pop-up shop now open!

The 2014 edition of the Language of Cloth Pop-up Shop is now open. There are many new finds this year, and prices are still very reasonable.

Open every day except Monday, from 10am to 7pm.

December 2nd through 24th



Artists who use indigo: Rowland and Chinami Ricketts

Recently I visited Rowland and Chinami Ricketts in their studio in Bloomington, Indiana , where Rowland is an assistant professor on the textiles faculty in the School of Fine Arts.

“Rowland and Chinami Ricketts use natural materials and traditional processes to create contemporary textiles. Chinami hand-weaves narrow width yardage for kimono and obi. Rowland hand-dyes textiles that span art and design. Together we grow all the indigo that colors our cloth, investing ourselves and our time in our textiles because we believe this way of working to be an essential part of the material’s integrity and authenticity.”

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAThey are both very personable and kind, generous with the knowledge they have gained through their years of training and apprenticeship with masters in Japan.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAThey maintain two stainless steel vats, about 4 feet deep, one freshly made, and the other already used.  They start by dyeing the cloth in the older vat to begin building up the color.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAChinami is a weaver, creating cloth from hand dyed yarns in the traditional way, in widths suitable for making kimonos. She and Rowland have designed a line of table runners ,wall hangings, and room dividers that recently were awarded by The Martha Stuart American Made craft competition:

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAOLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAPreparing the lye water for a new vat. They get ash from the hardwood burned by a local wood-fired pizza restaurant to use for making it.


Sample swaths. Rowland emphasized the importance of testing the variables, recording details, and being consistent in the process.





The vat is alive.

Coloring batik, naturally

I’ve looked at many batik colored with natural dyes, and often the results are somewhat dull and flat. When I saw this one by my colleague, Mas Solikhin Ahmad of Pekalongan on the north coast of Java, I jumped for joy at the liveliness of the color, all derived from natural sources, including indigo. The colors are unusually defined and distinct, not muddied at all, which is quite a feat.  What also makes this batik outstanding is the composition. Although I am  getting a bit bored with the butterfly fixation many batikers have right now, the color and overall design of this one makes it truly outstanding. OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAOLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

Handwriting stamped batik scarf

Instead of applying the wax by hand with the canting, the wax resist is applied with a stamp made of copper, called a cap (tchap). The dye is indigo.

Love scarf, indigo on silk



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