Batik and the plants that dye them: distilling worldviews from plant-based dyes
I had written a year or so ago on the use of dyes in clothing to represent social rank in Korea, one of the more popular posts on this blog, and someone had recommended that I expand on this social structuring via color through the medium of batik. The recommendation came specifically for the use of batik in Indonesia (more specifically, Java), but I thought a broader discussion of batik and the specific plants used for the various dyes was in order.
What is batik?
Batik is a cloth that is made using a dyeing technique with wax. Melted wax is applied to cloth before being dipped in dye. The most common waxes are beeswax and paraffin wax (or sometimes a mixture of the two). The beeswax will hold to the fabric and the paraffin wax will allow cracking. This process of waxing and dyeing can be repeated or condensed depending on the region and the sophistication of the technique. What results from this process tend to be fairly dynamic both in terms of color and pattern. Batik is practiced in many different regions, including Southeast Asia (Indonesia, Malaysia, Singapore), Northeast Asia (Japan, China), Central/South Asia (Azerbaijan, Armenia, India, Sri Lanka) and West Africa (Nigeria, Senegal, Ghana, Sierra Leone).
Before jumping into the significance of batik in some of these regions, we should discuss the botanical significance of this topic, namely the plants being used for the various dyes in these regions.
Below are some of the more commonly used plants for batik dyeing, although there are many many others in common use as well. The link provided will take you to representative materials (and specimens) on JSTOR Plant Science.
- Alkanet: Alkanna tinctoria-a plant in the borage family Boraginaceae with a bright blue flower, used to provide a red dye.
- Annatto: Bixa orellana -A yellow dye, prepared from the testa, is used chiefly for colouring greasy foodstuffs (including, as I just learned, Cheddar cheese). The plant is also grown for ornament or hedging and used medicinally. Not as commonly used as a clothing dye as it wears out quite easily. Learn more about this versatile plant at the Use Record.
- Brazilwood: Caesalpinia echinata-a species of Brazilian timber tree in the Fabaceae family. This plant has a dense, orange-red heartwood that yields a red dye called brazilin.
- Cochineal: Dactylopius coccus- is not a plant, but rather an insect that is used for dyeing. Carminic acid, typically 17–24% of dried insects’ weight, can be extracted from the body and eggs then mixed with aluminum or calcium salts to make carmine dye. Gross, but a dye in great currency in Central America throughout the 15th century.
- Henna: Lawsonia inermis- a flowering plant from which dye is extracted. Most commonly used for temporary decorative tattoos.
- Indigo: Indigofera tinctoria- several species, particularly I. arrecta, I. articulata, I. coerulea and I. tinctoria, were once of international importance as the source of the blue-black dye indigo, but now they are only used locally (according to the Flora record).
- Kamala: Nelumbo nucifera- more commonly referred to as the lotus, is the national flower of India and Vietnam
There are many many more dyes used in batik, but the above gives a bit of a sample of some common ones found in batik regions.
History and Significance of Batik
Batik is an ancient art form. It existed in Egypt in the 4th century BC. Linen for wrapping mummies was soaked in wax, and scratched using a sharp tool. In Asia, batik is found in China during the T’ang dynasty (618-907 CE), and in India and Japan during the Nara period (645-794 CE) (presumably with China as the conduit between India and Japan). In Africa it was originally practised by the Yoruba tribe in Nigeria, Soninke and Wolof in Senegal.
It spread throughout Indonesia most likely via India or Sri Lanak in the 6th or 7th century, although some believe it is a native practice that has existed for many centuries prior to this date. The significance of batik depends on the region involved, but Indonesia and West Africa seem to attach great levels of significance to the plant being used and the color extracted from its dye.
For example, in Java it is linked to a religious view of the universe. The colors most commonly found in Java in batik, indigo, dark brown, and white represent the three major Hindu Gods (Brahma, Visnu, Siva). The colors used almost, not coincidentally, happen to the most common dyes available in the local plants. On a slight variation of the practice in Korea where certain colors were restricted to certain social classes, in Indonesia certain patterns are restricted. So, colors and patterns are almost universally used to denote rank and status and all of this is tied to the plants available for use.
In Sierra Leone (and throughout West Africa), plants used for dyes in batik generally have a host of useful properties (as medicines, food, dyes, etc.). In Sierra Leone, indigo (gara) is chief among the natural dyes to be found.
To learn more about the interwoven relationship of plants, clothing, and cultural significance made evident in this process of batik, consider some of these additional sources:
- Wessing, Robert (1986). WEARING THE COSMOS: SYMBOLISM IN BATIK DESIGN. Crossroads: An Interdisciplinary Journal of Southeast Asian Studies, 2, (3):pp. 40-82
- MacFoy, C. (2004). Ethnobotany and Sustainable Utilization of Natural Dye Plants in Sierra Leone. Economic Botany, 58, Supplement (Winter, 2004): pp. S66-S76.
- Morton, Julia F. (1992). The Ocean-Going Noni, or Indian Mulberry (Morinda citrifolia, Rubiaceae) and Some of Its “Colorful” Relatives. Economic Botany,46 (3) (Jul. – Sep., 1992): pp. 241-256.