By Leana Tao
A drop of liquid falling onto cloth spreads along the path of the
fibers until absorption is complete. Wax is used to resist and contain
the liquid within the borders of intricate designs, to create beautiful
images and patterns on the cloth called batik.
There are two basic kinds of batik. The first is stamped, using
copper irons to impress the wax, the second is hand-drawn using
a copper bowl with a spout of varying sizes on a bamboo stick. Chinese
and Malaysian batik are examples of the former. Chinese designs
generally use only indigo blue with simple white floral or geometric
shapes, although recent years have large floral patterns in several
colours. Malaysian designs have large floral patterns in several
colours and are used in their traditional dress. The wax is applied,
then the cloth is immersed in a dye vat. Another layer of wax is
applied to the new colour and it is dipped again. The wax may crack
between immersions, adding veins of brown over the original white
and additional colours. Indonesia uses this copper stamp technique
also in their traditional dress with iconic animal shapes and geometric
Painted batiks can be further categorized into the traditional
Indonesian dotted wax application using dyes predominantly in yellow,
brown and red; also immersed with modern style solid lines between
which the dye is filled in a painting technique.
Painted batik is the style of Phuket and Thailand and artists create
brilliantly coloured resort wear and accessories. The technique
has been made possible because of modern dye compounds, which throughout
Asia are generally imported from Germany and are colour fast. New
also is the innovation of synthetic bees wax called micro-wax. Bee’s
wax alone is very soft, leaving fuzzy edges and so is combined with
paraffin wax, which is very brittle but leaves crisp outlines. The
mix accounts for the degree of crackling veins or in the case of
Phuket painted batik, the celerity of the design.
Due to the nature of wax, only cold water reactive dyes can be utilized
and these can only be applied to natural fibers. The workshops of
Phuket stock bolts of cotton, silk and rayon fabric in various weights.
To work the coloth it is first boiled to bring out the chemicals
used in manufacture. Cut pieces are stretched on a frame and fixed
with wax to avoid damaging the cloth. A signle size frame can be
used for one shirt, or one skirts, or sarong, two scarves or 15
I spoke with Khun Apinan Tovankasame from whose shop, Batik House,
I have had the opportunity to commission work. Khun Apinan formerly
taught Advertising Design at the Phuket Vocational College. He studied
batik in Yogyakarta and Solo in Indonesia and Koto Baru in Malaysia,
Launching his shop over twelve years ago. I gave the shop assistant
a picture and asked to have two metre flags made up. The delicate
aspects of the design were beautifully rendered and the result was
fabulous and richly coloured.
Not only do souvenir shops, resorts and government offices around
the island of Phuket place their orders here; customers from Krabi,
Pangna, Bangkok and beyond place their orders with Phuket workshops.
Apinan Tovankasame explains that while other provinces in Thailand
produce batik, what sets Phuket apart is quality and in particular
the highly developed skills of the wax applicators and painters.
Khun Apinan’s team of five wax painters arrives at five in the evening,
working late into the night. Red coloured wax is used on the larger
pieces to make it easier to see the pattern. Ten painters arrive
in the morning and work through the day filling in the bright colour-fast
Generally orders for batik uniforms come with a unique design or
perhaps a picture to be integrated into a pattern. A sample is prepared
before the full order is completed. Wax is applied freehand without
having to trace the design. The design for a shirt requires two
front panels, a back panel, pocket and sometimes sleeve or collar
trim. The artists need no guides to paint the design. Three to five
colours are used together on each segment, blended with the fingers
to create tone. After filling in the design, the background and
remaining material is filled. At the end of the day, a quality control
checker carefully examines each piece. It is placed in a sodium
suricate solution to soak overnight, fixing the dyes to the cloth.
In the morning the finished fabric is boiled with a little laundry
soap to bring out the wax and then soaked again overnight in water
to ensure the colours don’t run before being hung in the sun to
dry. The material is then sent to a tailor for sewing.
Batik House provides lessons in the factory for tour groups, which
begin with tracing a design on to a stretched handkerchief with
a soft lead pencil that will wash out. Assisted by staff, wax is
applied, then the paint. The thin handkerchief material needs only
one hour to fix the dye and the visitor’s masterpiece is wrapped
in newspaper for them to take to their hotel where they let it rest
overnight before ironing out the wax and washing the finished piece.
Large hotels such as Sheraton and Laguna have their own batik rooms.
Pre-waxed pieces are sent for guests to paint and the fixing and
wax removal is carried out by hotel staff.
I also spoke to Surichai Gansongsang, who is considered one of
Phuket’s most skilled batik artists. He estimates that 80 percent
of the local government authorities in Phuket wear uniforms with
batik shirs. Multi-award winning Khun Surichai was asked to create
the design for the outfits that the Thai and Foreign delegates wore
to the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC) meeting in Phuket.
He took his inspiration from the old historical buildings in Phuket
town, studying and copying the details of the motifs that adorn
the columns and gables of the Sino-Portugese Architecture.
At Chabatik, Khun Surichai operates on a vast scale with 15,000
piedes of t-shirts alone ordered daily, not only from Thailand but
also notably China and Japan and increasingly European countries.
His personal agenda is to support local villagers and upgrade their
standard of living. Currently his ten satellite factories produce
about 30,000 pieces per day with a massive collective output. Surichai
has taught 90% of the batik workers in Phuket and nearby provinces.
His designs are beamed onto the cloth from ceiling imbedded projectors
at wax application factories. Other factories paint the dyes and
a third group process the fix and wax removal. He has future plans
to build a school and factory on 15 rai in Raiwai.
Khun Surichai is currently building a Batik gallery behind his
two storey shop-houses. His personal award-winning works of Batik
art take anywhere from 2 months to 1 year to create and involve
layers upon layers of wax, stripped between each coat with the final
product being a richly textured work of art.