Batik at the Crossroads – Part 1

A Kawung pattern on the dress of a 13th century Javanese statue

This is one of two articles looking at the challenges facing the traditional batik art in Central Java. This piece looks at changes in the market. Next, I will write about issues being faced by the dyers and batik artists working to continue the art form.

When Threads of Life began in 1998, we had to overcome the international market’s perception that all textiles from Indonesia were batik. Batik is perhaps the most iconic textile for Indonesia, and has been an art form for hundreds of years, especially on Java. The carved clothing on 13th century statues in East Java depicts floral jamprang and ceplok patterns used in batik, but there also is evidence that the art form existed as early as the 6th century.

Women batik artists

I am not a batik scholar, so please note that this blog is based on my experiences visiting primarily Central Java over the last thirty years. It is combined with my much deeper understanding of the ikat traditions and the institutional and environmental pressures they face in maintaining the culture of the art form.

Up until twenty years ago it was clear that batik was culturally important to the local population. Women wore batik as daily dress and the shops were filled with batik for local and international sale. Batik markets such as Klewer in Solo were glorious to saunter through with stalls selling rich batik from all over Java. Prior to 2015 Klewer Market was known as the biggest batik wholesale market in Asia with sales of USD 615,000 a day.

Today it is rare that I see anyone wearing batik, particularly women. Men may wear a batik shirt especially if they are government workers, but likely it is screen printed and made with synthetic dyes.

The huge shift away from wearing and valuing traditional batik textiles has been further impacted by the financial impact of the pandemic on the local economy. Even if domestic consumers wanted to buy a traditional batik, they can no longer afford to. The comparatively low price of IDR 450,000 (USD 30) is charged for or a simple two-meter hand-drawn natural-dyed cloth whereas today you can buy printed fabric for IDR 30,000 (USD 2) per meter.

As a result, batik houses that in the past made traditional natural-dyed batiks are now producing hundreds of meters of cloth a day using screen printing and synthetic dyes.

A synthetic-dyed batik with simple patterns

Synthetic-dyed cloth produced by screen printing

As I wandered the streets of the once-bustling batik district of Lawangan in Solo, I saw all the shuttered shops and wondered if perhaps we are seeing the doors finally closing on the traditional batik arts of Indonesia.

I believe the fragile existence of this art is now in the hands of the wealthy Javanese and international market.

Join us for our February 10th batik trunk show where we will be selling new and old batiks to raise money for rebuilding indigo and soda natural dye vats for batik makers in Solo.

Doors closing on batik tradition in Indonesia

Survival is in the hands of wealthy Javanese and international buyers