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"I learned to make batik when I was 10 years old. I learned batik from my mother. Why do I still make batik to this day? It's because batik is a cultural heritage that we must sustain."
- Arini Fitriana, 41
Batik is omnipresent in Southeast Asia. It is worn and adorned by women across the region, most prominently seen as the uniform of our national carrier, and often commodified as touristy keepsakes.
As a result of free-market capitalism, the makers of batik are exploited for commercialisation, or often become invisible workers of the system, despite being inscribed on the Representative List of the Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity by UNESCO in 2009. Batik makers blend into the misrepresentations of mass production.
To shed light on this group of invisible workers, this article will bring to focus the lives and thoughts of the women of the Kebon Indah (Beautiful Garden) collective in Central Java, Indonesia, who specialise in natural dyed batik. For the last five years, they have created the batik used to make our bags, accessories and canvases. And now, for the first time, their batik is also featured in apparel for Gypsied’s newest launch.
While this article may not capture the entirety of these women's creative vision and respect for the batik art form, it offers a small glimpse into the heart they put into their work.
As Aqilah, founder of Gypsied puts it, “I have found that empathy is the recipe [for] having a meaningful endeavour. There is so much we can learn if we simply spend time listening.”
Click on + to reveal the stages of the batik-making process
Very often, batik artisans have additional commitments like farming and caring for their children. But for most women in Kebon Indah, creating batik continues to be their primary source of income.
Most afternoons, the artisans gather in a central space in the desa (village) where they work and catch-up with their fellow co-workers. The atmosphere they create is unlike that of a quiet library; nor a stringent conveyor belt factory. Instead it is full of conversation, collaboration and life.
Most artisans in Kebon learned to create batik from a young age, as it is often a craft that is passed down from their grandmothers, mothers or sisters.With a canting (a pen-like tool that fills with wax), artisans draw motifs by hand, a process that requires great amount of skill and and meticulous concentration. While full control over colour consistency can be challenging as mentioned earlier, artisans can ensure better quality output by keeping in good health, so that they can withstand long hours of concentration.
For the uninitiated, the various patterns and motifs of batik may look quite indistinguishable. But look closely and one sees that that is far from the truth. Each batik motif is unique and stands to represent a unique message. For example, the meaning of the Sekar Jagad (flowers of the universe) is loosely translated to "a hope for a united world despite the many different realities that people live in".
"The strength of batik lies not just in the motif, but also in the process of making the batik. Because each part of the process contains the artisan's hope and prayer.
- Sri Windarti, 47
Senior artisan and Secretary
The technical process of batik creation directly influences the values and operations of our studio. Focusing on the cultural narratives and heritage stories of batik is our priority. Since our conception in 2013, we have aimed to empower customers to appreciate and understand what they are buying before making a purchase. Going against the grain of what has worked economically was particularly challenging seven years ago, when sustainability in the fashion industry was at best, an afterthought.
Time is of the essence.
A typical collection takes approximately five months from ideation to final product, as the brand prioritises giving the artisans ample time to finish making the batik. It is essential to the artisans that they do the textiles justice, as they have much respect for the batik making process and art form.
Gypsied produces up to four collections a year. Each collection is made in exclusive quantities. This is almost unheard of in the world of contemporary, ready-to-wear fashion, which yields profits from speed and forecasting accuracy. But the nature of hand-drawn batik disallows a hastier timeline, and for us, this slow and thoughtful production is essential by principle. The brand takes ownership of the responsibility to produce with care, not expecting consumers to shoulder the full responsibility for driving change.
A key range of products has been developed over the years, namely the brand's signature clutches, bags, lifestyle accessories and apparel. Gypsied’s products reflect the brand's intention of doing right by the creative vision of the artisans, so the products launched depends highly on the suitability of the motifs, rather than the other way around. For instance, to complement the larger butterfly motifs of a batik piece, we chose to design a bucket bag for the Saujana collection.
Producing in small, controlled batches increases the functionality and purpose of each collection, minimising design fatigue and the constant “What am I producing for?” question.
The fashion industry will never cease to exist. Nor will it ever stop creating. Fashion is perhaps one of the most human forms of art — our everyday fashion decisions are performative, symbolic and emotionally charged, for self-identification, expression and sometimes a link to our heritage.
"The everlasting value of batik lies in the enduring stories captured and memorialised by batik artisans."
The field of psychology considers fashion as a part of one’s self and personality, and this is a function of fashion we cannot extract from an individual’s sense of self. The everlasting value of batik lies in the enduring stories captured and memorialised by batik artisans. They become time capsules and heirlooms that we can physically touch and keep near.