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Words by Xingyun Shen
Images by Anita Reza Zein

The interwoven stories of batik: The antithesis of conveyor belt manufacturing

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 Gypsied 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.” 

Wax and dye: Messages from the heart

There are two types of batik that the artisans of Kebon Indah make: hand-drawn and hand-stamped. Hand-drawn batik is the most time-consuming whilst hand-stamped batik is less complicated but no less intricate. To create a 2.5m-long batik requires the long process of drawing, stamping, waxing, dying, re-waxing and then re-colouring again, and the entire process may take up to 3 months to complete.  

Dipping batik in the dye made from leaves and tree barks

The colouring process starts with dye preparation and takes about 5-7 days on average, depending on the availability of plants used for dyeing. Once the dyeing medium is ready, artisans take between a week to two to dye a two-coloured piece, and even longer if there are more colours involved. Hanging the fabric to dry becomes a key stage of the process; batik is prone to unpredictable colouration as dye properties react differently to temperamental weather conditions in a tropical climate.

Air drying batik before the next stage of re-waxing and re-colouring 

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. 

Artisans planning motif placement and colour scheme

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. 

"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,
Senior artisan

A batik with the Sekar Jagad motif

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

Artisans make every piece with purpose and thought, with the intent to communicate their meanings to batik wearers. As it should be, the artisans’ vision and creativity anchor Gypsied’s collections, and not the other way around. In other words, Gypsied is but a conduit translating the visions and worlds of batik and its makers into products you can use and treasure in your daily lives. 

The Studio Gypsied Production Principle

The technical process of batik creation directly influences the values and operations of Gypsied. Focusing on the cultural narratives and heritage stories of batik is Gypsied's priority. Since its conception in 2013, Gypsied has 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 Gypsied 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 Gypsied, 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.

The Saujana Bucket Bag

Aqilah has a key range of products she has 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, Aqilah 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 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.

It has been an incredible experience working on this piece. I enjoyed immersing myself in the Kebon Indah community and witnessing a Gypsied collection come to fruition. Gypsied continues to believe in the power of batik — pieces that people find meaningful and resonate with on a personal level. I would love to own an article of batik which philosophy I resonate with, and I look forward to the day I could proudly adorn and care for it. 

Collections by Kebon Indah Batik

Nona

Nona

Batik bag Singapore by sustainable fashion brand Gypsied

Nusantara Elegance

Batik and handwoven textiles and fashion accessories from Singapore ethical designer Gypsied

Canvas

Butterfly Batik Bag Singapore by Sustainable fashion brand Gypsied

Saujana Collection