Going back to the roots of batik in Pekalongan

Not your ordinary request: Designer Edward Hutabarat (left) gives instructions to an attentive Liem Poo Hien, who is taking notes down about the batik Edo wants her to create for his latest collection.
Not your ordinary request: Designer Edward Hutabarat (left) gives instructions to an attentive Liem Poo Hien, who is taking notes down about the batik Edo wants her to create for his latest collection.

Designer Edward Hutabarat was sitting cross-legged on the floor of one of the oldest Peranakan Chinese batik producer’s house in Kedungwuni, Pekalongan. Piles of colorful batik tulis (hand-painted batik) worth Rp 10 million were scattered on the ground in front of him.

Next to him, batik producer Liem Poo Hien, with a pen and paper, a nervous smile and a frown, carefully noted down Edo’s — as the designer is popularly called — instructions.

“Without tanahan, without boog, without tumpal,” Edo said, uttering words that may have sounded like a foreign language to the batik novice. In batik vernacular, tanahan means an intricate hand-painted background, boog is the arching lining on the edges of batik, and tumpal is the area that covers the front part of the lower limbs when a batik cloth is worn as a sarong.

Hien looked apprehensive when agreeing to Edo’s instructions, but Edo was determined to have his way.
Edo is one of Indonesia’s designers who successfully turned the country’s traditional national dress and clothes into modern and global fashion. He is known for having revived the kebaya and batik, tweaking the nation’s traditional clothing into something modern and chic — on par with clothing from international brands such as Hermes, Gucci, and Bottega Veneta.

Hien meanwhile is the fourth generation of Lim Ping Wie, a family of Chinese Peranakan batik producers in Pekalongan. She adheres to the tradition of the Peranakan style batik almost religiously. But Edo is convincing her to move beyond its rigid rules and produce batik cloth that will give him more freedom to design clothes.

Still noble: A batik artist stamps a pattern onto a cloth at the workshop of Nur Cahyo, another batik producer Edo Hutabarat works with, in Pekalongan, Central Java.
Still noble: A batik artist stamps a pattern onto a cloth at the workshop of Nur Cahyo, another batik producer Edo Hutabarat works with, in Pekalongan, Central Java.

The results of Edo’s fruitful collaboration with Hien will be on show in his next collection that will celebrate the former’s 30 years in the fashion design industry. His aim has been to bring batik into the world of international high fashion and ensure Indonesians’ love for batik lasts the test of time.

Household products producer Kao Indonesia, which recently launched a liquid product called Batik Cleaner, and Edo, invited The Jakarta Post to Pekalongan in December to see how batik is made.

The trip to Pekalongan, one of the 200 spots in Indonesia where the designer collaborates with local textile producers, aimed to explore the roots of batik. Central Java’s Pekalongan is one of the main production areas for the colorful batik pesisir (coastal batik). Being a fair distance from the Javanese royal courts such as Yogyakarta and Surakarta gave producers of batik from Pekalongan the freedom to explore batik outside the courts’ canon, resulting in vibrant and colorful patterns, with influences from China, the Dutch and Arabs.

Batik’s popularity has gone through ups and downs. But from the day Edo worked with batik in 2004, the fabric has been widely accepted and gone from being considered as old and traditional — conjuring images of the lovely grandmother wearing a kebaya and sarong — to a fashionable and stylish garment.

The country has even dedicated a day to batik, Oct. 2, after the UNESCO declared the method of hand-painting cloth using hot wax as world heritage in 2009.

But according to Edo, people’s renewed interest in batik remains superficial. Very few realize how long it takes to make one piece of batik tulis and how intricate the process of batik making is.

“Not many know about the woman who paints batik eight hours a day without leaning forward,” he said.

Because of how elaborate batik looks, and how complicated it is to make, Edo’s philosophy on wearing batik is “less is more”. He isn’t a big fan of the many extravagant fashion shows involving batik. The big hair, the bows on the shoulders, appliqués, heavy makeup, and chunky shoes are so hillbilly, he went on.

And never wear batik with diamonds, he warned. “It’s tacky.”

Back at Kedungwuni, Edo asked Hien to create a 5-meter-long cloth. Batik cloth usually measures around 2 meters. They bargained on the length and settled for 3.5 meters.

Besides worrying about the rigid rules Hien adheres to when making batik, she is naturally nervous she won’t succeed in producing such a long cloth.

Batik tulis production is a painstaking process.

To understand how intricate it is to make batik tulis, one has to spread the cloth wide and examine its pattern and colors. One of Hien’s Japanese-influenced Hokokai batik has ornate flowers, leaves and butterflies. Each of them are filled with different patterns of dots, lines, half circles and curves. These fillings are called isen-isen. In batik tulis each flower can have different pattern of fillings, depending on the artist’s creativity. In the background, a neat pattern of curls and dots can be seen, called tanahan.

To create batik, Hien’s artists will sit and use their canting, a metal container with a needle. The canting holds the wax while it trickles down the needle allowing the artist to paint the cloth.

After the wax dries, the cloth is soaked in color and hung to dry. The wax is then removed from the cloth when plunged into boiling water, a process called ngelorot. The batik artists will then paint the cloth several more times to produce the isen-isen and tanahan.

 

On the world stage: The United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) has named Indonesia’s handmade batik as world heritage.
On the world stage: The United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) has named Indonesia’s handmade batik as world heritage.

Different colors might appear in one batik cloth. If three colors come out, the cloth will be soaked in color three times, and the batik artists will have to block the areas that do not need to be colored.

A very detailed batik might take a year to finish, not counting failures, Hien said. “So, if you see a batik that costs over Rp 2 million, don’t think that’s expensive,” Edo added.

Hien believes she has a lot to learn from Edo. Responsible for around 30 batik artists, she candidly explained Edo was the only person she felt comfortable asking for money to help her pay her artists.

Given the meticulous nature of the batik-making process and its reliance on sunny weather to dry the cloth, Hien said running her business was tough work. She never sends her batik cloth to customers, the latter have to come to her place, in case the batik gets damaged when mailed.

While Hien is Edo’s Chinese Peranakan batik producer, his go to guy for the more modern pekalongan batik is Nur Cahyo who produces batik tulis and batik cap (stamped batik) with natural and chemical coloring in Pekalongan.

Edo claimed that of all the batik tulis Pekalongan he had come across, Cahyo’s was the finest. The two met in an exhibition four years ago when Edo discovered his products. Edo then contacted Cahyo and the pair started working together.

.Cahyo’s batik tulis workshop is located in a modest lush green Angsana garden, surrounded by a lopsided bamboo fence. There, the batik painters sit in groups in a large hall. Edo’s design office is an open-air room looking over rice paddies.

When we walked in, the wind made lines of the crepe de chine batik hung on lines under the trees roll like ocean waves.

Cahyo, who likes abstract patterns, is more open to innovations in batik. He is currently working with Edo to make a masterpiece from a 9-meter kereta kencana cloth. Edo also uses silk rolls imported from Japan and is designing a flora and fauna pattern on it.

His batik tulis usually takes between 3 months up to a year to make. Using stamps, one can produce batik faster, up to 100 per week, which reduces the cost by hundreds of thousands of rupiah.

“Still it is more noble than print,” Edo said.

Edo was optimistic about Cahyo’s production because his batik artists are mostly in their 30s and 40s.

“I know that good batik will still be produced knowing that there is regeneration,” he said.

There are still many villages in Pekalongan where elderly ladies make batik for a living or to pass time.

These pieces are called batik kampung, and can be recognized from their big flowers and full tanahan patterns, mainly green, brown and purple. The ladies buy the white mori cloth from a middleperson. They ask the middleperson to take their cloth to workers who color and rinse the wax. While the middle person pays Rp 200,000 to Rp 400,000 for the batik, the price can go up to Rp 750,000 at the market, and Rp 1.5  million in Jakarta.

Edo said more people should visit these artisan cities to learn about batik-making culture. The city of Pekalongan is a laid-back town with many batik workshops, a batik museum and good food — a great place for Indonesians to go on study tours and learn about their heritage.

“Indonesians should know about batik,” he said. “This is ours”.


— Photos by JP/Prodita Sabarini

Prodita Sabarini, The Jakarta Post, Pekalongan, Central Java | Culture | Fri, January 07 201

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