Symbolism in batik

by Karen Mathey Skophammer
Article Title: Symbolism in Batik. Contributors: Karen Mathey Skophammer - author. Magazine Title: School Arts. Volume: 94. Issue: 3. Publication Date: November 1994. Page Number: 20. COPYRIGHT 1994 Davis Publications, Inc.

Batik is an interesting and fun way to produce a design on cloth using the wax resist technique. Wax resist consists of applying wax to fabric, dyeing it and then removing the wax from the fabric with heat. Where the wax is applied, the cloth resists the dye.

The batik process is centuries old. Some say it has been around for over 1,200 years. However, most people can't agree on the origins of batik.

Batik around the Globe
Many countries around the globe use batik regularly on clothing patterns and blanket designs. The Indonesians and the Chinese are well known for their batik processes, but the designs are completely different from those used by the African nations. In Africa, the batik process is used to make very colorful cloth patterns. Many of the patterns are rich in symbolism. African batik designs speak a very vivid language. Many times, each family has its own designs, its own set of symbols. You can read a lot about a person by the designs they wear.

African Symbols
In African batik, the palm tree symbolizes productivity and resourcefulness. The rooster is a sign of virility and of initiating action. For a person in West Africa, the pattern of the cloth tells an individual story.

I was privileged to have the chance to participate in a workshop with Miranda Akyea, a Ghanajan artist. The goal of the workshop was to create a T-shirt using the batik processes of West Africa. I was able to successfully share her process with my students. Most of them made night shirts and then decided they wanted to wear them to school because the shirts were too "cool" to wear only to bed.

1. Stretch a T-shirt on cardboard so the cardboard is between the front and back of the shirt. Slip another piece of cardboard in each sleeve.

2. Set up electric frying pans with half beeswax and half paraffin. Set the heat no higher than 250 [degrees] F. This mixture works well because paraffin alone cracks too much and beeswax alone is too dense.

3. Cover working space with newspaper.

4. Mix cold water dye in a large vat.

5. Prepare one large kettle of boiling water for the final step of wax removal.

1. Draw a symbol on a 6" (15 cm) cube of foam rubber.

2. Using a single-edge razor blade or utility knife, cut the design so that: a) the symbol remains raised and the background is cut away; or b) the symbol is scooped out and the background remains raised,

3. The design surface of the foam block is placed in a pan of preheated wax.

4. The waxed foam symbol is stamped on the T-shirt. Make sure the wax penetrates the cloth.

5. Repeat the stamping to make a pattern on the front and back of the T-shirt, including the sleeves.

6. Remove cardboard and crinkle the wax by rolling the shirt in your hands.

7. Place the shirt in a cold water dye bath for 15 minutes. Wear rubber gloves and a lab coat for protection.
8. Remove the shirt from the dye bath and squeeze out the excess dye.

9. Place the shirt in boiling water for about 5 minutes. Then remove. This boiling water process should remove most of the wax. It is possible for younger children to use an electric iron to remove the wax. This is done by ironing on top of layers of paper placed on the shirt. When the paper becomes saturated with wax, change the paper and iron again.

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