The word batik is a meaningless fragment of the Javanese word Ambatik, which signifies both writing and drawing. In a Javanese riddle describing the process of batik making, the answer contains the one special implement needed: the "tjanting."
A calyx with the beak of a bird of prey,
Five follow him across the empty field,
Wherever he goes he leaves his blood behind.
The answer to the riddle, the tjanting, is a small copper vessel, in shape rather like the calyx of a tulip. It has a thin curved spout which is likened in the riddle to a bird's beak. The five who follow it are the fingers which hold the vessel by a handle like that on a Turkish coffee pot. The fingers follow the jug as it moves over the uncolored cloth. In Java a smooth cotton is used, but we tend to prefer silk. Blood stands for the brownish yellow liquid wax which flows from the fine spout and leaves a trace of writing or drawing on the cloth.
What follows is quite mechanical: the cloth is dyed in a cold dip. After drying, it is ironed and the wax melts out, leaving a white design instead of the "traces of blood" against the colored ground. The wax prevents the dye from penetrating the cloth. This process is called "resist dyeing" and was used in the past for hand block printing, such as the famous Schwabian "blue printing," in which carved wooden blocks are dipped in a paste which does not dissolve in cold dye and pressed onto bleached linen, which is then soaked in a bath of dye. The places protected from the dye by the paste remain white.
The materials used in batik, then, are cloth and dye. We know that the pigments with which we paint or draw need a binder to fix them onto the ground. Textile dyes do not need this, since their coloring substance, which can also be called stain or ink, makes a true solution with water. That is to say, the inks are distributed in the water at a molecular Aneness and cannot be separated by Altering. Seen through a microscope even the smallest particles of pigment are enormous, and they can be separated from water through ordinary filter paper. Being true solutions, textile dyes can penetrate the fibers of the yarn and often fix themselves there indissolubly. If this is so, the cloth will not discolor; the fastness of dyes can be increased by preliminary chemical treatment.
Unlike almost all painters' colors, cloth dyes are organic substances. They used to be extracted from plants, of which indigo and madder are the best known. Today the same substances - as well as a great many more, tens of thousands, that were not known as natural plant dyes - are obtained from coal tar in a chemically purer form.
Their constant purity makes synthetically produced dyes much more reliable; that is to say, they are usually much purer colors and less liable to lade than vegetable dyes. Earlier, and often today as well, those
dyes proved the fastest which do not evolve their true color until they have "developed" by combining with the acid in the air and setting fast in the cloth fibers as oxides. For instance, there is a dye which comes out of the vat as yellowish green, and which turns to a lovely blue later when it has been in the air.
A drastic example of how oxidation makes a dye fast is walnut juice on the fingers. A crushed green walnut gives off a pale green juice which soaks into the skin and after a few hours turns dark brown. The dye is so fast that it cannot be removed, and will grow out only as the skin scales off in the course of time. Skin is horn, like wool, and the same sort of substance as the fibroin of animal silks.