Until the 19th century most batik in Malaysia was imported from Java. However demand for the highly decorated cloth was so great that local Malays began producing batik in the more remote states of Terengganu, Kelantan and Pattani (the latter now a part of Thailand) and by 1900 a thriving industry was exporting cotton and silk batik around the Peninsular and to Singapore and Bangkok.
By the mid 20th century batik had become firmly instilled as an element of cultural identity in Malaya however unlike Java, where batik has long enjoyed a ceremonial role in the Royal Courts and was worn during all important occasions, on the peninsular it was viewed as a durable textile for everyday wear and hence the vast majority of fabric was produced using the ‘cap’ method. This form of production persisted until the early 1980’s when a market for more expensive ‘baju kurung’ (the favoured long sarong and tunic worn by Malay women) provided a market for more exclusive hand drawn batik and batik tulis became the more predominant form of production in Malaysia.
Batik cloth may be divided into two principal groups according to its production method. The first and oldest method of production is called ‘Batik Tulis’ which involves the application of wax via a small copper tool called a ‘canting’ (pronounced chanting). Used somewhat like a pen, the canting has a small reservoir to hold hot wax which is then drawn directly onto the cloth. The second method is called ‘batik cap’ (pronounced chop) or stamp which is made from tiny strips of copper, welded together to form a design with a handle attached to the back. The completed cap is dipped in hot wax and repeatedly stamped onto cloth to form a pattern.
After waxing the cloth is dipped in liquid dye baths or handpainted on frames. In Malaysia exclusive batik is coloured by hand, with the wax forming a barrier between colours. The number of colours which can be applied on an intricate design is almost unlimited and the process of adding water and secondary colours to create shadowing is one of the most beautiful aspects of batik.