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Posts Tagged ‘batik’

I’m still feeling a bit bruised and battered by the EU Referendum and its aftermath. Textile Traders would not be in business without the “free movement of people”, as I’ve been free to travel almost anywhere in the world ever since my teens when I worked as a chambermaid in France!
Like our friends and colleagues on World Textile Days we work closely with people all over the world. We trust them with our money, our stock, our kids, our security. Without these “foreigners” we would be nowhere.

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Some of the World Textile Day crew

Anyway, to cheer myself up I got thinking about some of the people who I rely on, who have grown up with me and who I call friends. So here goes …

 

First of all Turkey – always stuck between Europe and Asia, but at the moment getting the worst of both worlds – we don’t seem to want them in Europe, and IS bomb them because they don’t like them talking to the West.  I first went there in 1981 to teach english and fell in love with the country.
After a couple of years, I came back with a few rugs to try and sell. “Just take them, send me the money later”. I hardly knew the guy, he just trusted me to do the decent thing. Very Turkish! I’ve been going back regularly ever since.
It’s time I said “Thank You” to the innumerable women weavers in umpteen villages who have allowed me to sit in their living rooms and back yards taking photos and notes, to the dozens of carpet sellers in Istanbul, Ayvacik, Antalya, Izmir, Selcuk and Anamur who have shared afternoons and hundreds of glasses of tea with us as we slowly look through piles of stock – “Don’t ask the price, just enjoy”
Special thanks to Musa, Ramazan and Nazmiye who taught us about natural dyeing and self sufficiency, to the Bozyak brothers who enthused us with the Dobag Project and to Musa and Saliha in Anamur with whom we have shared so many laughs and so many meals around the “sofra”. 

 

And then in Indonesia – I’ve been going back for 33 years now, and parts of Java have the familiarity of home. It’s always the same – I start each visit appalled by the poverty and the degradation of the environment and end up charmed by the kindness and tolerance of the people, envious of the strength of their communities and entranced by the culture.
In Indonesia, I have to thank numerous men and women making incredible batik and ikat textiles who have smiled and answered my questions or just allowed me to sit and watch. Thanks to Hani, and Nia and Agus and all the guys at the “Indonesia” and the Duta.

But especially Tono, a becak (bicycle rickshaw) driver, our first “fixer”  who packed thousands of cantings into hundreds of boxes, talked Indonesian politics with us when it was not safe to do so, found lovely ladies to take care of our boys when they were little, came with us to puppet show “all-nighters” and introduced us to dozens of knowledgeable people. And then the inestimable Susi, his replacement, who lets me hang out at her house, lends me her bike, finds cake, sorts out my Indonesian sim card, takes me round the city on the back of her motorbike and performs a hundred little kindnesses and huge favours I couldn’t do without.

And finally Northern Thailand. I spend more and more time there nowadays and even then never want to leave. So many people to thank and appreciate: the women who give massages at the temple round the corner; Mr and Mrs Beer who hire us bikes, motorbikes and cars and stay cheerful in spite of having to deal with hundreds of us dumb foreigners every week; Panee and her family the best indigo dyers in Phrae; Ray in Chiang Mai who posts stuff to me when I run out; Nui who always makes sure I get a bed no matter what time I turn up; the girls at the Post Office who look after us every year, manage to clear a space for us in their tiny office, and stay cheerful in spite of having to answer the same dumb questions to a constant stream of us foreigners every week; H’mong headman Win and his wife who have made us welcome so many times in their village in the Mae Sa valley, and never forgetting Poo and her little group of tailors who make my garments and manage, no matter what I throw at them, to get them all finished on my very last day.

Of course we’re all different – I LOVE that we’re different. I make my living by talking about, learning about and trading in the things that make us different. It’s spine tingling to hear the call to prayer at daybreak or monks chanting through the night, to come across a group of tribal women in full regalia, or witness strange and exotic ceremonies.
What’s surprising is just how similar our hopes and dreams, fears and concerns are.
I think its time we in Britain got over ourselves and started thanking our Lucky Stars!
If we believe Britain is overcrowded, try Java (145 million on an island roughly the size of Britain). If we’re worried that our culture is being taken over, spend a couple of days in Bali or the old city in Chiang Mai, or on Phuket or Koh Samui, for goodness sake. If we’re concerned about refugees, try the camps in southern Turkey or the Thai-Burmese border.
What the referendum result has shown though, is that we live in a country of great inequalities. If anything comes out of this to address that, then there may be some good come of it!

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The UK Batik Guild Trip to Java November 3rd – 16th 2013

Getting there Well that’s a story in itself as Malaysian airways and so it seems other airlines too decided to do some strange rescheduling. Some of us ended up spending an unexpected night or even two in Jakarta (although some sailed through it all by travelling via Singapore) and I spent rather more time than I had anticipated at Jogyakarta airport waiting for late arrivals, but by Sunday afternoon we were all happily safe and sound at the Duta Hotel on Jalan Prawirotoman in the heart of south Jogyakarta.

Sunday evening- introductions and a Javanese wedding

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After introductions all round and a welcome gin and tonic, some went off to get food and six of us ventured out into the warm wet night for a visit to a local wedding. It’s not in a hall or a grand house but just in the street with a tarpaulin cover over it. There’s a stage where the bride and groom and their parents shake hands with all the guests and where a woman belts out popular Indonesian songs. Having put some money into the collection box, we are all encouraged to go and have our photos taken with the bride’s party. We slowly shuffle past the huge queues waiting for the food to be served all the time taking photos avidly of the beautiful girls in their lovely lace jackets and batik sarongs and the men in their batik shirts, and emerge elated at the other side. A short visit to the wedding organisers shop-house to see jackets, turbans, and other bits and pieces available to hire for a wedding. Our becaks are waiting for us and back we go after a great experience.

Monday – screen prints, Malioboro street and the shadow puppet show

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My very good friend Susi, who I have known for about 15 years, is going to be my assistant and confidante and local guide and she is there first thing Monday morning to lead us on a neighbourhood walk around the local area. We start with the nearby market which is in full swing: jackfruit, mangoes, chillis, tofu and tempe (fermented soya bean cakes) all kinds of ginger, very long beans, small turquoise fish 2 per basket, the “jamu” lady making tonics and pick-me-ups, gula jawa (round cakes of dark brown cane sugar) tiny little speckled eggs, chickens feet and heads, ladles and sieves made out of coconut shells, rattan fans and baskets,

After that, we walk to a silk screen printing factory which I have never known was there. Seven very long tables, and two man working efficiently together on the screen can print one layer on all the fabric in an hour and a half. They apply the first dye and then the long lengths of fabric are hoisted aloft overhead to dry and then they move onto another screen which blocks off the design of the first one and apply black dye.  In another room, the sewing machinists tell us they can sew 300 women’s kaftans in a day. They cost just 50,000rps (less than £3) each and they are ideal to slip on after a shower in this hot and humid climate. 50,000 rps is also the average daily wage of the workers here. They get their lunch thrown in but it shows the huge difference between our societies where our minimum hourly rate is more than double that.

We next call into a shop where all sorts of batik mostly old and second hand, and some real antiques are sold. We look at  stamped batik in the typical browns (soga) and indigo colours of Central Java and some beautiful hand drawn cloths from Pekalongan a city on the north coast, where the traditional floral designs were influenced by Dutch settlers. These batiks were made in the 20s and 30s before Indonesia became independent in 1945. Susi shows us how a sarung should be worn and I decide to take the opportunity to give an impromptu talk on some of the most common types of batik motif to look out for. These are:

  • parang – which means “knife” the diagonal design
  • semen – the organic design with tendrils and lots of little hook infills which is the type of Javanese design which inspired William Morris when Javanese batik was first exhibited in Europe in the 19th century
  • kawung – the four petalled design.

By now dripping with sweat we are all ready to get back and dive into our lovely swimming pool, the waterfall running down over the rocks. A great morning. Thanks to Susi for her expert local knowledge and for taking us right off the tourist track!

Later, after a talk about the wayang kulit leather shadow puppets, we get into becaks for a city tour. Becaks are bicycle cabs for two people (or one if you’re a bit on the heavy side!) powered by the strong leg muscles of your becak driver. There are hundreds – if not thousands of becaks in Jogya and the drivers are always desperate for a fare. We  get going, sometimes stuck behind buses belching out black smoke and sometimes veering wildly into the path of dozens of oncoming motorbikes , but arriving safely at Jalan Malioboro the main street of Jogyakarta. This famous street is lined with stalls selling shoes, fans, keyrings, shorts, T shirts, lighters, toys, puppets, clothes and all the souvenirs you’ll ever need, and on the other side batik shops, department stores, more batik shops and souvenir shops.

We walk or rather shuffle along frequently stopping to find out the price of things, try a bit of gentle haggling, or wait for the others. Luckily with Pak Murdin at the front and Susi at the back like a sheepdog herding her sheep we all arrive back at the same point to meet up with our becak drivers again.

As darkness quickly falls and the call to prayer starts ringing out we head down to the bottom of Malioboro past the monument to the popular uprising of 1st March 1949 which finally persuaded the Dutch to do the honourable thing and grant Indonesia independence. Then we go through the archway to the Kraton and the  high white walls on either side to Alun Alun Lor the northern square with its two massive banyan trees in the middle.

On we go to Griya restaurant formerly the home of a brother of the Sultan, full of lovely antiques and two sets of gamelan instruments, and a great setting for our meal, which is very Javanese and very enjoyable. Next we are treated to a wonderful ride to the Alun Alun Kidul (south square) where there is a huge crowd of people and an amazing array of fully lit up strange and wondrous electric vehicles in the shape of swans, elephants, peacocks, and more. Tonight is the Muslim New Year and at midnight there will be a silent walk around the 4 kms of the white walls of the Kraton, and for now there are plenty of people out to enjoy themselves.

We finish up at Sono Budoyo – one of the buildings of the Kraton , the Royal Palace, for the nightly wayang kulit shadow puppet show. This is a shortened (two hour) episode from the Mahabarata. The puppeteer sits cross legged in the middle with his puppets ranging from smallest to largest on either side of him, their sticks planted firmly in a banana tree trunk. He taps with his foot and manipulates the puppets with somersaults, twirls, and there are skilful fights between Hanuman the white monkey and one of the black monkeys. You can sit and watch the puppeteer and the rather dozey gamelan players and the giggling and very glamorous women singers or you can go round to the back and watch the shadows and fully immerse yourself in the drama.

Those of us who can stick it right until the end are rewarded with the chance to play along with the gamelan players. One of them said he had been performing every night for 9 years! Back home through the dark but still teeming streets to our very welcome beds.  And that’s just the first day!

Tuesday, a cap batik masterclass at Batik Winotosastro

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We cross the very busy Jalan Parangtritis and a little way up Jalan Tirtodipuran to Batik Winotosastro and are warmly welcomed by Bu Hani and her staff. Everyone is smiley and helpful. First of all we take a look at some samples of beautiful scarves and she explains that this is what we are going to make! Then we watch the 3 young chaps who will be helping us doing the cap work. Caps are copper stamps which are used to apply wax to the cotton. They are often very beautiful and little works of art in themselves. Batik Winotosastro has hundreds of them ranged on dozens of shelves, and we have more or less free rein. Hani explains that she always asks the young men to help with the workshops because they are more flexible in their thinking and enjoy new ideas whereas the old guys just want to do the same as they have always done and don’t like to mess with the  traditional designs. 

We are soon confronted with bewildering choices to make – what colours do we want our scarves to be? What caps do we want to use? do we want a border? what will go on the ends? what about the infill? Its a lot to think about but slowly we get our heads around it.  Once we have been given instructions on how to apply the cap carefully, with just the right amount of wax, the heat and the pressure just right, our kind and patient helpers go over it again to make sure the wax resist is really good. This all takes a while and it is after 1pm before we have all finally finished this first waxing. Over lunch in a large cool room upstairs, we look at some of the pieces from Hani’s personal batik collection and at some of her family photos. She is the fifth generation of batik makers and she herself is in sole charge of the family batik factory now.

Soon we go back down to where the dyers have finished dyeing our pieces and are boiling out the first application of wax, washing them carefully and then passing them on to be ironed bone dry so that we can get on with applying the next lot of wax. This layer is to protect all the parts which we want white and it is applied with the canting. We sit on little stools around the “anglo” the wax melting pot and with the help of a young canting worker each (they working fast and precisely, us slower and more sloppily) we manage to get the second lot of wax on. By 4 o’clock everyone has just about finished and now our slendang just has to go into the final dye bath and the wax boiled off again.  We can come and collect them on Thursday. 

It was an absolutely amazing day which gave us all a real insight into the work and skill that goes into “just” cap batik.

We really need that swim and our welcome tea and cake when we get back to the Duta Hotel. The dusk comes down quickly, the bats starts flying and muezzin starts up his song from the local mosque, and there we are in the pool. Bliss!

Wednesday, to Solo for Danar Hadi’s and Trewinddu

The Chinese Batik room

The Chinese Batik room at Danar Hadi

We are up an hour earlier today to get on our little blue and red bus for the two hour trip to Solo with our  Balinese driver Indra who skilfully avoids kamikaze motorbike riders and cars under taking and over taking. There’s never ending ribbon development all the way but with plenty of vibrant green rice fields in between and once in the city of  Solo, we go straight up the huge main street to the Danar Hadi batik museum, shop and factory.

It is indeed a fabulous museum with a very knowledgeable guide who shows us round all 11 rooms containing the most beautiful  batik from all over Java: Kraton batiks with their ultra conservative and ancient traditional motifs full of significance and worn until independence only by the Sultan, his family and Court officials: “merchant” batiks made by commercial workshops with their adaptations of tradition: Chinese batik made by or for Chinese settlers who have lived in Java since well before the Dutch, Portuguese and British arrived in the 16th century: Batik Belanda – Dutch batik depicting flower bouquets, birds, butterflies and even fairy tales and battle scenes made by Dutch and Indische women (half Dutch half Indonesian) in the 18th and 19th century. We also see some of my favourite designs “Tiga Negeri” (three countries) which was batik commissioned by Solonese merchants and sent to Lasem on the north coast for the red “mengkudu” dye, Pekalongan or Jogya for the indigo blue and back to Solo for the soga brown dyes.  I love the fact that they tried so hard to attain the wonderful strong and vivid red that they “head hunted” dyers from Lasem, but still couldn’t do get it. There was obviously something in the soil or the water of Lasem which made so special so it was worth the cloth travelling there specifically to be dyed.

From the beautiful, elegant and air-conditioned surroundings of the museum we pass into the hot, steamy factory with the acrid smell of wax and here around 80 men and 100 women work either at the cap tables or at their bamboo stands making batik. Talk about a sweat shop! We all feel the stark contrast and pass comment that Pak Santoso the owner could spend just a little of his enormous wealth (made from selling batik) on the conditions of the workers who make it for him. It wouldn’t cost a lot to put in ventilation, windows or more fans. The contrast with Hani’s lovely workshop at Winotosastro is extreme.

After lunch (desert was an acquired taste – steamed cassava with cheese and cream) we went to Pasar Trewinddu to have a look at the Antiques market and to try and buy some second hand copper stamps.

On our way to the train station, we drive through Laweyan – Solo’s traditional batik district where the lamp-posts are shaped like cantings and the streets are named after batik designs. The tall white outer walls of the batik manufacturer family homes and workshops in the narrow lanes provide a glimpse of a rich and fascinating past.  We catch the train back to Jogya , a very pleasant journey of just an hour and a quarter through vivid green rice fields, thatched rice barns and little shelters for the bird scarers to sit and shelter from the sun. Tantalising glimpses of Mount Merapi rising hugely through the clouds make us all reach for our cameras.

Thursday, the Kraton, a downpour and the Ramayana Ballet

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Today we are going to the Sultan’s Palace, the “Kraton” through lovely shady streets quiet after the noise of traffic outside, of Dutch style bungalows with  trees and plants everywhere.

We enter through the gates into the grounds of the Royal Palace and a lady guide shows us around  whizzing through her speeches as if she wants to get us processed so that she can go back for another tour. One of the Court’s gamelan sets  is being played by mainly women players and three ladies are singing in that peculiarly Javanese discordant high pitched style which is definitely an “acquired taste” (which I have totally acquired)

We see portraits of the past 10 Sultans and their family trees with leaves for the girls, fruit for the boys and tiny unopened buds for the dead children. One Sultan had 78 children so he has a big tree!

Everywhere in the Kraton grounds, there are beautifully dressed palace guards in the Jogya style brown and white batik sarongs, hand woven lurik jackets, batik turbans and the kris knife stuck into their waistbands at the back. Occasionally there are ladies wearing batik “kemben” breast cloths and sarongs. Luckily we are also able to see the Palace guards “cleaning” the wayang kulit collection (leather shadow puppets) although this seems to consist of laying them out on the ground and then sitting having a chat and a fag with their mates.

Next we stop off to visit a wayang kulit making workshop and the master explains how buffalo hide is prepared by stretching and polishing it and then carved by tapping out shapes with 31 differently shaped chisels and flattened with a sea shell before it is painted and the buffalo horn handles are added.

He shows us the beautiful leaf shaped “Gunungan” which is used at the beginning and end of a scene in the story and the meanings of all the symbols on it. The two Guardians of good and evil the snake winding up through the tree of life, the tiger for intelligence, the bull for power, the birds and butterflies, the monkeys signifying the family and social life and at the top the lotus flower. Who would have guessed there was so much in it? Well of course, anyone who knows anything about Javanese culture I suppose.

We hoped to go on to Taman Sari – the Water Castle, but first we are in need of a stop for a drink and a snack – and its lucky that we do because no sooner are we installed in a lovely little café than the rain starts chucking it down. It’s absolutely torrential and its clear that we’re not going anywhere while that carries on – but luckily the Water Castle Cafe has good food and a very friendly family so we don’t mind. When it clears up enough to venture into the small tiny back streets we jump through puddles to visit a few small independent batik workshops. One  makes huge batik panels which are used to make designer dresses and another who makes pieces made into bright shirts

We visit Susi’s dad and the house where Susi  lived as a child and where her husband Kelik lived next door – childhood sweethearts.

By the time we’ve finally all satisfied ourselves on the various things we need to buy, its too late to go into the Water Castle but we make our way back to the becaks through a pure white underground tunnel – part of the secret way that the Court could walk from the Palace to the Pleasure Park without going through the streets.

Later that evening we get back into becaks for the short trip to Purawisata  for the Ramayana Ballet performance, which has been performed every night for the past 29 years! The outdoor stage is beautiful and we have great seats in the amphitheatre. The two women singers and the gamelan players take their seats and slowly it begins, although not before the performance is blessed by a priest with incense and flowers.

The story is beautifully sung, played, acted and danced – tiny steps, swishing sashes and amazingly delicate and flexible hand movements from the women, incredible acrobatics and fire skills from Hanoman the white monkey, great bow and arrow work as well as grace from Rama and Lakshmana, macho posturing and fierceness from Rahwarna and Kumbakarna, great shoulder-work skills from Cakil with his jutting teeth, and great antics from the monkeys (including three little kids dressed as part of the monkey family)  All in all a wonderful night and the cherry on the cake is getting up on stage for a photo with the main players – you don’t get that at Covent Garden.

Friday – Giriloyo village ladies and the Royal Tombs

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 Today our first stop is to a wood batik workshop  where the sanded wooden bowls, plates, boxes, masks, keyrings, mirrors, fridge magnets and what have you are batiked in just the same way as cloth. They are waxed, dyed and then boiled out and varnished. The end product is superb and everyone finds something they like in the rather dark and dingy warehouse.

Onwards out into the green padi fields to the Bima Sakti womens batik co-op in Giriloyo, a village famous for it very fine batik tulis. We are soon sitting on tiny low stools round tiny waxpots. It’s extremely hot and sweaty and we apply very hot and sticky dark brown wax onto designs which have been traced out onto cotton squares. Everything has to be waxed very well and doubled on the back before the cloth can be dyed. It goes first goes into detergent, then acid salts and then the dye, its washed again and goes through the whole process again (all done in a series of plastic baby baths) before finally ending up in a big cauldron for the wax to be boiled out

We sit down to lunch and then get tempted by some of the beautiful hand drawn cloths which have been made by these village ladies including some sampler cloths which include the names of the designs. We sign the guest book and looking back through it see several names we recognise – this place may be out of the way but its a mecca for batik lovers from around the world.

Our indigo blue squares  are dry so we all pile back into the bus and drive on a little further to Imogiri.  Luckily someone opens a gate (for an appropriate tip) to avoid having to climb a huge flight of stone steps and we find ourselves at the top of a very high mountain where the tombs of the former Sultans of Jogyakarta and their families are. They are only opened once a week, but before we can enter, we must be dressed in appropriate style. So we are shepherded into a very small room where three ladies dress us in tight “kain panjang” and “kemben” breast cloths – breathe in, tug and pin! What a sight we are with our bare shoulders and tight skirts. We totter with difficulty up more stone steps and at the top wait our turn to enter the tiny dark room of the tomb of the late Sultan Humenkubuwono IX. Here we can sprinkle flowers onto the tomb, touch or kiss a sacred stone, say a prayer and slowly back out again. It’s hotter than a sauna in there. About a dozen people are waiting patiently to ask the priest who sits by his everlasting holy fire to convey prayers for them. The atmosphere is solemn and spiritual, which has the effect of making us somewhat giggly.

We drive back through fields of ripe rice until we get back to Duta at 4pm bang on time for a very welcome cup of tea, a swim and the latest teatime snack!

So far, so good. Everyone is enjoying themselves. The weather is hot and sticky but there’s not much we can do about that. It’s just what Java’s like.

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I am getting ready to lead a group of batik artists and lovers from Britain into the world of Javanese batik. In a few days time they will be here in Jogyakarta where I am now making my final preparations.  Its something I have thought about doing for a long time, but I have been put off by the practicalities. How will soft European ladies react to the heat and humidity, the mosquitoes, the long flight, strange food, and the general poverty and degraded environment of Java?

Of course if you are a fanatic about wonderful textiles, and batik in particular, then these things can be put up with – at least thats what I’m hoping. Anyway 11 brave souls (plus 2 even braver husbands!) have put their faith in me and will be the willing guinea pigs for my first Java tour, which begins on Monday.

I have found a couple of great hotels with air conditioning, wifi, swimming pool and a recognisable breakfast, so we will all be comfortable.

I have planned some great hands on workshops – one day making cap batik (with copper stamps) in Batik Winotosastro – one of the most famous batik factories in Jogya, a hand drawn batik workshop in the village of Giriloyo with the ladies who make batik for the court of Jogya, and a three day masterclass with Nia and Agus Ismoyo of the Brahma Tirta Sari studio. These will all unforgettable experiences I’m pretty sure!

I’ve organised visits to canting makers, cap makers, and all manner of batik artists living in back street neighbourhoods where tourists never venture. We’re going to visit the famous Danar Hadi batik museum in Solo, markets, factories, palaces, temples, villages set in rice fields, ancient Royal tombs, volcanoes, performances of wayang kulit – leather shadow puppets shows and the Ramayana ballet – honestly I couldn’t squeeze in more if I tried!

Watch this space to find out how it all goes!

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Northern Java, Indonesia

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The famous “megamendung” storm clouds design

Jim and I got off the plane in Jakarta and straight into the familiar sweaty heat and humidity of Java. Oh joy, we are literate. After the helpless incomprehension of written Thai, it’s amazing how good it feels to be able to read again. The smells are familiar too; the distinctive whiff of kretek clove cigarettes, verdant, damp vegetation, drains and poverty. We’re out of Jakarta as fast as we can make it, to Gambir Station to catch the train to Cirebon, about about 125 miles east. When the train arrives it has traditional batik designs painted down some of the carriages. Only in Java!

This is an eksekutif class train and thus we join the Indonesian middle classes in air conditioned splendour. We have comfortable seats with loads of legroom, a food and drink service, smiling ticket inspectors, and a violent American film to watch. Most of the time we gaze out of the window. It’s always a shock to come here after the neat and tidy orderliness of northern Thailand. Java is hotter, dirtier, shabbier, poorer and there’s just so many people. For every job in Java there are at least 10 people trying to get some little bit of it – there are too many minibus drivers, too many becak drivers with

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“Taman arum” another famous Cirebon batik design is painted on the train – a very superior form of grafitti!

their little cycle carriages, too many beggars, shop assistants, ticket collectors, motorbike taxis, market sellers. Java is just one of Indonesia’s 16,000 islands but it is the centre of Government, and culture in many ways. About the same size as Britain, it has 140 million living on it. As I said, there are just too many people!

Cirebon doesn’t look any different from last time I was here, although maybe there are even more cars – the pavements are always blocked with stalls and warungs. A warung is what might charitably be called a “pop up restaurant” great if you fancy sitting on a grimy mat or bench under a dingy 20 watt light bulb eating some questionable food which was made this morning and has had a day’s worth of flies settling on it. Still not everyone in the world has any better options. We are here for the batik.

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Becak driver hoping for a fare

Cirebon is famous for its its own distinctive style – “Batik Ceribonan”. Most of it is made at a village called Trusmi, a few miles out of town accessible by bashed and beaten up old minibus. You climb in the back, peer down through the filthy waist height windows and try to make some sort of a guess at where you want to get off and then pay the driver an absurdly small sum of money.

Up a narrow “main street” we squeeze through market stalls, school children (in batik school uniforms!) becaks full of women and their market shopping or empty and their drivers looking for a fare, motorbikes, reversing minibuses, piles of rubbish or building materials and mobile food carts. Eventually we reach the batik shops.

Every type of customer is catered for here. There are bargain basement shops selling shirts for men and shapeless housecoats for women in cheap, imitation batik print, and there are smart air- conditioned salons with VISA signs on the door. These establishments cater for women with elaborate hair dos who emerge from cars with dark windows (so they can more easily ignore the filth) who are looking for something nice to wear for lunch with the minister’s cousin’s wife. Their drivers wait patiently outside.

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Batik workers often work in small groups at home

Although a lot of it is printed imitation, there is real hand made batik on sale here in Trusmi. The prices start at a couple of quid and go up to 5 million rupiah or more – enough to rent you a decent house for a year. We want some silk batik scarves for the shop and some cloths in a famous Cirebon design – Megamendung.

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A woman with her baby in a batik slendang watches as her husband makes cap (stamped) batik in their home

This evocatively named pattern, it means “storm clouds”, came from China. You will have seen it on Chinese embroideries or ceramics – it’s even on a pattern we are all familiar with – the “willow pattern”. Chinese traders have been coming to this northern coast of Java for centuries, along with Arab merchants and later Dutch soldiers, traders from the East India Company, colonisers and settlers. All of them have left their mark and a study of the batik textiles from these parts is a veritable history lesson.

The Chinese are still here – many generations later they still keep to their own traditions. Being the enterprising sort of folk they are, some of them started up their own batik workshops. We met the present owner of one of these workshops – “Lina’s Batik”, the first time we came to Cirebon in 1986. She and her sister ran a sort of Chinese community centre here complete with a school to teach the children to read and write Chinese characters. Ibu showed me the certificate dated 1927, which her grandfather gained from the Sultan giving his permission to produce batik .

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Lina, a 5th generation batik maker with one of her wonderful batik tablecloths.

Lina’s now sells mainly to big stores in Jakarta, but they still make batiked altar cloths for the Chinese neighbours to buy at New Year, and the long cloths used to carry babies embellished with dragons and double happiness symbols. They also make beautiful megamendung cloths in the traditional colours; red, blue and white.

One year I came to the workshop just as two pieces were being finished. They were dyed in a red dye made from the roots of the mengkudu tree (morinda citrifolia) and a blue dye made from indigo. I swallowed hard when I heard the price, and bought one of them – now I wish I’d bought them both.

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Heri outlines the storm clouds pattern in wax. The first stage of the process.

To make a perfect megamendung cloth, the parts which will be white and blue are first outlined and then filled in with a thick, strong wax. The cloth is dyed a deep rich red colour. If the dyes are chemical, then this is a quick process taking just a few minutes. If they are plant dyes – or rather the “mengkudu” root dye, then this is a much more lengthy process. The cloth will be dipped and dried up to a dozen times.  Then that thick layer of wax is removed in very hot water and the next waxing process starts. First the red parts and the white parts are protected with wax and the cloth is dyed pale blue (chemical or natural indigo) and the blue layers are built up gradually in this way from the palest blue to the darkest. The more layers there are, the more times the cloth has to be waxed and dyed, and the more expensive it is. Mine has seven layers. Finally all the wax is boiled out and the cloth is finished. No wonder they don’t make more than a couple a year. The blue clouds seem to float and hover above the red background, and all in all its one of my favourite batik cloths ever.

Megamendung designs have been adopted by Cirebon and you can see them on street signs, wallpaper, school uniforms and, of course the trains. There was absolute outrage when it was reported that the perfidious Malaysian were trying to get it patented as one of their own National designs.

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Children in Java have a very rich street life!

Anyway back to Trusmi where we have spent a day reminding ourselves how to speak Indonesian, buying, bargaining and laughing with the sales girls in various shops. Just before we are ready to go home, the rain starts. Not just a drizzle or even a downpour but a deluge which forces us to stay for another half hour in the shop where we’re trapped. The road fills with mud brown water, the motorbikes come to a standstill, and soon the kids come out to cavort around and soak themselves.

Welcome to Java! We may be appalled at the poverty, the degraded environment that people live amongst, the overcrowded streets and the level of hassle but I have a feeling that it won’t be too long before we are hopelessly in love with it all over again.

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Phrae is just a small town in the north of Thailand. It doesn’t get many tourists – certainly not foreign ones anyway, although it does have attractions. The old town is enclosed by the remains of an ancient moat and the beautiful original houses are all made of teak – and raised on massively thick log stilts. It’s teak wood country round here and the lumber (or is it timber?) and the elephants used to move the wood are what made it famous. The people in this part of the world are also invariably friendly and jai dee (good hearted)

Old teak house in Phrae

A lovely teak house in Phrae

Blue shirts everywhere

Just outside Phrae town (turn left at Tesco Lotus) is the village of Thung Hong. On the very wide, very hot main street, in amongst the usual array of motorcycle repair shops, unhealthy snack and sweet drinks shops and cheap noodle shops, are many shops all selling clothing in a deep, dark blue colour. Thung Hong is famous for indigo.

I first came here about 10 years ago. I had read that Phrae was the place to come for “seua mah hom” . These are the dark blue shirts which were once worn almost universally in the north of Thailand (think Mao shirts). After much questioning of puzzled shopkeepers – me with no Thai, them with no English – I narrowed my search down to this village. I cycled out here along that aforementioned very wide and very hot main road with the highway traffic thundering past, and looked everywhere for the tell-tale signs of indigo; the big clay pots, the dyed cloth drying, the plants growing or even the pungent smell.

Phrae - indigo shirts on the washing line

Washing line full of indigo

Frustratingly I found nothing except the shops. So I turned off the road and cycled into the back lanes and soon to the open fields. I saw people wearing the traditional dark blue jackets and trousers but I couldn’t find anyone actually making it. On my way back to the main street, I looked across a small river and stopped dead in my pedals…washing lines full of indigo dyed cloth.

Three generations of indigo dyers

I had stumbled upon the Paluang Indigo Home. Behind a traditional teak house on stilts I found to my joy lots of beautiful old clay pots full of indigo dye in various stages of fermentation. Nobody stopped me, so I carried on nosing about, and in an open building at the back there was a young woman block-printing on white cotton. As I got nearer I could see that what she was printing was wax – she was making batik. Even better, she could speak some English, and we started to chat. Now every time I come to Thailand, I come to Phrae, and to Thung Hong village and to the Paluang Indigo House to see Panee and her family.

Pannee and her Mum

Panee and her Mum outside their shop

Panee is about 40 now. She was born in the teak house on stilts and her parents and her grandparents were all indigo dyers – many of the massive pots of indigo were started before she was born. You could say she has indigo in the blood.

Panee learnt to do batik at school but thought no more about it. She went away to university and then to work in Bangkok, but after a while she found that the pace of life there was just too frenetic. She bowed to the inevitable, came back home, married a local bloke and settled down to work in the family business.

A new fangled idea!

She soon realised that the business of selling almost indestructible indigo work shirts wasn’t a totally lucrative one and, what’s more, it was likely that the customer base would be a dwindling one. She was looking for a new angle. She decided to think again about batik which in northern Thailand is the preserve and speciality of H’mong women (you remember them from the last blog). She found that the tiny metal triangular tools they use to put the hot wax on are not suitable for the volume of fabric she had in mind.

teak blocks

Teak wood printing blocks

She then had the idea of getting some wooden printing blocks made. As I said Phrae is famous for the teak forests that surround it and teak carving is a traditional skill. She asked a carver in town to make her some stamps which she could use to apply the wax to the cloth. That was the beginning of a new business – wax resist batik dyed with home grown natural indigo from Phrae. The family now have dozens of different designs. In the village today, there are still around 20 families using their own home grown indigo to dye cloth and three families doing batik (and they are all related to Panee’s)

Batik

Panee’s cousin doing a batik shift

But what about all those lovely indigo shirts and jackets on sale in the shops of Thung Hong? I’m sorry to say that around 80% of them are made with chemical indigo in a huge factory in Bangkok!

Lovely indigo

Amazing ancient indigo pots

Amazing and ancient indigo vats

Indigo (Indigofera tinctoria) is grown intensively in the local area. The plants are at their height in the rainy season (June – September) and at the end of this, the family make their concentrated indigo paste. The dye bearing plants are cut down and steeped in water for a couple of days until the water turns a dirty yellowish colour. Lots of oxygen is added to the vat by beating, whisking, stirring and pouring until the water gradually changes to a deep blue colour and develops a very pretty light blue froth. 

The sediment from this vat makes a lovely sludgy deep blue paste which can be kept to make a fresh vat of dye when needed. With skill (and a little luck) an indigo vat can be kept “alive” almost permanently, it will just need waking up with a little more paste, some lime and wood ash. Panee’s family make about 2-300 kilos of paste a year. Nowadays with their increased business this is not enough and they have to buy in about the same amount again from indigo growers in Isan province.

One Village, One Craft and an OTOP champion

Mrs luang at her indigo

The OTOP Village Champion!

Queen Sirikit of Thailand is a wonderful woman and is a keen supporter of all kinds of Thai crafts. She has especially encouraged traditional textile skills, which are particularly close to her heart. Under her patronage, a very successful scheme, adopting an original idea from Japan, called OTOP (roughly “One Village, One Craft”) has been set up. There are OTOP shops all over Thailand and they’re a very good way to market hand-made craft items. The Paluang Indigo batik is marketed through OTOP.

Panee’s mum is getting a bit forgetful these days but in her prime she proudly carried the title of “OTOP Village Champion”. This means that she was asked to teach other people how to make an indigo vat and how to dye a good deep and consistent colour. She has taught local women from the village, hoards of local high school kids, and most memorably one of the Royal Princesses has had a dip in her indigo vats.

You used to go upstairs in the teak house on stilts to buy things but nowadays there’s a proper shop out front. There are jackets, and blouses, kimonos and men’s shirts and even batiked tissue boxes on sale. Sometimes they may have some traditional “mawhom” work shirts. These are a deep black-blue colour and fastened with ties or cloth buttons, at the front. The size is marked in white chalk on the back. They are extremely hard wearing – made for a time when people had very little cash to spare. Some people in the area still wear them every day, working in the fields or at the market. They seem to last forever and look better and better as they get older – just like a pair of your favourite jeans.

Apart from the

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I’m not kidding!

beautiful cloth and the fabulous state of those indigo pots with their light blue froth or deep green water or vibrant blue sludge, one of my favourite things at Panee’s home is the visitor’s toilet. Its indigo blue – now that shows dedication!

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We are here in Guizhou which is apparently the poorest province in China, and “without 3 acres of flat land, 3 days of good weather or 3 yuan to rub together”. Hmmm… well as with most things in China, things are never as you expect.

For a start Kaili was supposed to be a “sleepy little town” – as far as I know there is nowhere on earth where the amount of building sites and sky scrapers on view here could possibly constitute a “sleepy little town”!

Just like everywhere else we’ve been in this country, billions of yuan are being spent on construction. The “old town” is being repaved, restored and made into one hell of a mess while all around and below people shop in the markets and go about their business. Wheelbarrows full of bricks are hoisted aloft while babies sleep and toddlers play below, sellers set up stall amongst the cement mixers and shoppers dodge the loose pavement slabs and potholes.

On the southern edge of Kaili City, a whole new town is being built and on local TV and advertising hoardings, there are exhortations to invest in property. Communism is Dead! Long Live Capitalism! The restrictions have finally come off and just as in everything else, the Chinese are going full tilt.

In China, the Han are about 92% of the population and the other 8% are called the “minorities” – we’ve already been through the Uyghur and Tibetan minority regions and now we’re in amongst the “hill-tribes”. Around Kaili, about 80% of the population belong to a minority group – mostly Miao or Dong.

To the untrained eye the minority people here seem more integrated into the mainstream, at least in the towns and cities. In many cases it’s the women’s head gear or hairstyles which give them away – strange little bonnets, squares of deep blue cotton, fringed hand towels, polished red turbans, and especially bunnage of various descriptions usually augmented by artificial roses, plastic combs, vicious looking silver chopsticks, metal wire hair pins and what have you.. But more often than not hill tribe folk are indistinguishable from anybody else.

There seems to be a propensity for inappropriate leather shorts (the young and not so young women) and elaborately styled and dyed “emo” haircuts (the young men) but that may just be the fashion everywhere!

But clan costume is still very important around these parts and it’s something not easy for us to relate to – but imagine if everyone from Scotland still wore their own tartan no matter where they were, especially on high days and holidays (Burns Night, New Year’s Eve, Bank Holiday pissups etc.) They would quickly recognise anyone else from their Clan whether they were in Edinburgh, London or Sydney. It’s just the same when the various tribal people here get into their gear –they are instantly recognisable.

But that’s not the end of it – there are numerous sub branches of each nationality – and this is especially true of the Miao. For example in South East Guizhou there are 37 different Miao groups – and they each have their own dialect and costume. If this was South west Shropshire there would be the Clun Clan, the Bishop’s Castle Brigade, the Mainstone Posse, the Brockton  Lot, the Chirbury Crew and so on (feel free to substitute your own local villages here) and we would all be able to distinguish each other by our different accents and our very different  costumes.

We women would spend most of our spare time getting these amazing costumes together for our village “dos” (Michaelmas Fair, Green Man day, Carnival, the Village Show or whatever) because we’d need a new one every year. I suppose that just like here, folk from off would travel for miles to see our ceremonies and take photos, write books and make documentaries about us.

The young people would be very happy to get out and go into the big city (Shrewsbury!) for their education, a job or some entertainment and the old folk would be terrified to leave the village –couldn’t read the writing and wouldn’t know where to get the bus back.

But even more so than in the UK, things are changing at a rapid pace. Not so long ago, at the time of the Cultural Revolution, all minority culture was severely suppressed and ceremonies and ethnic costumes were made illegal. Even the remotest villages had their Party members who made sure that the latest edicts on “eliminating the old ways” were adhered to. That changed in 1980 and since then there has been a total turn around in minority consciousness. Gradually the old traditions, dress and ceremonies have become re-established, and nowadays they are positively encouraged.

“Minority tourism” is big business these days and money is being poured into rebuilding traditional village structures like the drum towers and the covered “wind and rain” bridges, not forgetting the open performance area.

Here tourist groups are treated to daily music and dancing shows from the lovely tribal girls all dressed up in their finery.

About 20 years ago, all the villages got electricity and this led to television being available. Then all the villages had to get themselves a road and if that couldn’t be achieved, they had to move nearer to the road and this led to motorbikes and easier access to transport. Then there were mobile phones and the internet and now there’s mass tourism and the expressway.

But whatever the changes, the amazing ethnic mix of south-western China is still a joy. The splendid costumes and the techniques and the incredible skills used to make them are just gobsmacking. It would take a couple of lifetimes just to understand all the traditional textile techniques of this province alone. So I am just going to let it all wash over me and see what sticks.

That said, we arrived just in time to see a huge Miao New Year ceremony involving six or seven different groups in highly impressive full regalia.

Almost all those costumes relied heavily on machine embroidery and there are plenty on sale in the shops.

But the good thing about not having to embroider a new costume every year is that you have more time to devote to your cross stitch kit!

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