Vintage Pekalongan Batik Tulis
Growing up in a typical Penang Straits Chinese home, I remember my mother wearing batik sarongs every day. She went to bed in one of her old and faded sarongs but changed to a crisp starched one the next morning. She wore beautiful hand drawn batik tulis with her embroidered nyonya kebayas for special occasions but paired her sarongs for daily use with short sleeve blouses.
Both my paternal and maternal grandmothers would wear the short white nyonya blouses with batik sarongs at home but wore kebaya panjang when they went out.
Batiks then were mostly made of cotton, hand done using the canting, called batik tulis or block stamped called batik cap. It was only much later that screen printed sarongs were introduced.
Screen printed sarong
The nyonyas preferred sarongs from the Pesisir/coastal regions of North Central Java which were colourful unlike the traditional Javanese batiks from Solo and Jogjakarta. Those were made with natural dyes so were mainly in shades of browns with very distinct motifs originally meant for the royal courts.
Straits Chinese ladies wore sarongs imported mainly from Pekalongan, Kedungwuni and Lasem. These were originally made for the Indonesian Peranakan community in Chinese owned batik workshops with motifs largely influenced by silk embroidery from China, Chinese symbols, animals, birds, insects and flowers. The European, especially Dutch influence was evident in the bouquets of flowers, temperate flowers like tulips and lilies and figurines from fairy tales and nursery rhymes. Hokokai batik was introduced during the Japanese occupation of Indonesia during WW2 . These were with many strong colours and very busy. Many featured the sakura flower.
Vintage Pekalongan Batik Tulis with synthetic dyes
Earlier batiks from Lasem and those of ‘Tiga Negeri; were with vegetable dyes. ‘Chicken blood’ red was from roots of the noni, blue from the indigo leaves and stems and brown from mangosteen and soga tree bark. As the Indonesian Peranakan ladies preferred pastel but colourful batiks, synthetic dyes were later used. These were the qualities imported for use by our local nyonyas. My grandmothers and elder aunts wore sarongs that were less colourful and elaborate than those available during my mother’s time when synthetic dyes were widely used. Mother related an incident that a cat ‘attacked’ a sarong left to dry because the batik motif of a cockerel was so life-like. Batik tulis was an art form meticulously executed to the highest standard. The above examples of batik tulis were sold for just Malayan $35 in the 1950’s.
A matriarch and her 7 daughters in batik sarongs and kebayas
Elder matriarchs preferred subdued colours but reserved certain sarongs for when there was a death in the family or to attend wakes and funerals. These were considered ‘mourning’ sarongs, mainly with blacks, blues and greens.
Mourning batik sarong in shades of blue
Mourning batik sarong for 3rd stage which includes shades of green
Nyonya ladies wore both sarongs and batik lepas (kain panjang). Sarongs are 2 meters in length, with 2 distinct panels, the smaller ‘punca (kepala)’ and larger ‘tana (badan)’ panel. Raw fabric edges are sewn together to form a tubular sarong. A batik lepas is about 2.5 meters long but both ends of the fabric are neaten but left as a flat sheet of batik. Unlike batik sarongs with the 2 distinctive panels, most batik lepas are either of one free flowing or repetitive motifs except for those called ‘siang-malam (pagi-sorei) batik lepas. A single siang-malam batik lepas fabric has 2 different motifs usually separated diagonally in the middle. Worn correctly, it has the effect of 2 sarongs in 1. Most Hokokai batiks were in the siang-malam style.
Vintage batik sarong
Vintage batik sarong
Vintage siang-malam kain panjang
Vintage siang-malam kain panjang for the mourning period
Fine Indonesian batik tulis is a work of art painstakingly made using the wax resist technique. It is a labour of love as a single sarong may take months to complete. It is a slow process, applying different layers of wax and dyes. A single flower may be covered with hundreds of wax resist dots as tiny as pin pricks. It is a treasured heritage still practised till today despite modern technology of mass produced screen printing of batik prints. With batik cap, many sarongs can be completed within days using block prints and painting.
Hand stamped/batik cap sarong
To a nyonya, the mark of a good batik nyonya is the simple line pattern at the selvage edges called ‘kaki’. It has to be very narrow and the lines, fine and evenly spaced.
Fine batiks sarongs formed part of a nyonya bride’s dowry and a bridal chamber would have a cupboard of neatly folded sarongs.
Unfortunately, not many of these beautiful antique batiks have survived as it was our custom to send off our dearly departed with their worldly goods. Many antique batik pieces were placed inside coffins before burial or cremation. It was not our local practice to cherish and not use our dowry pieces either so those that survived are no longer in mint condition but thoroughly worn. Even then, qualities of dyes have survived the test of time. Many vintage batik sarongs with worn out fibres have retained their vibrant colours.
When a nyonya who enjoyed a good and fruitful life dies, neighbours and friends would ask for her used sarongs. It was the belief that her blessings would be bestowed to the wearer and also to babies when used as a draw sheet for the baby’s cot.
In the 1960’s, Kelantan and Terengganu workshops produced some batik nyonya. These were mainly made with brass block stamps. ‘Wah Bee’ in Penang made affordable silk screen sarong prints.
Batik sarongs are very versatile, used both for day and night and for any occasion. It is worn at home and also to attend the grandest event, a fabric for all seasons. It doesn’t matter as one size fits all. You can wear it throughout pregnancy and after childbirth, literally from ‘the womb to the tomb’. It is very comfortable and secure once you have mastered the art of wearing it. It just takes practice. It cannot be that difficult if little old ladies can do it.
While some ladies were apt at securing their sarongs with just a few twists, turns, folds and tugs, most others feel safer using metal belts. These were usually of silver or silver plated while rich families had gold or sausa (an alloy of copper and gold) belts.
As nyonyas were trained from young to be meticulous, fine batik sarong seams had to be finely hand-stitched. Top sewn with white threads, the stitches translated as ‘bed bug eggs’ in Hokkien were to be as tiny as the wax-resist dots of the batiks.
Laundered sarongs require a final rinse in diluted tapioca starch. They are left to air-dry in a shady place away from direct sunlight. Turned inside out, they were threaded through bamboo poles, stretched out and weighted down with another length of pole. This makes for easier ironing out of creases when dried.
In this tropical heat, in the privacy of their homes, some ladies tie their sarongs above their bosoms (berkemban) and bare their shoulders. In the days when kampong homes had community baths, it was a common sight to see women taking their baths at the well with just sarongs to cover their modesty. Most baby boomers would have at least used the sarong during the confinement period after childbirth. You can use it now at the beach as your changing ‘room’! Mothers used sarongs as baby carriers and also as a cradle. A large coiled spring tied to a strong overhead beam holds the looped sarong for babies to sleep snugly in.
Batik tulis then had resale value. Pawn shops even took them as collaterals when poor folks needed cash urgently
Old worn out sarongs were recycled. Being of fine cotton fabric, they were absorbent so poor families cut them to be used as baby nappies. At the least they were useful as household rags. They make the best protective cover when used for storage as natural fibre ‘breaths’ and absorbs moisture.
During WW2, when the Japanese attacked Penang in 1942 and families fled into hiding, sarongs were used to bundle the barest necessities and slung over the shoulders. It was later to became a standing joke, ”to hurriedly bundle your belongings and run away or elope!”.
Little children loved sitting between the legs of sarong clad nyonyas. The stretched out sarong fabric between the knees becomes a rocking seat/swing. The fold of grandma’s sarong is refuge when little ones need a hiding place….from a reprimanding parent wielding a cane. It’s a guaranteed safe haven for who would dare accidently cane grandma?
In the days when nyonya maidens were cloistered at home, it was considered unbecoming for a maiden if ‘the hem of her sarong crossed the threshold of the front door’. Unmarried girls just never left home without a chaperon.
If a mature fruit tree does not flower, kampong folks would wrap an old sarong around the trunk to symbolically shield the tree they consider ‘too shy’ to propagate and bear fruits.
I pack a sarong for my travels. It comes in handy in some places of worship, as a quick change in emergency and an all-purpose fabric sheet when needed. It came in handy while staying in a traditional Japanese Inn with a communal heated pool. While braver souls jumped in naked, a quick bath ‘berkemban’ by the side sufficed.
Pekalongan batik cap sarong with ‘tumpal’/isosceles triangles pattern for its ‘badan’
Back – Peter Wee’s Vintage Pekalongan sarongs
Mr. Peter Wee of Katong Antique House, Singapore showcased his collection of vintage Peranakan batiks at the Batik Festival in Kuala Lumpur in 2012
Back - Vintage bed covering from Lasem
An invitation to view the vintage batik collection of Mr. Hartono Sumarsono after a chance meeting at ICRA (Interior and Craft Fair) 2013 in Jakarta was an unforgettable experience. Of Chinese descent, he has the most amazing collection of vintage Batik Pesisir. A second coffee table book featuring his collection will be published soon. His workshops produce copies of his vintage batiks, both in fine batik tulis and affordable prints making it possible for others to wear his proud heritage.