Batiking in Mae Sot

Mae Sot is an incredible city. I have never lived in a place so welcoming. Mae Sot has diversity of cultures, of food and of people, which provides everyone with a feeling of ease and acceptance. Mae Sot bustles with activity throughout the week and the presence of so many non-governmental organizations and shops ensures that activities are offered, allowing you to explore different subjects and meet many people. Every Wednesday and Friday, people play football on a field just outside town. There is a quiz night on Thursdays at a local bar. Additionally, there are classes offered by different organizations. I had the opportunity to take two batiking classes offered by the Puzzlebox Art Studio during my time in Mae Sot. I really enjoyed it and learned a lot.

Both batiking courses were taught by the talented artist Sein Sein Lin. In the first few hours of the course, Sein Sein Lin taught the class about color theory, batik history and the importance of batik to Burmese culture. Everyone was then given books and pictures of batiks past, as sources of inspiration for their own designs. Students could design a tablecloth, napkin, blouse or scarf. I chose to design a tablecloth and a napkin during each course.

The design process is important in providing everyone with a better understanding of which shapes and colors work best in batik. However, the batiking process provides ample opportunity for unexpected design changes during wax and paint application, or due to the influence of the sun on the batik’s final appearance. After designing the composition, students use colored pencil to draw on the cloth. Colored pencils are used since they are a gentle medium and can therefore be washed out during the batiking process. After drawing the design, you must draw over the lines with an intricate wax pipe. The hot, bubbling wax sits inside a small pot and as you tip the pot forwards the wax pours out the tiny spout, onto the cloth. The wax’s temperature determines how the line will look. If the wax is very hot, the lines are smooth and loose. If the wax is cooler, the lines are harder to draw and can have a more abrupt and jagged appearance. During my four days of batiking, I never quite figured out how to control the heat of the wax or predict the character of the line before I was working with it on the cloth.


Wax lines on my batik

The wax acts as an important barrier during the painting phase, so the wax lines must be solid. If the wax lines are permeable then the paints will “walk” through the lines and mix together, creating unplanned colors and compositions. After the wax cools and hardens, you paint the cloth with special fabric paints. It is important to use fabric paints for batiking, because like in silk screening, fabric paint lasts longer and was designed for the batiking process. In order to achieve a darker color, more concentrated paint and repeated layers of paint should be applied to the fabric. Additionally, batiks can be painted in a similar manner to watercolor painting, where regions are made wet before paint is applied. This process allows colors to bleed into one another and create a softer look. Conversely, paint can be applied to the dry batik for a harder look and severe lines.


Paint beginning to be applied to the cloth


Paint application is complete

Once paint is applied to the batik, the batik dries in the sunlight for days before sodium silicate is applied to it. Sodium silicate acts as a fixative, holding the colors in place and preventing future water damage. Once the sodium silicate is dry, which takes approximately five hours, it is washed off in a large, boiling pot of water.

The batik is then hung out to dry in the sun.


Batiks hanging to dry

Once the batik is dry, the batiking process is finally complete. The finished appearance of the batik may be substantially different from the idea the artist originally conceived, however, the final product is always beautiful and exciting.

These classes and the other activities in Mae Sot are a great way of getting to know other people working in the city and also the work of other organizations. I learned a lot about the Puzzlebox Art Studio and the life and artwork of Sein Sein Lin. The long days at the Puzzlebox Art Studio will remain some of my favorite in Mae Sot and have enriched my understanding of batik and batik culture. Now when I see batiks for sale around the city, and throughout Thailand, I can recognize which are handmade batiks and which batiks are printed. I also now know how much skill and time went into the handmade batiks and try my best not to bargain.

This post is written by Antonia Sohns, MAP Fellow.