What’s a batik, a sarong and how are they related
By Matt Lepkowski
Before arriving in Bali I thought skirts were just for women. They’re actually sarongs but to a clueless guy they look like skirts and men wear them too. What exactly is a sarong, what is a batik, and how are they related?
The answer is quite simple. A sarong is simply a piece of cloth measuring about 1 meter (yard) by 2 meters. It can be used for multiple purposes, but is most often used as a skirt – for women and men in Bali. Saris are similar, but this Indian cousin of sarongs is much longer, often 4-9 meters, which allows it cover the upper body as well.
Batiks on the other hand refer to the coloring process. Similar to the method used to make psychedelic tie-dyes from the 60s, fabric is bound then dipped in dye. Tie-dyes often use rubber bands to control coloring, whereas batiks use wax. After drying, the wax is removed and the process can be repeated many times, changing the pattern of the binding and color of the dye. Wax is applied manually with a pen-like tool called a canting or with a copper stamp in a repeating pattern. The stamp method is obviously much faster, but constrains designs. Speed and flexibility can be obtained by using both methods on a single piece of cloth.
To summarize, a sarong is just a piece of fabric of a certain size but batik is a wax-based coloring method. A batik is often a sarong, but a sarong isn’t necessarily a batik. Quite the contrary. Even a one-color piece of fabric with no pattern can be a sarong. This is what’s loaned out to tourists for a small donation at temples. Most of the multi-color sarongs in the market of Ubud, Bali are cheap prints made in a factory like T-shirts. How do you tell the difference?
The easiest way to distinguish the difference between a true batik and a print is to look at both sides of the fabric. A true batik will look identical on both sides, and often has crinkled fine lines throughout. A print on the other hand will have a good side and a bad side. You may interpret this to be shiny/dull or bright/faded, but there will usually be a difference, although high quality prints can be deceiving. Trust your hands to gauge quality. Feel the cotton between your fingers and fold it over and rub it against itself. Is it smooth and almost silky like cheap polyester or does it have a slightly rougher texture and feel more substantial? If you trust the shopkeeper, you could inquire if it’s “asli” – real in Indonesian. You could ask for “paling baik” which means best quality. Traditional Indonesian batiks are white with blue and/or brown, the colors of traditional natural dyes. If a real batik has more colors, expect it to be expensive because more labor is involved. Note that Java is the source of most high quality batiks, not Bali.
In Bali, a sarong isn’t just a piece of cloth but a necessary article of clothing for many ceremonies – for both men and women. When Balinese put out their daily offerings a sarong is worn. In order to enter many of the Balinese temples, sarongs must be worn, even if long pants and a shirt cover your knees and shoulders.
Women and men wear sarongs differently. Women start wrapping it from their right hip, around the back and around until running out of fabric, keeping it form fitting. The corner is tucked in and the waist is rolled down roughly 5 cm (2 inches) to keep it in place. Men start by holding one corner in each hand and centering the sarong behind them, then pulling the ends together in front and tying them together at the waist, then rolling down the top. This results in a loose and baggy look.
Most people wear cotton sarongs and even the locals wear print sarongs. Silk sarongs are available but are not as popular, and men rarely wear silk sarongs. It’s common to see women wearing a sash of silk batik over the cotton sarong as a belt. The question is, do you want a colorful piece of fabric or a real batik made with the wax process? Of course money is a factor. Cheap batik-looking prints are less than $5 whereas a fair trade original batik can easily cost over $175.
The first two pictures are from Threads of Life, the third is from the Ubud market.
Matt Lepkowski is the founder of TravelsInParadise.com and lives in the mountains of Colorado, USA.
See Matt’s bio and more of his travel articles and pictures.