China Blue: The Batik of Miao

Batik is an age-old textile technique with its earliest roots in China, first emerging within the Han Dynasty in the West (206 BCE – 229 CE). Ever since, it has remained a know-how that is passed from mothers to their daughters within the ethnic minority communities of Southeast China, particularly among the Miao community in the region of Guizhou.
The art of batik dyeing is a part of daily life in this community. Batik fabrics are used in the manufacture of jackets, large pleated skirts and even the bed linens offered during traditional ceremonies of marriage, burial and other festivals. They are a symbol of fertility, luck and prosperity in Miao culture.
The apparent simplicity of these two-tone fabrics, in indigo blue and ecru, disguises a long and complex process of reserve dyeing. In fact, the creation of a batik occurs through four distinct phases: wax drawing, staining, melting the wax and finally rinsing the fabric.
Whether on hemp canvas, rustic cotton or jute stretched on a wooden board, artisans patiently trace motifs with a stylus dipped in liquid wax kept warm in a metal saucer over wood charcoal. The tool resembles a metal knife designed with a hollow center to contain the wax. With their expertly agile hands, these women cover the entirety of the fabric surface in patterns. This manual technique allows for designs with very variable line thicknesses, ranging from the fat and coarse to those with an almost inconceivable finesse.
The drawings represent real or imaginary animals: popular choices include birds, fish, dragons and butterflies, as well as flowers and trees. The repertoire of designs draws inspiration from local folklore, surrounding nature, and stylized geometric symbology.
The wax is thus embedded in the fibers, forming a protective film that prevents dye from absorbing into and coloring the fabric covered by the motif.
To prepare the pigment which will give a rich blue color to the material, it is necessary to cold ferment indigo leaves in a pot for approximately ten days. The wax-covered fabric is then dipped into the pot and left to sundry. Often the hardened wax will crack and allow some of the pigment to slip into these fissures, giving an effect of irregular wrinkling. These random effects are almost impossible to reproduce with a brush, giving batik a unique character and sense of authenticity.
To obtain an intense, almost black, shade of blue, the dip-dye process must be repeated three to four times daily, ideally for several weeks.
Finally, after the dyeing step, the fabric is boiled to melt the wax, revealing the parts of the motif that remained untouched by indigo. Little by little, the wax detaches from the fiber and the reserved motif appears on the canvas. Once rinsed with clear water and hung to dry, the piece is finally complete and embodies all of its elements in a harmonious dialogue between forms and signs in blue and white.