The grass is spread with dyed shirts drying in the sun. It seems fuchsia, cobalt blue, and orange are the favored colors of our backyard batik party.
We approach this ancient art using shortcuts that would make a purist shriek. First we peel faded paper from old crayons, revealing the richer hues underneath. The crayons are melted in tin cans bubbling in a big pot of water on our camp stove. Then grandmothers, mothers, and children together, we crowd around picnic tables and paint the gooey wax onto cotton shirts, pillowcases, and tote bags. Some of us splash abstract designs, others draw intricate pictures. Eager conversations quiet as artists concentrate on their work.
Next we dunk them into pails of dye—gumdrop yellow, indigo, rose, pale green or sky blue. Children set their projects out on the grass to dry in the sun, then run off to play. To complete the process the wax has to be melted out of the fabric, ironed over and over on newspaper until no more will seep out under the press of a hot iron. Nothing of the crayons will remain but color locked into the fibers, wax resisting dye.
I drag my wooden ironing board out of the dark closet and pull it into the bright yard. My sister gave it to me as a humorous wedding shower gift but my mother’s friends in attendance thought it refreshingly practical. I’ve only used for the odd art project. The rickety wooden legs have to be forced into warped slots which hold them in place. The children come from catching frogs in the creek, from roasting marshmallows over the fire, from all over our property just to watch their mamas stand over the ironing board. “Can I try?” and “Wow” is the standard kid response. Cautioning them to hold their fingers only on the handle and to keep the iron moving we let them work the wax out of the batik designs. Recognizing the possibility of danger they are entranced, as if we’ve let them use power tools.
They wait impatiently for their turns while the seven of us women sit at the picnic table eating hummus, Greek salad, and chocolate cake. We talk of how far we’ve come from our own mothers’ ironing boards here in the slow-to-evolve Midwest. Christie describes her mother as a “laundry fascist” who did her wash on Monday and ironing on Tuesday, regarding stains with the same disgust as sins. Holding to such an immutable schedule of laundering was what her mother believed “good women” did. The moral character of others could be determined in part by the cleanliness of their clothes, making the world a more easily understood place. Christie’s mother still gives advice on stain removal, valuable irony-tinged information for those of us trying to live simply.
Debra remembers looking for a summer job in back when classifieds in her hometown paper were displayed in separate columns: Men Wanted, Women Wanted. As a high school sophomore she had difficulty deciphering descriptions like “Gal Friday” and “sturdy middle-aged woman.” She avoided waitress jobs, not only because of the potential pats on the rear but to spare herself the necessity of ironing a uniform each day.
I volunteer memories of downtown shopping trips each summer. My mother put me in a crisply ironed dress and tied matching ribbons at the bottom of my braids. My grandmother never left the house unless impeccably clad. She sewed her own lined suits, wore stockings and girdle every day, and carried dress gloves in her purse no matter the season. I recall waiting as they shopped at iconic Cleveland department stores Halles and Higbees, then they took me and my sister to the tea room. A trip to the ladies lounge followed. I remember hopping up to the toilet, admiring my shiny shoes as my feet swung off the floor. But I was afraid to unlatch the door because frightening noises often came from other stalls in that fancy pink restroom. Ladies who moments ago were delicately patting their lipsticked mouths with heavy cloth napkins were now making groaning noises. I knew full well at the age of four that ladies did not make such noises, particularly in public. Something bad had to be happening. I pictured them transformed into monsters. When I finally left the stall and made my way to the line of sinks I watched in the mirror as other doors opened. Demure ladies stepped out as if they’d made no such sounds. Only years later did I realize that these women were struggling with heavy girdles which cut into their summer-weary flesh.
We laugh at domestic memories as our children finish the exotic task of ironing. When we look up from our reverie they have started a game of hide and seek. Their voices sound distant in the gathering darkness. Their small shirts are now bobbing from wire hangers along the porch. One by one we iron our own shirts as the sun goes down. The smell of crayons hangs in the evening, imprinting memories to last a lifetime.
I think our next art party will involve candy cigarettes and paint flinging, ala Jackson Pollack.
How To Host A Batik Party
This process isn’t “real” batik. It’s an approximation that’s fun and basic. It’s also time consuming, messy, requires close attention when wax is near heat, and can stain anything from driveways to flesh. That’s why you should make it into a gathering of friends who will share the effort and joy. And why you should do it over grass as much as possible.
- lots of newspaper
- old crayons with paper removed, sorted by color
- chunks of paraffin
- empty cans (16 oz or larger food cans), paper wrappers and tops removed
- large disposable roasting pan
- thick and thin paintbrushes you’re willing to throw out afterwards
- old camp stove or electric skillet you’ve willing to have wax spilled on
- fire extinguisher
- metal sheeting for safety (we found a piece in the garbage)
- ironing board
- picnic table and/or sturdy tables to work on
- clothes iron (it too may get waxy)
- clothing dye (can use Rit Dye or order more professional dyes from Dharma Trading)
- large buckets for dye (you can often get them free from store bakeries and delis, food is delivered in them)
Ask everyone to wear old clothes, hair tied up where applicable, and to bring food and drinks to share. They also must bring items to batik. That might be t-shirts, tote bags, curtains, pillowcases, skirts, ties, etc. The best are all-natural fabrics such as cotton, hemp, silk. If it’s a blend, a high natural content is preferable.
Preparation: Mix dyes in buckets. Most dyes need hot water to dissolve. Some need other ingredients so make sure you’ve checked in advance. You’ll want at three to five separate dye colors. If kids are involved, you may not want too many conflicting colors. Repeated dips will leave them with brown or grays. (Educational but possibly not what they intended.) Leave the buckets out in the yard as dye stations.
Spread the tarp over the picnic table and/or work area. Put the metal sheeting down where the camp stove/electric skillet will sit.
Step One: Put different colors of crayons in the empty cans. Add a few slivers of paraffin to each can. You also want a can with only paraffin for clear resist areas. Put the cans in the roasting pan. Fill the pan with several inches of water, about a third of the way up. Keep a pitcher of water nearby to keep filling as water evaporates. You do not want to spill water in the wax. Heat gently to melt the crayons and paraffin. Once it’s liquified turn the heat off and it will remain liquid quite a while.
Caution. SUPERVISE CHILDREN, hot wax burns. NEVER leave wax over heat unattended. NEVER put out a wax fire with water, which spreads it. Instead it must be smothered (fire extinguisher or fireproof lid over it, we kept an old grill lid handy).
Step Two: It’s time to paint designs or pictures on fabric. Just dip brushes in melted wax. Make sure you return the right brushes to the right container. Use clear paraffin in areas where you want the fabric color to show within or around your design.
Step Three: Dip all or select portions of your fabric into dye of choice.
Step Four: Hang on clothesline. Do another fabric item or simply wait for your item to dry.
Step Five: Put several sheets of newspaper under and several over a single layer of your dry fabric. Iron to melt the wax out of the fabric. You’ll need to replace the newspaper sheets several times until wax no longer melts from the fabric.