Batik Studio Sri Lanka

I went to a progressive elementary school, a place where we called our teachers by their first names and ‘our bodies and feelings were safe.’ Creative and interesting parents and community members came in and taught short-term courses on their areas of expertise. A few months of Japanese calligraphy followed a try at gymnastics and an attempt to get into an immensely popular international cooking class held in the school kitchen.

And then there was the batik class.

Batik Studio Sri Lanka

Around age 8, some brave parent decided to teach a small group of kids one of the oldest and most interesting textile crafts in the world. Hot wax and boiling water be damned. We kids happily spent several classes ‘painting’ our white T-shirts with melted wax, protecting the fabric from the subsequent dye job. Once a design was set and the fabric dyed, our teacher took our shirts home to complete the process of dunking the shirts in boiling water, removing the wax and leaving behind our amateur designs.

I keenly remember my pink and yellow T-shirt covered with hearts, stars and flowers, the only things I could draw.

At the time I had no actual appreciation for the craft of batik. While batik originated centuries ago in what is now Indonesia and Malaysia, it has spread widely and is now a well-established trade in Sri Lanka. It’s certainly the most visible of the island’s crafts, with many galleries and studios open to the public. The wares, ranging from home decor to clothing, are sold all over, and to be frank, mostly to foreign visitors.

Batik Studio Sri Lanka

We spent a lovely morning touring the studio of Eric Suriyasena, one of the craftsmen of the area. His studio makes the saris for Ms. Sri Lanka and his designers regularly work on commissions from local businesses in addition to constantly replenishing their popular and large shop.

Our tour was led by Eric himself, though his daughter-in-law was nearby assisting another group. We were able to watch and then help with most steps of the batik process. Drew proved himself a steady-handed wax painter, while I stuck to pouring dye freestyle down an abstract piece.

Batik Studio Sri Lanka

Batik Studio Sri Lanka

Batik Studio Sri Lanka
Batik Studio Sri Lanka

The roughly ten designers and workers who were in the middle of their normal workday during our visit were gracious and friendly, happily letting us take a stab at their craft. I wondered aloud, more than once, if they only work on the pieces that can be less than perfect during times when tours are coming around.

There was a wedding sari strung on a rack nearby. No one worked on that piece while we amateurs were nearby, and I don’t blame them. Apparently, if you make a mistake painting the initial wax, the entire piece must be melted down and started from scratch.

batik-11-min

My favorite part was crinkling the final waxy product, which gives some batik pieces that veiny style that makes every item as unique as a fingerprint. It is a step that I couldn’t possibly mess up, so I happily crinkled a large square cloth, that was destined to become a child’s shirt, with no hesitation.

The final step – the boiling plunge that frees the cloth from the wax – was impressive but completed in what appeared to be a makeshift witches’ cauldron.

We just watched that part.

After our morning spent in the high brow art studio, we opted to experience the other end of the cultural spectrum by taking a tuk-tuk to the nearby fish market. On reflection, we couldn’t have picked a more opposite activity to round out our day.

Negombo Fish Market

The fish market, bustling with daily shoppers, yelling vendors and a few bemused tourists, had that unavoidable smell when freshly caught fish meets tropical heat. Not for the overly sensitive. But the offerings were impressive. The vendors’ tables were littered with small tuna, a wide variety of trout, shrimp and crayfish, and buckets of smaller mackerel and sardines. A few needlefish were on display, alongside a table of crab.

What was most impressive was the beach next door, literally covered with dried fish and squid. A friendly and enterprising worker gave us an impromptu tour and described the multi-day process of drying fish, which are destined for the popular condiment sambol and many curries. We tipped our tour guide generously when the smells and heat edged toward overwhelming.

Negombo Fish Market

Negombo Fish Market

Negombo Fish Market

Our brief introduction into two of Sri Lanka’s most important trades was a fantastic way to spend an afternoon and also a nice overview for two curious tourists into the culture of a new place. After a handful of days, sequestered in our swanky resort, consuming tropical rum cocktails in a pool-side cabana, we needed some hint of reality, some cultural connection to the ‘real’ Sri Lanka. We like our relaxation time, especially in a tropical paradise, but we had a culture itch that needed to be scratched.

We could only take so much relaxation, blissfully ignorant of what our destination was really like outside the gates of the resort. Sometimes, you just need to hop in a tuk-tuk and go find the real people that make a destination truly magical.

Have you ever tried batik, or any other textile handicraft? Are textiles something you seek out on your travels? We’d love to hear from you in the comments below!

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Sri Lanka Batik

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  • March 12, 2016

    We have Sri Lankan friends and now I’m dying to ask them more about the batik process. I love how you did this as a kid and would love to find a way to do it with my kids.
    Tonya recently posted…How To Make The Best Homemade Tortillas Costa Rica StyleMy Profile

    • March 13, 2016
      Julie

      Thanks Tonya – and I’m SURE there is some crafty genius who has figured out how to do basic batik with kids minus the potential injury situation. It’s like tie-dye but up a notch.

  • March 13, 2016

    No, I haven’t, but would love to try my hand at a Batik design. Or maybe I should try it with my students. I am a teacher at a progressive school. 🙂 Great photos of the drying fish. It really gives a sense of the process involved in making sambol.
    Jackie recently posted…Should You Sign Up for the Increased SPG Amex 35k bonus?My Profile

    • March 13, 2016
      Julie

      Yay for progressive schools! Mine was amazing (it’s called Harmony School, of course), and it made such an impact on me. And doing this work with your students should be totally doable, without injury 🙂 I’m sure by now a bunch of crafty folks have figured out how to get the effect without you know, hot wax everywhere!

  • March 13, 2016

    Love that you able to get out and try working with batiks. What a nice way to get to know the culture. Have to admit the seafood on the ground drying is disturbing from a sanitary perspective. Nice pictures overall 🙂
    Rosemary recently posted…Nikkei: Amazing Japanese Peruvian Cuisine That Will Make You SalivateMy Profile

    • March 13, 2016
      Julie

      Point taken. I think I liked watching the drying fish, moreso than imagining that it’s made its way into my bottled fish sauce at home!

  • March 13, 2016

    How cool! Batik looks like such an interesting process–I’ve never heard of it before, but I always love learning about traditions like this when we travel. Getting a hands on feel for a trade is always a great experience. That’s really great that you tried it when you were younger, too–really brings a new appreciation to it, I bet!

    • March 13, 2016
      Julie

      I agree, Jenna. Doing something hands on when traveling is such a great way to get a feel for a country or city. In my more normal travels, I pick things like walking tours or eating tours (the best!), but when further afield it’s great to try out a craft!

  • March 14, 2016

    I think I did some batik in high school – but I definitely don’t remember a witches’ cauldron – I’d avoid that part, too. It’s wonderful that you managed to find such a great cultural activity. It really adds to a trip.
    Wandering Carol recently posted…One day in Annecy, France: things to do, how to get lostMy Profile

    • March 15, 2016

      Yeah, the cauldron of boiling wax over an open fire was unexpected, and I was extra cautious with my brush. Didn’t want to ruin my day with a wax burn. That would not have been pretty!

  • March 14, 2016

    While i do not consider myself even close to an “artist,” i do have some in the family. My uncle, who resides in Hawaii is an amazing painter and pottery sculptor. Once my boys are little older, i hope he can show them just a little bit of what goes into crafting his amazing sculptures!
    Lindsay Nieminen recently posted…5 Tips to Survive a Toddler’s First FlightMy Profile

    • March 15, 2016

      I love that idea. I think showing kids what goes into quality art work, the skill and patience required, is important. Hopefully, it builds an appreciation of art from a young age.

  • March 15, 2016

    This is really cool! I will be adding this to
    My to do list when visiting Sri Lanka! It looks so awesome!
    Joe Ankenbauer recently posted…A Hidden Paradise: Thousand Steps BeachMy Profile

  • March 15, 2016

    Another post that gets me more and more curious about this country! I’ve been seeing a lot more about Sri Lankan culture and cuisine all throughout the web! I love trying out new forms of art and I am definitely sold on the seafood selection! I am now researching more about Sri Lanka. Thanks for sharing, Julie!
    Trisha Velarmino – P.S. I’m On My Way recently posted…Happy pizza in Cambodia left me insane in the membrane: a high time in Siem ReapMy Profile

    • March 15, 2016

      Sri Lanka has so much to offer. In fact, maybe almost too much, meaning that you need to spend a lot of time there to see everything. We have only seen the tip of the iceberg. We are planning on heading back to visit for a few weeks, to really get the chance to explore!

  • March 15, 2016

    I’ve never tried to do batik but it looks so pretty. I remember studying it in art class when looking at different styles so i’m very jealous you got to witness it first hand. I think it’s so pretty and the colours are amazing.

    • March 15, 2016

      It was a unique experience. The process is laborious and artistic at the same time, requiring a lot of precision. Make a few small mistakes, they toss the garment and start again. Made me feel nervous when they entrusted me to paint with the hot wax!