All About Hand Dyes & Batiks

The other day I was looking at paint chips and the guys behind the counter were discussing what scallions, shallots and leeks were, or were they different names for the same vegetable? It was quite funny and eventually I had to go talk to them as none of them had a clue. In that vein, I have noticed that many quilters don’t know much about hand-made fabrics either. It doesn’t matter, I guess, but since I love to make many of these fabrics, I thought I’d tell you about them. (By the way, most quilt store owners don’t know either and it’s too bad that the manufacturers don’t educate them.)

Everyone points to the luscious shelves in the quilt stores and says “There are the batiks”. In most cases that’s not entirely true – many of them are hand dyes. Here is a selection of hand dyed fabrics from my stash.

Hand dyed fabrics

Hand dyeing to most people would be the stack of reds, yellows and oranges at the top left of the picture. That is a gradation that I dyed. The color is fairly even, but has quite a different look from commercially dyed fabrics. I mixed up water and dye in buckets and immersed the fabric in to take up the dye. Most of the other fabrics are drizzle dyed. Look at the orange strip at the left. Can you see that someone (probably) spread the fabric out, wet it and then dripped dye on it? The upper right fabric has many colors drizzled on and the colors mix together to make some new colors. The pattern, if you want to call it that, is random. The middle background piece is one of my favorite background fabrics. It’s just a white piece of fabric with all sorts of colors randomly dropped on it, leaving lots of white space. Some hand dyes look like they have a pattern and it may be that salt was dropped on the dyed fabric. I remember doing that in art class and fun things happen.

Here is a selection of batiks.

Batik fabrics

Right away, I hope you are seeing that there is a pattern to these pieces. Wax is applied to a chop or tjap and stamped on the fabric. The red and white dotted fabric in the top left is the simplest version. I’m not sure if the dots are stamped or dropped, but then the fabric is immersed into the dyebath. The wax resists the dye. The fabric is washed and then the wax is removed. The other three examples are much more complicated and I can’t quite decide how they are made. They are certainly made using stamps and are then hand colored or perhaps dyed in a dyebath. Multiple waxings and dyeings, I assume. The square in the middle is traditional batik that you would find inSoutheast Asian. The flower was stamped and then painted, sort of like a paint by number. You can see on this piece that there was a lot of bleeding, but it is so pretty.

If you go to Southeast Asia, this is the sort of batik you will find. This is part of a sarong, (as is the flower above), made in Bali, and it is all done by hand.

Antique Balinese sarong

When a batik is done by hand, one uses a tjanting. I have tried my hand at it and it is not an easy technique. There is a fine balance between the wax being too hot or too cold. And then, of course, one needs to be skillful enough to draw a design on the fabric. Look how fine the lines are! This beauty is an antique.

In a quilt class I recently took, the teacher and a student were talking about how the quality of the batik fabric was so good, and the teacher said that it was because of the batik process. That’s not true. When you dye a fabric, you want to use a tightly woven fabric. Imagine dyeing a piece of burlap – or a sheet. The burlap is so loosely woven that the dye wouldn’t show up much. Sheets are made of very densely woven fabric, so they take up the dye and show the details in a batik well. When you buy hand dyed or batik fabric, you can count on the manufacturer using the nicest cotton.

So perhaps now you understand why these types of fabrics are so expensive.

To thank you for reading the whole post, here is a giveaway – – – a selection of batiks and hand dyes for you to make a pillow top or tiny quilt or just admire. Leave a comment and I will draw a name on Monday the 21st – before things get too crazy! (Sorry, US only!)

Batik & hand dye giveaway fabric

10 thoughts on “All About Hand Dyes & Batiks

  1. As a spinner and weaver and dyer of fabric (including batik from time to time) and former quilter I must agree that most do not understand the differences. One of my lifetime goals (which I may or may not achieve) is to prepare fiber, dye it, spin it, weave it and then make a quilt from it. I do currently sew with my handspun handwoven, but I need to work on getting to a very consistent, strong, fine yarn that can then be woven into a fabric fine enough for quilting. I know it can be done. I just have to hunker down and do it.


    • Wow! That is quite a goal. I used to spin, many years ago, but was never very happy with my results. (I loved spinning – so relaxing!) I didn’t use it for weaving, but would knit with it. Nowadays, with all the lovely dyed and painted rovings available, I think I might enjoy it again!

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  2. Thanks for that lesson, Deb. I have a beautiful (though now a bit faded) scarf/sarong that I gentleman made in Barbados. Tom wasn’t as happy as I was given the price we paid, but it was so beautiful, And we watched him make another one while we were there. He “drew” with the wax by hand, not as elaborate as the antique above, but it was still amazing to watch.


    • Hi Susan~ I was a dyer before I was a quilter (I dyed for my weaving habit) so I never did take to the commercial plain-colored fabrics. It does amuse me that they are SO popular now, because when I started quilting there were no batiks or hand dyes available in quilt stores. For the most part, I enjoy using fabrics that are “unevenly colored” and “imperfect”.
      And – I just looked at your blog – I dye/d for rug hooking! And I admire your work very much. Last saw you at the Lancaster Biennial.


  3. This is really interesting and informative! I never knew any of this, although I remember taking a course in college where we did very basic batik. That antique sarong is spectacular!


    • Isn’t it? I have a little pile of them. They are so hard to use in a quilt because the panels are rectangles and I am loathe to cut them. But I did feel like I was rescuing them… Obvioulsy less and less people (the men wear sarongs too!!!) wear them and there were lots of old ones in the markets.
      I had a tour in a museum and the Balinese were quite influenced by modern culture. They had an antique batik sarong with Mickey and Minnie on it!!!


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