The rich and dazzling array of batiks displayed in Arab Street's fine fabric shops make this avenue one of the most colorful in this very colorful city. Arab Street in multiethnic Singapore is a commercial center for the city's Malaysian population.
Batik, in which geometrical or floral patterns are applied to fabrics by the wax-resistant method of dying, is manufactured and sold throughout Southeast Asia, especially in Malaysia and Indonesia.
But Singapore, as a leading trade center for these Southeast Asian countries, offers a wide variety of batiks. It's also where to buy decorative fabrics and clothing and accessories fashioned from them.
The shops here, particularly those along Arab Street and in Singapore's Handicrafts Center, offer a huge selection of fabrics collected from all of the traditional batik-producing areas. Because Singapore is tax-free, prices here are usually equal to--or just a tad higher than--where batiks are manufactured.
The best, also the most expensive, batiks are made of pure cambric cotton in four grades of quality ( primissima, prima, biru and blaco ) from best to poorest. They are usually prepared by small groups of artisans working in private ateliers and using natural dyes that are hand-applied according to traditional methods, either by free-hand painting or printing with small pattern blocks pressed repeatedly to the cotton.
These hand-dyed fabrics are becoming increasingly rare. They are usually sold only in sarong lengths (about 2 1/2 yards are needed to accomplish the traditional Javanese or Malaysian body wraps).
There are less expensive batiks, however, still colorful and lovely, sold by the yard and mass-produced using synthetic fabrics and dyes that were screen-printed or machine-applied patterns.
Both cotton and synthetic varieties of batiks are stitched into a good selection of ready-to-wear clothes from jumpsuits to bikini bathing suits. Men's shirts and women's sun dresses are particularly popular.
Home accessories such as tablecloth and napkin sets and pillow covers are also abundant, as are hand-painted murals of still lifes or landscapes, sold with or without frames.
There are literally hundreds of patterns, from bold geometric shapes to delicate florals, many with ancient origins, from which to choose.
Basharahil Brothers (101 Arab St., telephone 293-6569), one of Singapore's best and most reliable batik emporiums, offers an astonishing selection. Although a fine sampling of well-made clothes are sold here, including men's shirts averaging about $15, women's dresses about $20 and outfits for children about $15, the shop's emphasis is on fabrics, most of which are stacked in bolts.
Fortunately the sales personnel, all of whom speak English, are patient and will unwrap dozens of patterns to show the undecided, often offering information about the pattern's place of origin and its traditional associations.
Prices of batiks vary. Traditional hand-blocked batiks cost as much as $150 per sarong-length piece, while machine or screen-printed fabrics cost $4 to $12 per yard.
That big difference in price is due to the difference in the way these fabrics are produced.
All batik methods are based on the same basic principles: a pattern of hot wax is applied to undecorated fabric that is dipped into a dye bath. Areas that have been waxed resist coloration. Several waxing and dipping phases take place, establishing a complex, often richly colored pattern. Then fabric is heated to melt away all traces of wax.
The hand-dying techniques are labor-intensive and require tremendous skill. The finest batiks, batik tulis , are made by artisans who apply each line or area of wax freehand, using a brass pen called a Tjanting (pronounced "canting").
Next in quality and price are those batiks on which artisans apply patterns by using small blocks, cut and shaped from copper sheeting, called Tjap (pronounced "cap"). The application is freehand and artisans must have steady hands and terrific eyesight to keep patterns even and continuous.
These traditional batik techniques reportedly originated in Java, where early batiks have been dated back to the year 1520. Documents with references to batik go back to the 12th Century, when hand-dying fabrics was considered to be one of the high arts.
Early batiks were white and deep brown (from soga dye made from tree bark and roots) and had bold geometric designs thought to enhance fertility, protect the wearer from illness or denoted wealth or status. Sometimes symbols of animals, especially water buffalo, were used.
Early records indicate that sacrifices such as chicken blood and banana pulp were added to the dye mixtures. These substances, which fermented, intensified the color of the dye and gave permanence to the applied patterns.
Soga dying began in central Java. Sometimes fabrics were dipped in indigo dye after the initial sogo dipping. The indigo blue over the brown produced a rich black to make a white, brown and black pattern.
Other areas developed their own dyes and patterns. On Java's north coast, Lasem batik used indigo and turmeric to produce vivid green; red dye was made from mengkudu and annatto. Pekalongan batik was the most colorful, with blue, yellow, green, red (cochineal) and purple (mangrove bark).
In general, patterns are quite complex and there seems to be an aversion to empty space. Each region has characteristic patterns, from Central Java's diagonal motifs, many featuring vine-like tendrils, to the elaborate spearhead-like shapes prevailing in north coast batiks, along with delicate flower-like designs indicating a Chinese influence.
During the mid-19th Century, batik-making became a big industry and the techniques were exported to Bali and Sumatra. During the 1950s, the industry was introduced on a grand scale to East Malaysia, which now, often using sheet or machine printing, synthetic dyes and fabrics and newly invented patterns, produces most of the world's bulk batik.
Hand-dyed batiks are distinguished by hair-like trails of color where the dye penetrated small cracks in the wax. If you are paying higher prices charged for hand-dyed batiks, look for these thin lines of color to assure authenticity.
Before buying at Basharahil Brothers, comparison shop at other Arab Street merchants and at the Singapore Handicrafts Center (163 Tanglin Road) shops, especially Kraftangan Malaysia Arts & Crafts (telephone 737-2631), Blue Ginger (telephone 737-5500) and Design Batik (telephone 235-5468).
All offer attractive batik clothes and accessories, including inexpensive neckties (about $6), eyeglass cases (about $5), slippers (about $5), sandals (about $12) and purses (from about $3), plus sarong lengths and fabrics by the yard.
Singapore Handicraft Center shops tend to be slightly more pricey and touristy than Arab Street merchants, but the Handicrafts Center often presents artisans demonstrating traditional hand-dying batik techniques.
Prices quoted in this article reflect currency exchange rates at the time of writing.