Indoor: Wax lyrical

The skill of creating designs on fabric using hot wax is tricky but fun to learn. Sally Staples talked to converts to the art of batik
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The intricate art of producing designs on fabrics using liquid wax and dye is not easy to master. Yet it offers a new challenge to those who have already mastered painting on silk and other fabrics. The trick with batik is to learn how to handle the wax, a tricky substance that can blob and blot in awkward places, thereby turning your carefully planned design into something altogether different. Yet that is the joy of batik, according to a small class I joined, where all four pupils discovered that mistakes made in both landscape and abstract pictures could be turned to good effect.

Shena Maskell, from Worthing, had first drawn a picture of oystercatchers perched on a rock with a sunset over the sea as a background. The foreground was to be rocks, sand and pebbles, but a slight miscalculation with a dribble of wax produced the inspiration to cover some rocks with strands of seaweed.

"Every picture evolves - and using both dye and wax is great fun," she said. "You have to try to be in control of the wax, but you have greater freedom painting with the dyes and experimenting with the colours."

After drawing her picture Shena had traced it on to a piece of handkerchief lawn - which is the easiest fabric to work on with wax, although silk, muslin and linen can be used. The fabric is attached to a wooden frame and is then ready for the wax, which is applied using a wax drawing tool called a canting. This dribbles hot, sticky molten liquid from a small bowl through a spout on to the fabric. It is used like a quill pen and, like a quill, it can blot unexpectedly. Therefore you need to be able to react quickly.

Using deft movements Shena outlined her picture in wax and then filled in those areas she wanted to remain white -such as the oystercatchers' breasts. The wax coating acts as a barrier to prevent colours running and will also resist any dye being painted over it. The art of batik is to build up layers of wax and colour, going from the palest shades gradually through to the darker ones. The waxing process is repeated with each new colour, making any waxed area colour-fast.

Jenny Lopper, from Hayes in Kent, is a retired teacher with some experience in amateur stage design and painting costumes. She was working on a picture of the Australian outback, and had created the effect of wind-blown grasses in the foreground of her picture by stroking delicate, thin lines of wax across the rocks and boulders, which were to be depicted as blobs of colour.

"You learn a great deal about building up layers of colour in batik," she said. "I have done silk painting, but there is a lot more technique involved with batik. I find it therapeutic. Part of the reason is that your entire reasoning powers are concentrated on just one thing. You have the opportunity to look really closely at a picture, at the textures and colours, and then try to translate that on to the fabric."

Chris Farrow, from Cowplain in Hampshire, a teacher in textile technology, had come on the weekend course so that she could subsequently offer her own pupils the chance to learn a new skill. As a beginner, Chris was taught the different techniques of applying wax by the tutor, Jenn Williams.

Although the canting is the most conventional way of doing this, curled pipe cleaners, waffle irons and even crumpled kitchen paper can all be dipped into liquid wax and then dabbed on to fabric to produce a variety of effects.

"This course is really excellent because you need to bring so little with you," said Christine. "I just needed pencils, rubber gloves, drawing pins, some kitchen paper and an overall. Jenn makes a small charge of about pounds 3 a head for the materials, which include all the different dyes, wax and wax tools. I read a book about batik before I came and I am making notes on what I've learnt. I think children will really enjoy doing this because learning how to use the wax will be a new technique."

Joyce Forbes, from Wycombe in Hampshire, enjoys quilting, and was hoping to quilt some of the batik designs she had been working on. Her square of fabric was decorated with flowers and once the wax and colour had been completed the design was dried with a hair dryer. Then the piece of fabric was placed between sheets of kitchen roll which in turn were placed between newspaper. The next stage was to iron out all the wax - a process which should be repeated at least twice.

All four students discovered that a close inspection of the back of the fabric can reveal tiny gaps where the wax lines are not quite complete. If these are not filled in the colours can run and spoil some designs, although smudged outlines may enhance abstract ones.

Jenn Williams's residential weekend course is at Earnley Concourse, Earnley, near Chichester, Sussex (01 243-670392), and costs pounds 149. She is also chairman of the Batik Guild of Great Britain (01243-605286).