Mapping the Hydrological Spatial, and Social Dimensions of Indonesia’s Batik Industry

Emily Lesk (MUP) and Emily Schlickman (MLA)

Project Overview

During the summer of 2010, we traveled to Indonesia to study the spatial and hydrological dimensions of batik making. This indigenous and prolific textile industry involves using dye-resistant wax to create patterned textiles and produces garments worn as both work and dress attire. Our research focused on the city of Surakarta (known colloquially as Solo), a recognized cultural center with a long history of batik production. We began by familiarizing ourselves with the processes involved in varying scales of batik making, from solo practitioners doing piecework in-home to mass production factories with hundreds of workers. Then, based on interviews with local experts coupled with field observation, we mapped the Solonese batik industry in terms of 1) the unique spatial characteristics and public realm elements of neighborhoods where batik production occurs, 2) the hydrological impacts of batik dying on Solo’s infrastructure and watershed, and 3) the national and international movement of the raw materials and finished textiles that flow through Solo. The product is a detailed case study that examines an artistic yet commercial production process using the tools and language of landscape architecture and urban design practice.

Project Information


Indonesia’s contemporary batik industry presents a serious threat to local water quality, but it is also an important cultural institution and the driver of unique urban form. These three facets appear to be closely intertwined, yet neither their connections to one another nor batik’s broader hydrological impacts are well documented in academic or popular literature. This knowledge gap presented an opportunity to map the relationships between batik, water pollution, and urban form in neighborhoods where batik production occurs. The geographic focus was the city of Surakarta (known colloquially as Solo), a recognized cultural center with a long history of batik making, located on the island of Java.


The history and practice of Indonesian batik-making, its impacts on local water systems, and current efforts to reform the industry are discussed in a small number of English language books and newspaper articles. Books on batik tend to be art history texts filled with images of impressive artworks, though some also offer insight into historical and cultural factors. In short, Batik is a traditional decorative art in which dye-resistant wax is used to create patterned textiles. The technique predates written records and has evolved along divergent geographic, climatic, and temporal lines. Availability of materials, trade routes, and colonization patterns have also been historically influential.

In recent decades, new technologies and globalization have substantially altered the batik-making process. Traditional batik was woven from natural cotton, silk, and viscose fibers and died with such natural pigments as indigo leaf, mengkudu root, tegeran wood, curcuma rootstock, and tingi bark. Patterns were hand-drawn using the canting wax applicator. Only Javanese royalty wore batik.

Today, by contrast, Indonesian batik utilizes both natural and synthetic fabrics. Chemical dyes are imported from major western manufacturers in Germany (Hoechst), Britain (ICI), Switzerland (CIBA), Frances (Francolor), the United States (DuPont), and Italy (ACNA). Wax is often applied using stamps or silkscreening is used to avoid the time consuming traditional process altogether. The labor consists largely of teenage girls who left school prematurely to help support their families.

While some contemporary batik production occurs in large factories, a significant portion continues to occur in small and medium-sized workshops that are often concentrated in neighborhoods where batik is the primary industry. Little has been written in English about these neighborhoods’ physical and institutional makeup, the sole resource being an Indonesian dissertation on the physical composition of the Laweyan neighborhood of Solo. In enumerating the neighborhood’s unique building typologies and circulation patterns, this text underscores the batik industry’s special relationship with the urban form.

Along with increased efficiency, contemporary changes to batik production have brought a number of environmental and social problems. The literature on these issues consists primarily of general interest articles in local newspapers rather than more academic or scientific sources. Such articles explain that the high volumes of water required for batik mass production deplete water reserves, while the heavy use and subsequent dumping of wax, chemical dyes, and bleaching agents contaminates local waterways.The untreated effluent enters groundwater sources, rendering downstream communities’ well water undrinkable. (Gastrointestinal and skin diseases are the most common consequences of consuming such water.) In addition, batik production releases more carbon dioxide than any other similarly-sized business on Java, Indonesia’s most populous island, due to high kerosene and electricity requirements.

Socially, the women staffing the batik factories are poorly paid and live meagerly. Most laborers earn around 9,000 Rp, or less than $1, per day, and live in substandard housing located within the factories. The literature does not address how the factories’ environmental conditions affect workers’ health or whether workers have access to clean water for personal use. Efforts to improve these environmental and social conditions are documented in news sources but have yet to be systematically studied.


Solo is a city of approximately 500,000 people, located in the central part of the Indonesian island of Java. It has Central Java’s highest population density, though most buildings are only one or two stories high. From the mid 1700s to the mid 1900s, Solo was the seat of a royal dynasty that emphasized the arts and supported great cultural production. The tradition of batik making is one of the court’s legacies, as are two Dutch-influenced palace complexes that remain home to many descendants of former palace workers.

Several rivers border and bisect Solo. Stretches of these rivers are also visibly polluted with factory and sewage discharge and informal settlements often cluster at their banks, though the Solonese government has relocated a number of informal neighborhoods that were susceptible to severe flooding. The city’s current mayor is extremely popular, with widespread support for spatial reorganization efforts like these, as well as for aggressive economic development efforts that that center on Solo’s cultural heritage.


Our research focused on four batik production facilities located in Solo and its outskirts. These facilities vary substantially in terms of production scales and processes, neighborhood contexts, target consumers, and water use. We documented these factors through a series of maps and diagrams and have also summarized them below.

Small-Scale Natural Dye Workshop

We first visited a small studio located in the traditional neighborhood of Kauman. Known for its long history of batik production, this area is home to a large concentration of small batik-related industries and shops. The compact studio was housed on the second floor of a residential building. The family who lived on the first floor ran the small operation which consisted of: hand-written wax application, dye rinsing and drying. After this process, the fabric was passed to a local tailor, made into clothing, and displayed in a nearby storefront.

The owner of this facility made a conscious effort to only use natural dyes in his production process for two reasons: (01) to limit local groundwater pollution and (02) to appeal to international markets. Many of his dyes were made from discarded food items such as nut shells. As a result, wastewater from the batik-making process could enter directly into the local drainage system without the need for treatment.

Medium-Scale Hand Written Factory

Similar to Kauman, the neighborhood of Laweyan is a historical batik-making area with a long lineage of production. Situated in the western part of this neighborhood is a medium-sized family-run factory named Batik Mahkota. With an experienced team of 17 artists, this third generation business has played a large role in supporting and promoting batik art in Surakarta. The owner leads a local batik organization which is aimed at increasing tourism and expanding existing markets.

Since the southern edge of Laweyan is adjacent to a large river, there have been many concerns regarding batik pollution. As a result, the neighborhood has implemented a pilot-scale wastewater treatment facility to cleanse effluents before being released into the waterway.

Large-Scale Printing Factory

The screen printing factory that we studied is operated by Danar Hadi, a major Solo-based batik enterprise that produces hand-drawn, stamped, and screen-printed batik in a number of production facilities. We focused on a factory that makes the latter, which is least expensive to produce and therefore most accessible to the average Indonesian consumer. It is located in a mixed-use area where commercial facilities are interspersed with housing clusters, though it represents the largest built footprint within an approximately one-kilometer radius.

At this facility, workers unroll bolts of fabric on long tables and pass stencils over them while painting on dye, color by color. Once all layers of color have been applied, the fabric is rinsed to remove excess dye and the dye-filled water, which looks almost black enters a series of water treatment pools and aluminum sulfide and calcium carbonate are added. These chemicals combine with the dye and the resulting particles sediment to the bottom of the pools. As a result, the water appears clear when it leaves the thirteenth pool and enters the city’s open sewer system, though the factory does not test it to make sure that it falls within any sort of prescribed toxicity limit.

Large-Scale Export-Oriented Factory

Lunn Studios is a unique enterprise in that its owners are Minnesota-based textile designers and entrepreneurs who set up the 175,000 square foot factory to produce fabric for western consumers. The colors, patterns, and to some extent techniques used are therefore substantially different from those of traditional batik and even non-traditional batik intended for the Indonesian market. Like the Danar Hadi print factory, the Lunn facility is not located within a homogenously industrial or textiles-oriented district. Rather, it is just outside of Solo’s city limits, in an area that is a patchwork of agricultural fields, residential clusters, and large commercial operations like Lunn’s.

Lunn attempts to minimize its environmental impact by using relatively non-toxic “fiber-reactive” dyes imported from Europe and treating dye-filled water in a series of pools containing dye-consuming bacteria. It is also concerned with working conditions and employee treatment, with regard to both protecting workers from toxic materials and providing them with a pleasant workplace full of spacious dying courtyards and a free cafeteria.