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Sri Lankan batik waxing lyrical in face of tough times
04 Nov, 2008 10:55:08
KOSWADIYA, November 4, 2008 (AFP) - The cobalt blues, watermelon reds, sheer fabrics and slinky cuts of Sri Lankan batiks are vying for a spot on the world's catwalks amid a global credit crunch that may hit designer brands.

Batik is the art of decorating fabric with molten wax and then dipping it in dye, which does not penetrate the wax and so leaves behind intricate patterns, often in many colours.

While the name of this ancient craft is Javanese, the technique itself is popular in many Asian and African countries and was once an important part of Sri Lanka's vital textile sector.

But it has fallen on hard times here and industry leaders are battling not only to keep it alive but to restore it to robust health, even as the global recession deepens.

Poor marketing, lacklustre designs and a flood of batik products made from cheap dyes has ruined a cottage industry that was once a fledgling export market providing popular products for foreign visitors.

"The aesthetic quality of batik products has regressed from creative design to realistic portrayals of coconut palms, elephant pageants and other trite objects," said batik designer Laki Senanayake.

Senanayake said many items such as table linen, clothing and tapestries were designed specifically for the tourism industry and so had been relegated to the status of "cheap souvenir".

"That image must change," he said.

Tourism, which boomed in the 1980s, has declined sharply as the tropical island battles a three-decade bloody war with ethnic Tamil Tiger rebels.

As the tourist dollar dried up, the batik industry also began to falter.

"Today we have a handful of big designers and some 3,000 people working in the batik field," said Buddhi Keerthisena, chairman of the local craft council.

"That's a fraction of what the industry was in the golden years, before the tourism industry collapsed due to the war."

The craft council said some 10,000 people were employed in the 1980s.

"We are hoping designer fashions will revive the industry," he said.

Yolanda Aluwihare says she has maintained steady export orders since the 1970s with a business model that exploits the wide variety that batik can offer.

She mixes up her line of fashionable clothing with satin, silk, applique work, jute cloth, lace, embroidery, sequins and light ornaments.

Drawing inspiration from nature and animals, Aluwihare's flowing clothes are snapped up by fashion lovers in the Middle East, Europe and Japan, she said, adding that a seven-yard sari retailed for around 37,000 rupees (350 dollars).

"I often experiment with new fabric and accessories to give simple designs that extra sparkling effect," Aluwihare said.

Here in the sleepy coastal village of Koswadiya 75 kilometres (50 miles) north of Colombo, designer Dharshi Keerthisena, of Buddhi Arts, is creating batik swimwear, beach wraps, bridal gowns and even denims.

"Traditional batiks use bright colours. I work with a lot of pastels on different fabrics that are not associated with batiks like twill, voile, silk chiffons and silk georgette for saris," she said.

The results are stunning -- candy pinks have motifs of deep purple and violet while bright orange adds a touch of glamour to a stark black design.

Turning their back on modernisation, local designers use firewood to heat the water to boil the fabric and they sun-dry each stage of production. Their electric sewing machines and irons are the only modern conveniences used.

"It's a complex art to learn and very time-consuming. For instance it takes about 10 days to finish one hand-dyed sari," said Indra Padmini, 41, a veteran batik artisan.

There is no right or wrong way in creating batik products, as hot wax seeps through the fabric to make both sides identical, Padmini said.

Batiks represent only a tiny fraction of Sri Lanka's 3.5-billion-dollar clothing export industry and are considered minuscule by global standards.

But local designers see a window of opportunity despite luxury goods feeling the pinch of the global credit crunch.

"I've not felt the pinch yet, touch wood," said Aluwihare.

The craft council's Keerthisena says they are gradually introducing batik into local fashion study courses to give a fresh outlook to the ancient art.

"Hopefully, we will get more supermodels to strut the world's catwalks in our designs," she said.

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