Over 3,000 hand-dyed fabrics for quilters–dip-dyed mandalas, pole-wrapped shibori, potato dextrin crackle, heliographic sun-prints, marbled and air-brushed tex- tures–were available on Lunn Fabrics Web site between 1996 and 2004. Debra Lunn and Michael Mrowka dyed several hundred thousand yards of inventory themselves, and their hands (and bodies) were feeling it.
So when Robert Kaufman Fabrics suggested that they revisit an old design partnership, they agreed. But this time, instead of designing printed fabric from the Lunn creative center in Lancaster, Ohio, they would be using all the dyeing skills they had acquired over 30 years to collaborate with Javanese batik artisans–in the Republic of Indonesia.
A former client had sent them to the city of Solo in cen- tral Java in 2003 to upgrade their line of batik fabrics, so the Lunns (as they are known) were already familiar with Javanese batik and mass production methods. When they first arrived, neither had done any batik–a wax resist process–since high school, but the complex layers of stamped wax pattern and mottled color were easily deconstructed by this couple who thoroughly understand the concept of resists and who think in dyes.
Already acclimated to the high humidity and the intensely polite social manner of the Solonese–and with plenty of talented Javanese asking to work with them–the Lunns were perfectly poised to jumpstart Artisan Batiks for Robert Kaufman.
But first some batik back- ground. Americans working along- side Indonesians to create batik for Western markets is not news. Inger McCabe Elliot, founder of China Seas, Inc., fabrics for inte- rior design, started working in Java in the late 1960s, just as word was spreading that Bali was the fantasy island paradise at the end of the hippie trail. Other entre- preneurial travelers soon started making clothing from available “traditional” batik and selling it at home to finance their return to Bali’s beaches.
What fans of the contempo- rary batik nicknamed Balis may not know is that the copper stamp (called a cap and pronounced “chop”) process and its skilled practitioners come from Java. Batik-making migrated one island east to Bali in the 1980s when Javanese artisans set up workshops around Denpasar, the capital city, to meet the demand for batik pareo (fringed rayon beach wraps) that were being exported by the con- tainer load to Brazil, South Africa, and North America.
It was in these workshops–where thermometers and precise instruments for measuring dyestuff were rarely used– that the free-form Bali batik style emerged. Surfers and other innocents who had naively begun to manufacture clothing to support a tropical lifestyle soon found out how difficult it was to achieve consistent color in the fluctuating humidity and sunlight of the monsoon season, with or without careful measurements. As literal truckloads of batik clothing were rejected due to irregularities, some began collaborating with the Javanese dyers to invent techniques and dye effects that were one-of-a-kind and inconsistent by design–and marketed as such. Bali batik was born.
Bali Fabrications may have been the first to offer this batik at quilt shows in the mid-1980s when interest in specialty fabric for quilters started to gather momentum. Hoffman California International Fabrics has been creating the most consistently spectacular stamped batik and hand paints specifi- cally for quilters since the early 1990s. As both quilting supply store owners and their customers know, a long list of compa- nies now features a dizzying array of batik fabrics of varying quality and aesthetic appeal. They are produced in Bali and Java as well as India, China, the Philippines, and Malaysia. There are even remarkable fakes printed in Korea.
What the Lunns bring to the already crowded table at this banquet of batik is their ongoing mission to identify and produce what is not available for quilters–and their intense appetite for innovation. Debra Lunn started dyeing solid gra- dations of color in her kitchen sink and was the first vendor to offer them at quilt shows. When larger companies (or other quilters) start producing the same thing, the Lunns move on to another bright idea. “Quiltmakers are painting with fabric so they need a huge range of visual effects,” Michael explains. “We look to produce what is missing in a palette for quilters. Our business has always been based on that goal.”
Thus they went to Solo with unusual skills, both artistic and interpersonal. There they encountered interesting prob- lems like how to train their Javanese collaborators to see what they see and to think critically about quality. They asked everyone from cap and dye workers to managers and sales staff what they needed to know and how they would like to receive instructions. Then they began solving problems by developing specialized diagrams for each color application and for the finished look, helping all involved visualize the goal of consis- tent, high quality batik fabric. To strengthen the partnership with their Indonesian colleagues, both Debra and Michael are rapidly learning the common language of the Indonesian archipelago (Bahasa Indonesia), as well as some Javanese, the extremely complex and hierarchical local language.