Making batik her life’s purpose


WITH wax trickling from the tiny spout of the canting, Masrina Abdullah creates a multitude of possibilities in batik designs, and has expanded her passion to the fashion realm.

Driven by her love for batik since childhood, Masrina not only wants to show the world its beauty but is also focusing on preserving this local heritage. 

Mesmerised with the artform, Masrina delved into it wholeheartedly and went on to become the inaugural winner of Piala Seri Endon, which recognises Malaysia’s batik-making talent. 

Winning the competition was a stepping stone as she turned her art into a business and continues pushing the boundaries by redefining the batik craft. 

Masrina is passionate about drawing batik and preserving the artform.

Masrina is passionate about drawing batik and preserving the artform.

“It all started when my sister brought home a simple batik painting project when we were in primary school.

“I still remember the wax and dyes vividly, and the presence of a batik factory in my hometown always piqued my interest in batik making,” said the 53-year-old from Terengganu.

But Masrina only learned the proper techniques when she turned 16 as batik art was taught as an extracurricular activity in school. 

“Colouring the fabric gave me so much freedom,” she said.

Various designs

Various designs

The one year was evidently not enough as she missed playing with the colours and wax during her tertiary years studying architecture in the United States.

During the 1988 recession and upon graduation, Masrina ventured into the batik business. 

Her family members were her first customers.

Having saved up a small capital, she then took the bold step to move to Kuala Lumpur. She opened a shop in Central Market a year later, selling mainly batik scarves.

Masrina’s batik designs are showcased at international fashion shows.

Masrina’s batik designs are showcased at international fashion shows.

“Much of the technique was self-taught but I also learned a lot from a batik maestro in Kelantan, from whom I bought the tools and materials,” she recalled.

Masrina said Malaysian batik, largely influenced by Indonesia, comprises the use of pre-carved blocks to stamp wax-outlined motifs on fabric to resist and control the spread of dyes.

Making batik involves several processes including applying wax to the cloth, dyeing or painting and drying. 

The material is then boiled to remove the wax, and this procedure is repeated to get colourful and complicated designs.

Batik canting allows Masrina to not only expand the art but grow the industry as well.

Batik canting allows Masrina to not only expand the art but grow the industry as well.

“The hand-drawing technique of batik (wax-resist dyeing) might have its origins from Japan,” she said adding that  the technique became popular in Malaysia in the 1980s.

The origin of batik in Malaysia is said to have started in the 13th century through trade with Javanese coastal cities – the batik producing region in Indonesia.

In 2009, Unesco recognised Indonesian batik as a Masterpiece of Oral and Intangible Heritage of Humanity.

Malaysian batik differs mainly in hues with lighter shades preferred and they are more vibrant.

Geometrical and spiral patterns, leaves, flowers and butterflies are the more popular motifs in block stamps.

But with the hand-drawn technique, motifs have become limitless.

Masrina’s addiction for batik led to several breakthroughs in the artform and her business.

A collection of batik block stamps for traditional batik making. — filepic

A collection of batik block stamps for traditional batik making. — filepic

When demand for batik scarves rose, she used a combination of techniques incorporating both block stamps and canting to

hasten her work process.

The tourism industry was dealt a hard blow following the Sept 11, 2001 attack in the US as well as the SARS outbreak.

These incidents affected Masrina’s business but there was a window of opportunity in the ready-to-wear market to produce uniforms for companies. It was from here that she launched her own fashion line Masterpiece by Masrina Abdullah.

She also invented the “double-layer technique” – dyeing the fabric again after the wax is removed to colour the white lines and spaces. 

The result excited the market tremendously and led her to win the first Piala Seri Endon in 2003.

Batik painting is a prized intangible heritage in Malaysia but preserving it has been challenging.

Batik painting is a prized intangible heritage in Malaysia but preserving it has been challenging.

The award is part of the “Malaysian Batik Crafted for the World” movement launched by the late Tun Endon Mahmood, and managed by Yayasan Budi Penyayang.

After winning the award, she travelled with Tourism Malaysia to eight countries in Africa and Europe to promote batik but her global footsteps did not stop there.

She showcased Malaysian batik at the Milan Fashion Week in 2006, among others.

Her work caught the eye of Italian designer Roberta di Camerino who placed orders for Masrina’s designs. 

Having been in the batik business for almost 30 years, she continues to expand and reinvent designs under Masrina Abdullah Empire Ventures. 

Her latest venture is batik upholstery and furniture.

“Batik is synonymous with Malaysian

culture, heritage and lifestyle. There are not many batik makers in the Klang Valley but in the east coast, they are everywhere.

“However, batik is still a cottage industry and it is not easy for them to sustain (the business) based on the current market demand.

“We need to continue to promote and recognise it, and Piala Seri Endon has helped tremendously,” said Masrina.

She believes that batik has a lot of potential but there should be a strategy to promote it.

“Instead of merely exporting batik products, it is better to have a partner overseas,” she added.

Masrina who has always been drawn to the “smell” of batik, from the dyes to hot wax said when not attending programmes, she would be working in her studio.

“My children love batik and so do my students.

“I see a sparkle in their eyes when they work on the pieces. I think that is the power of batik,” she said.

Masrina admitted there was a big challenge to preserve the batik heritage, ranging from making it economically viable to dealing with competition from mass-produced prints imitating batik.

“Batik production is time consuming, and not many want to do it because workers don’t get paid much.

“The industry is also preserving the batik culture and I hope the government can give more support, not through subsidies, but with opportunities and infrastructure for it to flourish,” she said.


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