Easy Batik with Soy Wax

Easy & effective techniques for original fabric design

A few years ago, a good friend looked at me and asked, “Why aren’t you using soy wax?” I looked right back at her and said, “Why should I be using it?” She went on to extol the virtues of this material, and stared at me like I was totally missing the boat. Well, she was right. I am now a convert and I hope you will be too.

Soy wax is a powerhouse of a resist. It is a food grade, environmentally safe alternative to paraffin. No special chemicals are required to remove it from your cloth; in fact, the wax can be removed by simply running it under hot water—its melt temperature is so low that it will not affect your plumbing. These few facts mean that working with soy wax takes almost all of the guesswork out of the batik process. Using soy wax with paint simplifies the technique even more.

Materials

  • Soy wax (5 lbs. is a good starting amount.)
  • An electric pot for melting wax
  • White cloth
  • Mark-making tools
  • Acrylic paints (I like Jacquard® Lumiere® and Neopaque® paints.)
  • A spray bottle
  • Foam brushes
  • Watercolor brushes
  • Newspaper
  • Iron

Optional

  • Sheet of Plexiglas®
  • Stiff squeegee
  • Bucket

Selecting your supplies

Beware that any supplies you use with wax should be dedicated to wax use; do not use them for food preparation.

Electric pot

Electric pot for easy batikSoy wax has a melting temperature of 180° F so you will need an electric pan to melt your wax. You might choose an electric skillet or a deep frying pot. Whatever you choose, your melting pot needs to have a detailed temperature dial; you do not want to burn the wax by melting it at too high a temperature. Your wax can be cooled, hardened, and stored for reheating in this pot. I use a deep-frying electric pot for several reasons: the sides are 8″ deep; it has a metal basket with holes that prop up certain tools (like a tjanting tool, which is a fine-tipped, funnel-cupped, and pen-like tool); and importantly, its magnetic plug is easy to disengage— if something goes wrong, I can quickly unplug it.

Mark-making tools

mark-making tools for easy batikAny tool that can withstand an extended period of time within a 180° melting pot is fair game. Many plastic items work well, as do metal objects, foam and bristle brushes, and kitchen tools…this is a very slippery slope! These tools will be dedicated to your cloth-making endeavors once they are dipped into the pot. Some mark-making tools made of copper or brass will color your wax, but they will not impart any color to your cloth and this is not an issue in any other way.

Work surface

When using soy wax, I work on a metal workbench, which I clean with a stiff squeegee; it is easy to scrape puddles of hardened wax off this work surface and put it back into the melting pot. You might also consider purchasing a piece of Plexiglas as a work surface for soy wax.

Design

Creating cloth with dynamism and verve is super easy if you are willing to embrace a few simple compositional ideas.

Color considerations

Understanding color can be tricky for the beginning surface design artist. For this reason, I suggest working within an analogous color range; take a wedge of three neighboring colors from the color wheel, and work with just these three colors. Once you feel comfortable with this approach, allow yourself to add a tad of a color that is opposite that wedge (for example, if you work with yellow, orange, and red, the opposite color on the color wheel will be somewhere in the blue and purple range).

White—in our case, the color of the plain cloth we’re starting with— carries a great deal of weight in a design. Using white sparingly is very important when making vivacious cloth, since it creates the elements that will pop within the composition. Each piece of cloth you create should have some pop, but not to the point of distraction.

Layering

Easy batik figure 1

Figure 1

Using soy wax as a resist means that you have the opportunity to trap previous layers of color while continuing to build and expand upon a color concept. There is excitement in this idea, and a chance to draw out your design. A good illustration of layering is demonstrated by the 22″-long piece shown in Figure 1, which ranges from yellow to orange to red, and finally to black.

When the cloth was white, a potato masher was used to apply soy wax stripes along the entire length of cloth. Once the wax dried, yellow paint was applied to the entire length. Next, a foam brush (with a small section cut from the edge) was used to stamp a wax resist application in a meandering pattern, starting about 3″–4″ from the top, and continuing all the way down the length. Then orange was painted from the same point downward. Next, starting about 4″ down from the top of the orange, a piece of square foam was used to resist out blocks of the orange all the way down the remaining length; red was painted over this layer. Finally, starting about 5″ down from the beginning of the red, a bristle brush was used to resist out large areas of the design, creating a dry brush effect; black was then applied to this portion of the cloth.

Applying the wax and paint

A proper application of wax will look translucent when the fabric is held up to the light. An improper application of wax will appear opaque and sit on top of the cloth rather than sink into it.

You will be using acrylic paints in a watercolor-like fashion, creating washes of color that are layered one on top of the next. Applying watercolor-like washes is pretty easy with acrylic paint. You simply want to keep your cloth fairly wet while you move the paint over its surface. The paint will remain pliable as long as the cloth is wet. Due to the wet-on-wet nature of the wash application of paint, it is necessary to have the proper translucent application of soy wax.

You may choose to create a wash over an entire area of cloth (Figure 2) or to work within or around a motif. If you do not want seepage of paint to occur, it is best to spray the cloth to a just damp state. You can continue to spritz the cloth while you work, as needed. If the cloth gets too wet, the water will migrate under the wax partition; if this occurs, lift the wax and wipe away the excess water. Little mistakes are actually a form of beauty and should not be overly fussed with.

easy batik figure 2

Figure 2

Easy batik directions

1. Apply your first application of wax in whatever shapes or patterns you desire.

2. Spray the entire surface of the cloth with water, or simply dip the cloth into a bucket of room temperature water.

3. Select the paint colors that you will be working with, and begin by applying a wash of your lightest color.

4. Allow the cloth to dry.

Batik fabrics

Batik fabrics by Melanie Testa

Tip: Remember that you can work on many pieces of cloth at any given time; some will be drying as others are ready for their next application of wax and/or paint.

5. Apply a second application of wax.

6. Re-wet the fabric, and apply a wash of medium value paint.

7. Continue re-wetting, adding wax, and applying paint until your cloth is complete.

Note: Most paints on the market require ironing to heat set or bond the paint to the cloth, which will also serve to remove a predominance of the soy wax from the cloth. Keep the paint manufacturer’s recommended heat setting and times in mind as you complete the next two steps.

8. Place your cloth between a few layers of newspaper, and iron it to remove most of the soy wax. This may take several changes of newspaper and multiple applications of heat from the iron.

9. Once the majority of wax has been removed, turn the cloth wrong-side up and give it an extra dose of the iron for good measure.

10. Wash the cloth by hand using hot water and soap, or simply place your samples in the washing machine for a full cycle using the hottest setting. This will remove the remainder of the wax.

*Excerpted from the article by Melanie Testa from the June/July 2010 issue of Quilting Arts Magazine.

Explore more batik and fabric dyeing instruction from Melanie Testa!

Comments (2)

  • DeBorah B

    Why did you choose acrylic paint instead of dye? And how would you restore the hand of the cloth? Your sample is lovely. I’ve been doing batik for years and will definitely try the soy wax after reading your article, but was wondering about these questions. It’s been my experience that using acrylic paint stiffened the fabric.

    May 29, 2018 at 5:29 pm
    • Brenna Riley Gates

      Hi DeBorah,
      Artists choose many different materials to experiment with when doing surface designs on fabric. Acrylic paint is readily available and can be mixed with fabric medium if you are concerned about altering the hand of your fabric. You can also try Melanie’s technique with your favorite brand of opaque fabric paint, a light bodied paint such as Dye-Na-flow, or even thickened dye. The choice may depend on how you will use the fabric and the results you are hoping to achieve
      -The Editorial Team

      May 29, 2018 at 6:45 pm

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