Pattern Recognition

Text and photo by Nadine Freischlad

Batik fabrics are central to Indonesia’s cultural heritage. But according to a trio of former students of the Bandung Institute of Technology, traditional crafts are not meant to be isolated and preserved – they need to keep innovating. They created a software that can produce unlimited variations of batik patterns.

Muhamad Lukman, an architecture student, was working on a floral pattern with a 3D-modelling software, together with his friend Nancy Panjaitan. “It reminds me of batik,” Nancy said, and this serendipitous discovery back in 2007 became the starting point of a long journey.

The idea that computer generated visuals could resemble the patterns they knew from traditional Indonesian handicrafts was fascinating. They brought this up to another friend, Yun Hariadi – a mathematician from their university. Together, they decided to investigate the mathematical principles underlying batik patterns.

“We knew a lot of research has been done on batik, from an ethnological perspective. But as far as we were aware, no one had attempted to deconstruct batik patterns into the mathematical formulas that form them,” says Nancy.

Batik patterns have fractal characteristics, Yun was certain. A fractal is a complex geometric form made up of repetitive patterns that look similar at different scales. And batik patterns also have elements of repetitiveness and self-similarity, because each ornamentation tends to be filled with another, finer set of ornamentation.

Using fractal formulas, the trio was able to analyse and classify existing batik patterns and define the range of fractal dimension, or the degree of complexity, that is typical for traditional batik. But they also found out that, using the formulas, they were able to create batik-style patterns that were entirely new.

They published their discoveries, and were promptly invited to present their paper at the generative art conference in Milan. This recognition encouraged them to continue working on this idea, which had taken on the project name Batik Fractal.

According to Nancy, she had always dreamed of entrepreneurship, and she saw the opportunity to turn Batik Fractal into a business. Nancy, Muhamad and Yun co-founded a company, with Nancy as CEO. They knew they had a unique technology, which was the pattern-creation software, and through their research, they uncovered some good contacts in the batik manufacturing world.

The core of their business was to promote the software package called jBatik to batik manufacturers. With the help of the software, pattern designers can sample existing batiks and transform these into patterns with endless variations and degrees of complexity. In contrast to the traditional process that relies on tedious hand-drawing, pattern designers are now able to test designs on screen, and create variations in style and colour with just a few clicks.

Once the design is satisfactory, it is printed out. From then on, the batik manufacturing follows the customary process: copper stamps are created based on the printed out pattern, the stamps are dipped in hot wax and pressed onto fabric before it is dyed and the wax washed out.

Nancy hopes that the new way of pattern-making will have a significant impact on batik manufacturing. “Some traditional patterns have been lost, no one knows how to do them anymore,” says Nancy. “As a result, patterns used now have become repetitive and lack innovation.”

Using jBatik, pattern makers can be more playful with their designs. They can sample and recreate traditional styles or experiment with more contemporary looks.

Not everyone agrees with Batik Fractal’s technology-based approach to pattern-making. When Iwan Tirta, an Indonesian fashion designer famous for incorporating superbly crafted batiks into his haute couture collections first heard about Batik Fractal, he was not pleased.

“He said he was against our way, because the designs are considered sacred. He believes they should not be created on a computer,” Nancy recalls.

“But batik has to open up to innovation,” she continues. “Otherwise it gets stuck. Yes, we have to preserve the traditional ways, but we also have to see what new technologies can offer. Batik factories today don’t work like they did hundreds of years ago, and that’s good.”

Batik Fractal’s business branched out into various directions beyond the software itself. The company also has its own online shop with an inventory of clothing and accessories, which are produced in batik workshops in central Java. It also takes custom designs on order and produces batiks for corporate clients, such as for uniforms, seat covers, or even 3-dimensional decorative elements.

Batik Fractal also runs a community centre in their home town of Bandung, in which products are sold and women from the local community teach how to make simple batiks. Batik Fractal also uses the community centre as a base for the small-scale production of batik products made exclusively with natural dyes.

Scientific research still plays a role at Batik Fractal, and the co-founders challenge each other to continue publishing papers at a regular pace. They see their research on batik and the improvement of the software as a continuous process.

“The ultimate goal is to build up a digital database of patterns, their underlying formulas and regional prevalence,” says Nancy.

Since their trip to the generative art congress in Milan many years ago, Nancy, Muhamad and Yun have received many awards and recognitions, including a UNESCO Award of Excellence. Did Iwan Tirta, Indonesia’s master of contemporary batik-making, ever change his mind about Batik Fractal?

“I’m afraid we’ll never know,” says Nancy. “Sadly he passed away in 2010.”

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