African Batik – The Paste Resist Technique

November 9, 2015

African Paste Resist Batik

Make an African style batik at home? Yes, you can!  You don’t need to worry about heating up wax or big buckets of dye.  I’m going to share my secrets for creating beautiful designs using the traditional “paste resist” technique that is popular here in Malawi.  It’s simple and easy to do!

Paste resist painting or “Sudza Batik” as it is called in Zimbabwe, is simply a flour paste brushed or squeezed onto cotton cloth.  Once the paste is dry it is hand-painted with special textile paints.  The paint is cured (usually by heat-setting) and then the dried flour paste is scraped off.  After that, you can wash your textile and use it to create one-of-a-kind home accessories or a unique piece of clothing.

What do you need? 

  • Flour and water mixed into a paste.
  • Water based textile paints.
  • 100% pre-shrunk cotton cloth. This will be the material for your final product. Why cotton? Because cotton (usually) is the recommended fabric for textile paints.  Check the instructions from your paint manufacturer.
  • Cloth for making a template. Pre-shrink.
  • Permanent marking pen for drawing the template design.
  • A squeeze bottle. (You can recycle an old mustard bottle.)
  • Paint brushes. (For this project, I like my brushes flat and firm, cheap ones work well.)
  • An iron or oven to heat-set the paints. (Follow the paint manufacture’s instructions.)
  • A table or other surface to work on. (It’s going to get wet.)

Note:  We make our templates the same size as the final design. If I want a pillow 47cm x 47cm I add my seam allowances, and cut the template material to 50cm x 50cm.  The project cloth is also cut 50cm x 50cm.  Pre-shrink everything first.

The first thing you need to do is draw the design onto a piece of cloth.  (Put a piece of paper under the cloth, there’s a good chance the marker will bleed through and mark your table.)  This will be your template.  You can use any kind of cloth (but remember to pre-shrink it).  For our templates, we use the same unbleached muslin we use for the project cloth. I draw free-hand with a pencil, then trace over my pencil lines with a permanent marker once the design is to my liking.

Draw the template with a permanent markerLet the ink dry for a few hours. Then give the cloth a good soak (a couple of hours should do).  You don’t want any of the ink to come off on your design, as this is a permanent marker.  If the ink is not set, it will ruin your project.  You have been warned.

To make your paste, mix flour (we use bread flour) with water.  You want to reach a runny cake batter consistency. Thicker paste will give a good “crack” but don’t make your paste too thick or you won’t be able to squeeze it out of the bottle.  Your paste should be smooth and free of lumps and weevils.  (You don’t have weevils? How lucky you are!)

African Batik mix the flour and water to make a pasteAfter you have made the paste, transfer it into a squeeze bottle.  (Pour it from the bowl into the bottle. If you can’t pour it, your paste is too thick.) You can recycle an old mustard bottle, use cake decorating bottles, whatever.  Use the kind of bottle that is best for your design.  I use cake decorating bottles because I like the narrow spout.  A mustard bottle will give a rougher look, as the spout is much wider and you won’t have as much control.  Do some test lines on a cookie sheet (easy clean-up) to make sure the paste lines are coming out as you want them to.

Use a Cake Decorating Bottle to Draw the Lines of Paste Clear off a work space that can get wet.  In a pinch you could do this on the floor, but only if your knees are younger than mine.  Wet the 100% cotton cloth (your project cloth) and the template cloth. The project cloth goes on top. Smooth out any wrinkles and brush away any extra water with your hands.  The design shows through, making it easy to trace.  Of course, you could also do a free-hand design with no template, but I still recommend pasting on wet cloth.  Below you can see the wet “project cloth” on top of the wet “template cloth”.

Prepare the wet cloth and template.Before tracing your final design, draw a few test lines on a scrap piece of wet cloth. Again, make sure your paste is coming out in a smooth line.  If it’s too thick or too lumpy you’ll need to mix it up again.  Yes, annoying.  But if you don’t have the paste coming out in an easy smooth line you won’t enjoy the process.  So go back and remix the paste if you have to.

I do have some bad news.  If you end up making a mistake with the wet paste, it’s game over.  You can turn the “mistake” into a design element (great idea) but if things have gone wrong beyond your imagination, there is nothing to do but let the paste dry, iron it on reverse, and scrape it off.  The cloth can’t be re-used (if you are a perfectionist) because there will be “paste shadows” forever after.  But you can recycle this cloth (after it is dried, ironed and scraped) to be a template cloth. Don’t get upset and crunch the mucked-up paste design into a ball – this is the worst thing to do, because you’ll never (ever ever) get the paste off.  Oh yes. I know.

African Paste Resist BatikYou can’t see the black marker guidelines in the above picture, but you can understand why they were needed! A design this complicated is very difficult to do without a template.  And remember, you can use this permanent marker template over and over, perfect if you are making a bunch of pillows!

Let the paste dry for 30 minutes to an hour before moving.  It can still be damp, but not runny.  The final drying of the cloth should be over a clothesline.  This is how we achieve the cracked “wax batik” effect.  The cloth will curl up as it dries. Before painting stretch the cloth to its original shape, breaking the paste as you pull. It is these cracks that will make the cloth look like a batik.

It’s time to paint!  Gather your water based textile paints and get to work.  Remember to paint over the dry paste lines to get that cracked batik look.

Use water-based textile paints to make your African batik.Cure the paints as per the manufacturer’s instructions.  The paints I use can be heat set with an iron.  For larger batches we use a oven made specifically for baking these textiles. Before ironing or baking, we dry the painted cotton in the hot African sun for a few hours.

African batiks drying in the sun.After the paint is cured, you can wash the cotton cloth to remove the paste.  To do this I soak the cloth in water for about 5 minutes (not much longer or the paste will turn to mush, and you do not want this to happen. The paste needs to come off in pieces). Scrape off the paste with something smooth.  We use the handle of a fork (this forces us to go slow and only scrape the areas where there is paste.)  If you scrape too hard, or with something too rough, you will scratch the paint and mar your design.  Be gentle, but get all the paste off.  When you’re done scraping, give your cloth a good rinse and let it dry.

Scrape off the dried paste with care.And that’s all there is to it!  Final notes:  Your cloth will become stiffer after being painted.  For these pillows we used a medium weight unbleached muslin cloth.  If you are going to make clothing, do a test first to see how the paint changes the hand, or feel, of the fabric.  Here are some examples from the Zoona Nova pillow collection for design inspiration.zoonanova-handpainted-textiles pillow-zoonanova-handpainted-textile-design



    1. Dear Tamara,

      We used to live in Malawi but left in 2007 to go back to the Netherlands.
      We have been a couple of times in Balaka to buy paper, cards etc. i still have some enveloppes…

      Last December we were back in Malawi to visit our son and his family. We made sure to travel through Balaka but unfortunately we didn,t find you. Where we thought you should be , a girl said that you left Malawi.

      Today i found an old business card and bingo your name and your wonderul website.

      I would love get your post by email.

      Lovely to see your tutorials.

      Please could you tell me where you live nowdays.

      Succes with your zoonanove warm greetings,

      Yvonne van Hasselt

      1. Hi Yvonne,

        It’s so nice to hear from people who knew the old “Chifundo Artisans’ Network” studio! That place was dear to my heart and I still miss it. Sorry we didn’t meet up last December! But now you know where to find me on the internet. I’m still in Balaka, just not at the old studio. The next time you are here, ask for me at the Balaka’s Best cafe where they make artisan cheese and pizza (life keeps getting better in Balaka!) Sending you warm sunshine from Malawi!


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