The History and Uses of Ikat Textiles
Ikats hearken to an age-old, unparalleled textile tradition. Although the earliest intact ikat textiles are dated from the 6th century CE, the tradition itself is likely much older. Each textile provides clues to everyday life in Central Asia, as well as the vibrancy of the culture. These beautiful textiles arouse feelings of nostalgia and hint at life along the ancient Silk Road. They are distinctive, imaginative creations, brimming with urban energy, yet at the same time a product of a treasured textile tradition. Ikats, known for their fine workmanship, are coveted by art-lovers and collectors alike.
In the 19th century, ikats were put to two main kinds of social use. They were shaped into more or less elaborate personal costumes, or employed as hangings within the home. Ikats have largely been indicators of social power; the higher one’s status, the more intricate and regal the ikat. Ikat robes were often given as diplomatic gifts to honor one’s guests. As a status symbol, those of high-ranking positions would wear numerous robes at a time.Ikat Colour, Pattern, and Design
Characteristically, Ikats are rich and bold in colour, with striking patterns and quality silks. The range and depth of colour is the key element in every ikat. Each locale had their own unique styles and colors. Ikat was being made from Bukhara to Kabul to Kashgar, as well as in Central Asia.
The earliest ikats tend to be complex patterns using many colours, and of a very fine technique. After the middle of the last century a much greater range of designs was produced in rich but fewer colours; indigo fabrics with delicate patterns were probably introduced around this time but were still being produced until the end of the century.
Ikats are most widely recognized by their rich, bold, saturated colours synthesized so harmoniously. Each ikat has a range of patterns and motifs, stemming from various influences. Imagery is often taken from nature, as symbols such as pine cones, cypress tress, pomegranates and other vegetal forms are used. One may also find imagery of animals, including but not limited to ram’s horns, scorpion tails and peacocks. Common household items, such as combs and water jugs may surface in ikat designs. Geometric and abstract patterns are pervasive themes as well.
Although ikats are not famous for their talismanic properties, the Hand of Fatima, symbolizing the protective hand of God is frequently used in ikat designs. Other designs with protective or amuletic qualities, particularly from native traditions or folklore are prevalent.
Furthermore, artisans draw from a long-established local repertoire of designs, some of which were drawn from the other local textile traditions of carpet making and suzanis (large traditional embroidered wall hangings). Various influences of the Steppe lands, of Islamic design and of ancient local motifs of central Asian lands, which may have originated there or been brought in by the traders of invaders along the Silk Road have a great impact on ikats.Ikat in the Making
The process of producing ikats from start to finish is a long and arduous one, characterized by fine workmanship and collaboration involving many weavers, dyers, and designers. The first stage of making an ikat textile is making the silk thread, a very involved and lengthy process, which includes extracting silk filament ends directly, winding the skeins by hand, refining the threads on a turning frame, and feeding threads onto a large spinning wheel to further stretch and strengthen them. This is but the first step in a long line of many.
Once finished with this step, the threads proceed to the ikat-binding workshop where they are separated into even groups, to be threaded onto a large wooden patterning frame. Once on the patterning frame, the silk threads are now ready to be marked by the designer using charcoal. In this way, designers are able to create the distinct, intricate patterns so characteristic of ikat.
After the patterning, artisans prepare the threads for dying. The threads are bound with cotton threads, and often coated with wax to resist the dye in certain areas. The making of the dyes and the dyeing process itself is an artform. The dyes themselves are extracted from various natural resources. The reds from madder; the greens flowers of the pagoda tree; yellow from saffron and pinks from Brazilwood; black dye from pomegranate skins or from the galls of pistachio trees; and indigo from the indigo plant.
First the reds and yellows are applied with a hot dye bath, later the indigo dye applied with a cold dye bath. Additional colors are added to multi-coloured ikats by over dyeing. For more intricate ikats, this process is repeated multiple times, the designers, binders, and dyeing workshops all integral to creating these vibrant, unique masterpieces. Ikats are products of a collaborative and painstaking undertaking.
Once finished with the application of the dyes, the warp, or ikat thread bundles are returned to the abr-bandi, or binding workshop to be unbound one last time and are then sent to the weaving workshop. Using a simple treadle loom, the ikat textile finally comes into being. In the final stage, an egg-white solution is applied to give the ikat its distinctive shine. It is evident from the lengthy process of producing ikat that it takes great skill and artistry. Though a fading artform, these traditional methods of production are still alive today.
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