Enigmatic Ikat

Ancient technique charts a contemporary course

Ikat is an enduring, enticing fabric. A trendy fabric born centuries ago and is surprisingly visible in traditional textiles everywhere from South East Asia to India, Uzbekistan and all the way to South America. With its warp and weft yarns dyed even before the textile is woven, to follow a memorized pattern, its symmetrical motifs with origins in antiquity, and an appeal that has never waned. Once used as a form of currency on the famed Silk Road, ikat today is gracing everything from apparel to home textiles.

Ikat comes from the Indonesian word mengikat, which means “to tie or bind.” Unlike most other types of surface embellishments like block printing or tie and dye which are done after weaving, the warp and weft yarns in an ikat fabric are dyed before the weaving to create a pre-destined pattern. The dyeing uses a complicated clay or wax resist process where the yarn is repeatedly immersed in dye interspersed with a drying cycle to allow the color to set in.

Once the dyeing process is done, the threads are arranged on the warp (in case of single ikat) or both the warp and the weft (in case of double ikat). In case of single ikat, the warp threads are attached to two parallel wooden bars or sticks, one of which is secured either with stakes in the ground or held behind the feet of the weaver and the other is attached to a belt around the weaver’s waist. With the loom within the span of the weaver’s arms, it becomes his universe as he patiently weaves the pattern that will take months to complete.

Requiring such complex skills and investment of time, it is no wonder that ikat was once a key marker of status and social dignity. And event today this vibrant, living art is in the mainstream aesthetics of the globe, appearing on runways, in homes and art galleries. India being one of the most prominent centers of ikat weaving and known for the quality of the yarn used, has had a long love affair with the fabric and one of the most complex ikat weaves from India is the patola, made in Gujarat. A double ikat textile, it was once a highly coveted by the Dutch and Portuguese traders who traded in patola and spices from India in the 16th century. The patola is now only woven by a small group of weavers in the city of Patan who excel in the double ikat that requires immense skill, planning, and time investment. Once worn as sarees at weddings and ceremonial functions, the patan patola is now an heirloom fabric, passed down generations with pride.

The Puttapaka sarees from Nalgonda in Andhra Pradesh have developed a different type of weave and is warp-based unlike most other single ikats where the weft is the dyed yarn. Andhra Pradesh is one of the oldest and important centers of ikat weaving in India and offers the Pochampally saree along with the puttapaka. Also a double ikat weave, the Pochampally is famous for its geographic designs. Andhra’s ikat weaves are also finding expression in women’s apparel with contemporary, modern silhouettes owing to their versatility. Besides helping one put together a chic comfortable look, ikat apparel also gives the craft a new road ahead.

Being a textile that has seen different interpretations across cultures, ikat also translates well into home textiles and accents that have global appeal. Ikat used as furnishings or cushion covers add a note of elegance and new textures to decor schemes. With a history that goes far back in time, the textile is a prized collectors' item with vintage ikat fabrics from Indonesia and Uzbekistan being coveted for their exquisite weaves as well as their history. These fabrics, which could have started life as an Indonesian sarong, could be used as table runners or intriguing wall art.

Ikat, with its mesmerizing symmetry of age-old motifs and its vivid colors has held our fascination for centuries. With novel translations of the fabric that allow new experiences, ikat will continue to be in the mainstream and flourish.

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