Interpreting Ikat in the 21st Century

The Textile Museum Collaborates with Maryland Institute College of Art

Exhibitions at The Textile Museum in Washington, D.C. aim not only to educate visitors about the artistry and cultural context of textiles, but the museum’s galleries also de-mystify the variety of textile techniques that have been developed around the world. Preparation for the museum’s fall exhibition, Colors of the Oasis: Central Asian Ikats, provided an opportunity to explain the complex process of making ikat to visitors. “We wanted to reveal the timeline of ikat production and show the public that its creation is a multi-step process,” explains Sumru Belger Krody, the exhibition curator.
 
Ikat refers to both the type of fabric in the exhibition and the resist-dye technique used to create the cloth. To make ikat, parts of the warp (the yarns which run vertically) or the weft (horizontal) yarns are bound and placed in a series of dye baths. The parts of the yarns that are tied and protected resist the dye--allowing makers to produce multi-colored textiles through exposing the yarn to multiple dye baths. Unlike carpets or tapestries, the design of an ikat is articulated on the yarns before weaving begins.
 
While planning for Colors of the Oasis, the curatorial team at The Textile Museum developed an idea for working with local students to help produce a three-dimensional model of the ikat-dyeing process. Museum intern and Maryland Institute College of Art graduate Suzannah Gerber helped connect the institution with the MICA Department of Fiber Arts, and instructor Christina Day took up the challenge.
 
Day’s Fall 2009 Woven Imagery Class was a multi-level weaving class that explored image-making through weaving—and attracted BFA students with majors ranging from bookmaking to sculpture in addition to fiber arts. The class was invited into the museum in early fall 2009 for a tour of the space and a private lecture and ikat viewing led by the curator. “I wanted the group to understand that in addition to highlighting these ikat textiles as art,” says Krody, “we aimed to place them in a technical and cultural context.” The students learned about the traditional tools used in 19th-century Uzbekistan and left the museum facing the challenge: how does one best explain the ikat process to those who aren’t familiar with textiles?
 
After creating a to-scale model of the gallery, the students broke into groups focused on mapping out the colors and design, building the wooden frame on which the warps are stretched and binding and dyeing the thread bundles. Student Alisa Alig, a printmaking major who was especially interested in Central Asian design motifs, created a bold illustration that students Alexandra Coyle and Maud Van Donkersgoed helped translate into a computer software program. The design was then manipulated to map out where the threads needed to be bound, loosened and bound again during the dyeing process. While the students took advantage of this 21st-century technology, dyeing the warp bundles in three different stages—yellow, red and blue—took the same time and care Central Asian artisans dedicated to their work centuries ago.

“While it was a busy semester, the students were excited to be part of the exhibition,” recalls their instructor Day. Hanging in one of the last galleries in the exhibition, the finished models break out the dyeing process in three color stages and demonstrate to visitors the amazing complexity of the historic textiles surrounding them. The models frame a video slideshow of images of the students’ process paired with photos of contemporary ikat production in Uzbekistan, where this complex craft is experiencing a revival.
 
This article first appeared in the September 2010 issue of Member’s Magazine. The MICA models are on view in Colors the Oasis through March 13, 2011.

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