Uzbekistan’s Fergana Valley is rightly famous for its ikat fabrics – which require infinite skill and patience of its practitioners. Because of its strong links to the past, and the independent, artistic nature of the process, ikat was suppressed in the Soviet era. Current masters (usto in Uzbek) learned from their fathers and grandfathers, who tied and died their complex warp patterns in secret. Fazlitdin Dadajonov was among the young apprentices who honed their craft in basement workshops. Today, however, the bursts of color and light he creates are sought after by residents and tourists alike, and he is widely respected for his mastery of the entire silk ikat process, from cocoon to final, brilliant fabric.
“My father knew how to do everything – from harvesting the silk, to tying and dyeing the thread, to precision reeling of the warps, to weaving the final fabric. But he couldn’t do it at home for fear of being arrested by the authorities. So we went together to stay with friends in Andijon who had a hidden workshop. We did it all there,” explains Dadajonov. “I was just a teenager, really, but my father taught me in such a way that I stayed interested.”
When asked what his father did that made his teaching so special, his handsome face breaks into a grin: “Well, once in a while he paid me a little.”
Dadajonov also talks about how his father, a third generation ikat maker, was asked by other families in Margilan and Adijon to teach their sons, in spite of the risk. “In Soviet times, we were not supposed to have personal property or our own incomes. All labor belonged to the State, and whatever we earned was defined as a share of the State’s productivity. This meant that we could not make things that expressed our own culture, our own identity. Everyone was supposed to look the same, to be the same. Even simple skullcaps could not be handmade at home. They had to be bought from a State factory. But this was not enough for some of us.”
The Soviets were asking a lot of the Fergana Valley when they sought to drain ikat of its considerable cultural resonance. An indication of the deep reverence for ikat is found in the Uzbek word for a master of warp tying: abr-band. It means cloud tier, and it captures some of the wizardry of tightly bundling fluffy, newly spun threads, dipping them in a color, untying and retying them in preparation for each dip in the dye vat, until the traditional three, five, or seven color patterns are complete. The process is just as magical as the final product.
“Once independence came, though, our ways came out of the shadows. People looked for ways to be Uzbek again, and ikat is one of those ways. Our history is alive again. For example, girls about to marry want ikat dresses and coats as part of their dowry. It is back in style. But we lost a lot during the suppression. I still see some of the old patterns in my mind, but I cannot duplicate them.”
He looks around the beautiful courtyard outside his home, which he has festooned with bolts of magnificent ikat in preparation for visitors. It is hard to imagine that there are secrets he has yet to discover, but Dadajonov insists: “No, it’s true. Patterns have been lost. And colors, too. There is a deep, serious color between blue and black that our ancestors used. I am still trying to make it.”
The shade of blue-black he is looking for may be elusive, but success is not. Uzbeks seek him out for special occasions and gifts. Tourists gather up armfuls of colorful scarves, and sometimes take fabric home to use in clothing and interior décor. Was his business successful right away after Uzbek independence in 1991? “No, we went for six years without a single sale. Many people had mostly forgotten about ikat, and didn’t value the amount of work that went into it. But I started to give ikat, and clothing made from it, to dancers and musicians performing at weddings and parties. Tourists started to ask where the beautiful fabric came from, and business started. Before too long, the local customers came, too.”
As business has grown, Dadajonov has taken up his father’s métier as teacher, too. He currently trains as many as ten apprentices at a time. In a year, they can learn one of the skills needed to make ikat: the long and complicated process of tying the warp threads to create pattern, the art of dyeing to create vivid and stable colors, or the art of weaving the weft into the warp threads so that the patterns appear with clarity and consistency. Apprentices, usually twelve to fourteen, are brought by their fathers after school to train for a couple of hours a day. They watch all the processes for a while and choose the one they want to learn. A few will stay longer than a year to learn more. A very select handful will choose silk as their profession, and Dadajonov works with them to produce some of what he sells.
He is obviously proud of his role in broadening the silk tradition. Is he as good a teacher as his father? “Yes,” he smiles. “Sometimes I pay them a little, too.”
Though still a young man, Dadajonov has begun to think about his legacy. His sons work in the business, and he hopes his grandsons will, too. And he has recently acquired an old factory space near his home so that he can house more weavers. He seems remarkably calm for someone confronting commerce and culture all at once – and in fact he challenges HAND/EYE readers with a special request.
“Please tell your people that we would like them to send images of old ikats they have in their collections. We want to learn from pictures of old textiles, to try to make them again, and even to make our own new patterns from these old ideas. Tell them they can be part of our history.”
If you wish to share ikat images with Fazlitdin Dadajonov, please email them to firstname.lastname@example.org. Every image will be forwarded to Mr. Dadajonov.