The History of Ikat

published Feb 23, 2012
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Ikat is everywhere these days — as trendy as anything ancient can ever claim to be. Visible in traditional textiles ranging from Southeast Asia to South America to the Middle East and beyond, this type of pattern now lends interiors a kind of dressed-up bohemian vibe. But what is it, and where did it come from?

(Image credit: Apartment Therapy)

Think about a typical patterned textile, say a floral upholstery fabric. When you think about how that pattern is created, you probably picture some sort of printing scenario, where designs are basically stamped onto a piece of blank fabric using dyes or paints, right? That is how block-printed cotton fabrics and toiles and many other kinds of surface-patterned textiles are made. With ikat, though, the threads are dyed before they are woven into textiles. Let me explain.

The word ‘ikat’ (pronounced ‘ee-KAHT’) comes from the Malaysian word ‘mengikat,’ or ‘to tie,’ because the loose threads are tied into bundles using grasses or wax-treated cotton to specify where the dye is able to sink in and color the thread (basically a refined type of tie-dye). What this means is that the weaver has to figure out where on the loose threads the dye should (and shouldn’t) go in order for it to form the proper pattern when it is woven on the loom. It gets more complicated as you add more colors. Some ikats are made by dyeing the warp threads (the fixed threads that are attached to the loom), some by dyeing the weft threads (the threads that are actually woven in and out of the warp threads), and some by dyeing both, a technique known as double ikat. It’s like an aesthetic logic puzzle, and just thinking about it makes my head hurt.

Despite this complexity, the technique seems to have developed independently across many different cultures and continents since at least the Dark Ages, appearing in places like Pre-Columbian Peru and Guatemala, 10th century Yemen (image 2), Japan (image 3), Indonesia (image 4), India (image 5) and Uzbekistan (image 6). Some ikats emphasize precision, where it’s hard to tell that the ikat technique is used rather than a block printing. For more precise patterning, weavers typically use warp ikats, where they can see the pattern on the loom (image 7). With weft ikats, the pattern is less exact, because the design is not visible until already woven through (image 8). The ‘hazy’ look of many ikats (the technique is known as “abra”, or “cloud” in Central Asia) also comes from the dyes bleeding slightly into the resist areas. Within the cultures that produced them, ikats were typically status symbols because of the skill and time their production required.

Western cultures have embraced ikats for centuries. The technique and textiles first came to Europe via Dutch traders in Southeast Asia, Spanish explorers in South America, and from travelers along the Silk Road, where the Uzbek ikat centers of Samarkand and Bukhara were important stops. In 18th-century France, silk producers seeking an exotic look manufactured an ikat known as chiné à la branche taffeta (image 9). Ikat continues to inspire Western designers of both interiors and fashion (image 10), maybe because it is at once indigenous and international, an apt symbol for our global age.

Images: 1 Man’s robe made of multicolored ikat, c. 1910, from Samarkand, Uzbekistan. From the Victoria & Albert Museum; 2 Green ikat “Bali Isle” fabric by China Seas covers a sofa in this gorgeous photo from a Dominoshoot, via Habitually Chic; 3 A 10th-century ikat fragment, probably from Yemen, with a gold and black painted inscription in kufic script. From the Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York; 4 Japanese kasuri, indigo-dyed double ikat, from the Meiji period (early 20th century), $425 at Marla Mallett; 5 Contemporary weft ikat sarong or shawl from Bali, Indonesia, $165 from Marla Mallett 6 Silk double ikat patola sari made in Gujarat, in Western India, late 19th or early 20th century. This type of double ikat, patola, is exclusive to Gujarat, and has been a prized export for centuries. It requires a huge amount of skill and time. From the Victoria & Albert Museum, London; 7 An Uzbek woman weaving warp ikat. You can see how the warp threads are already dyed in the pattern, and she is just weaving solid weft threads to hold the warps together. From the Victoria & Albert Museum’s very informative photo essay on the making of ikats; 8 A Thai woman weaving indigo-dyed cotton in a weft ikat. Here, we can see the warp threads are all solidly indigo, and the pattern is emerging as she weaves the weft threads through them. Via Susan McCauley’s Mekong River Textiles, which includes photos of how ikats are made; 9 An 18th-century French dress made from chiné à la branche silk taffeta, an ikat technique derived from Asian precedents. Westerners loved the exoticism of ikat. Madame de Pompadour, Louis XV’s mistress, loved this type of fabric so much it was sometimes called Pompadour taffeta. Image from the gorgeous exhibition catalogue from the Metropolitan Museum’s Dangerous Liaisons: Fashion and Furniture in the Eighteenth Century show from 2004 (my most favorite Met show ever); 10 A bedroom designed by Steven Gambrel, with walls upholstered in vintage Uzbek ikat. Photo by William Waldron for Elle Decor.

(Re-edited from a post originally published 01/07/10 – AH)