History of Ikat
The word Ikat is probably Indonesian although and no one really knows where the technique was actually first developed, what we do know is that there are very old examples from Japan, Indonesia, Turkey, Yemen, and pre-Columbian South America.
Central Asian ikat first came to prominence in Europe in the 18thcentury when there was a new fashion craze to use eastern fabrics, the French in particular were very keen and came up with a new warp printed taffeta sometimes known as "pompadour taffeta"
The centre of all Ikat weaving in Centra Asia was Uzbekistan. Traditionally these textiles were used for male and female robes, linings, wall hangings and coverlets. They were considered a luxury, worn by high-ranking individuals and also used for very special occasions and gifts, the technique persisted until the early 20th century when one town had 120 workshops. Then came the Russian revolution and Uzbekistan which had been under Russian rule since 1860 became subject to harsh restrictions and efficiency measures. Luckily the art of weaving was kept alive and, in some ways, the Russian influence made an impact especially in the making of Chapans (robes). The beautiful garments from the 20thcentury often have the most Russian floral cotton fabrics on the inside, its an amazing source of new material for textile designer when some Ikat Chapans come up for sale. The entire inside of a chapan is sometimes a work of art with not only floral designs but also the most amazing stripe designs which were sewn into the edges.
The technique and why its so intricate
Uzbek craftsmen still rely on local families to produce the cocoons from which the silk is extracted. The season begins in April, when each household is given twenty grams of silkworm eggs in a container the size of a matchbox. The silkworms that emerge from these eggs devour enormous quantities of mulberry leaves for about six weeks before spinning up to eighty kilos of cocoons.
Traditional ikat is made of 50% natural silk and 50% natural cotton. The ancient Uzbek tradition of ikat technique consists of over 37 steps. The technique of weaving Ikat is the story of two very skilled disciplines. Firstly, using natural vegetable dyes from plant sources—roots, berries, bark, leaves, and wood - and other biological sources such as fungi, a specialist craftsman known as the “abrbandchi” tightly binds a strong cord (or plastic) around the warp threads following the design. In Uzbek, the term used is Abrbandi, which translates from Persian as “to tie a cloud”.
This wrapping acts as a resist so the dye cannot penetrate the silk fiber. The process is repeated and silk threads are repetitively bound in an intricate design with a water resistant material, in order to prevent penetration of the dye bath. Yellow, usually the lightest colour is dyed first. Subsequently, all that is to remain yellow is bound tightly and the next colour is dyed. This process is repeated for each colour, seven would be the maximum but this is very rare nowadays.
When dyeing is complete, the resists are removed to reveal the design, the loom is warped and the weaving begins. The entire process requires 37 steps from cocoon to finished product. Traditional ikat is made of 50% natural silk and 50% natural cotton. So the weaving process mixes in the cotton which gives the final Ikat lengths a soft quality. Some processes like beating the white of an egg into the final product are no longer carried out. The result was to give the ikat a sheen (like a chintz) This may have been appropriate when Ikat fabric was being made into robes for dignitaries but not so popular now.
The ancient Uzbek tradition of ikat technique consists of over 37 steps and the looms are 40 cms (16inches) wide so there is only a limited amount one can do with this rare and beautiful fabric. The process of weaving is time consuming, and a feint line appears when the pattern comes to the end of the loom, a skilled weaver may produce 10 metres in one day.
The difference between mass produced and hand-made using the 19th century methods of production and why it’s important to know the difference
Due to an increase in demand for in Ikat fabrics many workshops have switched to power looms and where Ikats may at first glance appear to be genuine but on closer inspection there are a few tell-tale signs that the Ikat is basically mass produced. Firstly, the colours are often garish and bright, but not in a nice way. Chemical dyes may have some benefits because they can be purchased in a container containing a liquid, but the results are far from pleasing.
An Ikat which has been produced with natural vegetable dyes will always have better hue and more colour depth. Due to the binding process, traditional Ikats have more colours and colour graduation. It is impossible to completely block out colour when ‘binding the cloud’ so bleeding occurs and this imperfection created even more depth in the colour and design. Side by side a traditionally made Ikat will always be more interesting to look at with more depth and character.
There is one more way to tell the difference between an authentic Ikat and one made on a machine and that’s by looking at the edges of the Ikat. If the edges are even, regular and tightly woven, then it’s been made on a machine. However, traditionally woven fabrics produced on a loom have a more haphazard appearance and although the edges are finished, they are not completely regular.
Knowing the difference between the two is a huge advantage especially when going to buy lengths of Ikat. If you do ever find yourself in the Grand Bazar in Istanbul, you will be confronted by many shops selling well presented Ikat fabrics. These may be sold as “genuine Ikat” but mostly they are imitations. Perfectly nice in their own right, they may well be Ikat in design, but these fabrics are not made in the traditional way which is why if you can find someone who stocks the traditionally made fabric then you should but it the metre and buy as much as you can afford. There has never been a better time to buy Ikat.