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Royalty, religion and community...

Updated: Apr 8, 2021

No - we're not talking about the next Netflix blockbuster but the noble history of Ikat cloth!

Creativity, trade, power, prestige and migration, all play a role in the history of Ikat. This is a cloth linked to royalty, religion and community.

The word Ikat itself is derived from the word 'mengikat', the Indonesian word meaning 'to tie'.

The actual origins of Ikat seem to be less clear, some argue it's derived from Indonesia, while others suggest it's possibly a weaving technique which was intuitively developed independently in various places around the world including Central & South East Asia, China & Latin America. The trade routes without doubt contributed to the spread of Ikat - becoming a currency in its own right along the Silk Road.

The earliest references of traditional Ikat can be found in the famous 1000-year-old murals of the Ajanta Caves in the Maharashtra state of India, while the oldest surviving example of Ikat is of the Indian Odiham style found in a Pharaoh's tomb in Egypt.

A cloth of significance

These points of reference indicate a cloth of significance, with the weavers and dyers paying homage to their expertise with the production of a cloth worthy of kings and ceremonial occasions.

While Ikat is a particular textile design famous for its blurry lines, some of the most exquisite pieces - requiring the skills of the masters - produce Ikats with little or no blurry edges, the result of patience and time, eventually selling for small fortunes.

All to be revealed

The process for creating Ikat starts with the yarn, with the design transferred on to the yarn through a system of resist tie dying techniques, layering colour onto the threads before it is woven, only allowing the pattern to reveal itself when the cloth is woven on the loom. Creating loose geometric shapes with the blurry edges as the yarns shift - adding to the beauty of the work - is relatively easy, however achieving intricate design symmetry with complex shapes including animals requires mathematical precision, the skills from generations of master weaves and dyers, patience and time.

Single or double?

The complexities of Ikat weaving can be divided into two distinct categories, single or double Ikat. The single Ikat uses the tie-dyed thread of the warp only (the fixed thread on the loom) to create a design. The weft thread used to weave in and out of the warp threads, moving from side to side, is a solid colour in harmony with the tie-dyed warp threads. With double Ikat weaving both warp and weft threads are tie dyed, and only by matching up the threads as the weft meets the warp accurately will the pattern emerge.

Odisha - out towards the east coast of India - is world renowned for its production of double Ikat in blues, greens and yellows depicting animals and fish, while Rajkot in Gujarat in the north west, produces single Ikat. Patan, also in Gujarat, is famous for the Patola, the queen of silk Ikat, a double Ikat known for its geometric shapes and stunning red colours.

Skill of the 'Vi'

The Patola, is an important social status and sacred to some communities, is also arguably the mother of all IKATS, requiring skills passed down through the generations of the Salvi caste. 700 silk weavers of the Salvi caste originated from Karnataka in the south, moving to Gujarat around the 12th century to acquire patronage of the ruling classes of Gujarat and Rajasthan. The 'Salvi' caste - named after their weaving tools - a rosewood shaped stick called 'Vi' used to adjust the threads at the selvedge, in order to match up the intricate designs.

Today in Gujarat the Patola is still an essential part of the bride's property for those with means to afford such a prized possession, while just four weaving families remain (2017), guarding their secrets of Patola weaving, handing down the knowledge from son to son, a tentative lineage, destined to be the end of the genuine Patola.

But thankfully not the end of Ikat weaving as designers and fashion houses across the world seek out this enduring design, keeping a weaving tradition alive along with a skill set of many generations.

Image reference

The Fabric of India (2015) London V&A Publishing

The Craft Museum Delhi

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