Central Asian Ikats

Boiling the cocoons to unwind the silk thread. All photos Sarah Callaghan

Ikat is a style of weaving that uses a resist dyeing process similar to tie-dye on either the warp or weft before the threads are woven to create a pattern or design. The Malay-Indonesian term ikat, used in the West to describe these fabrics, is derived from the verb mengikat, which means ‘to bind, tie or wind around’. A technique popular in many parts of the world, including Southeast and Central Asia, Japan, and Yemen, ikat is created by binding threads to form areas that will resist colour being applied. The more colourful and complicated the motifs, the longer and more elaborate the binding and dyeing process before the weaving of the cloth can start. Despite meticulous care in binding, resist dyeing inevitably results in motifs with blurred edges, as the dying and weaving processes cause unpredictable distortions.

Although evidence for their earlier existence is scant, Central Asian ikats emerged as a compelling art form during the region’s urban renaissance, which occurred in the 19th and early 20th centuries. Springing from a long history of trade and traditions going back as far as the fabled East-West trading route known as the Silk Road, the most brilliant ikats were the result of complex inter-ethnic cooperation. Muslim and Jewish artisans joined forces to create these fabrics, which remain to this day a symbol of national identity and pride.

Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan, the republics that make up what is commonly termed Central Asia, are nestled in a lowland area of desert and oases between the Ural Mountains in the west and the Altai Mountains in the east. Their strategic geographic position between the great civilisations of China, India and Iran has resulted in the creation of distinct multi-ethnic cultures. All five countries share a common position directly in the migratory path of people and goods between China and the Western world, a location that made Central Asia a key player in early multinational contacts and attracted ethnically diverse populations to its prosperous oasis cities.

In the 19th century Central Asia experienced a period of economic and cultural growth, and the golden age of ikat making was closely bound up with this new dynamism. Centres across Central Asia, such as Samarkand and Bukhara in modern-day Uzbekistan, and Kabul and Kunduz in Afghanistan, grew in size and prosperity. A new market for luxury ikat textiles emerged alongside this expansion. Eventually, whole neighbourhoods came to house the dyers, weavers, binders and designers whose collaborative activity went into the making of ikat fabrics. These fabrics had two roles in Central Asian urban society.  They were used in clothing as markers of status, or as hangings within the home.

The images here show how Central Asian ikats are made in the Ferghana Valley and are specific to current ikat production in the Margilan in Eastern Uzbekistan. The small workshops and factories there continue to use traditional inherited methods and so provides  a good understanding of how ikats are produced using the warp ikat technique.

The first stage of making an ikat textile is making the silk thread. This is done by putting the cocoons into a pot of boiling water in order to kill the caterpillar and to dissolve the sericin, a kind of glue which binds the threads together. The released silk filaments are then extracted using a stick or brush to catch the ends and are then wound by hand into skeins, directly from the pot. Once the silk threads are unwound from the cocoon, they are of very uneven quality and need to be evened out and strengthened by winding them onto a hand-turned frame or spool. They are also repeatedly boiled to increase the whiteness and strength. Evened out and strengthened, the silk threads are then reeled onto bobbins ready to spin the warp threads (the warp threads are the lengthwise threads as the textile is woven; the wefts are the horizontal threads). A vertical frame holding several bobbins feeds the threads onto a very large spinning wheel to start the process of stretching them out to their full length.

Once the weft threads have been fully prepared – stretched, strengthened and divided into warp lengths – the silk threads are then sent to the ikat binding workshop (abr-bandi) where they are separated into even groups, called ‘livits’, and threaded through between 40 and 60 holes pierced into the ends of a large wooden patterning frame. Once the warp is laid out in this way the designer marks out the patterns directly onto the threads using charcoal. He draws the outline and indicates the areas intended for each colour.

The next stage of preparing the warp is to bind the areas of the threads that are to resist the dye of the first dye bath. These areas are wrapped tightly with cotton threads and wax is added to ensure that the tied areas remain undyed. The whole of the warp is then removed from its frame and sent to the dye house for its first application of colour.

The warp, removed from the warp frame, is bundled up ready for dyeing. At the dye house the threads are wrapped loosely around a long pole and immersed into a dye bath. This dyeing and binding process is extremely complex. For a multi-coloured ikat, reds and yellows tended to be applied first with a hot dye bath. These colours are applied in separate workshops to those in which the indigo dye is applied with a cold dye bath. After each dye is applied, the threads are wrung out by hand and returned to the ikat binding workshop, where the tied areas of the warp are unbound. They are then fixed to the patterning frame once again and the next area marked out for a particular colour was tied. In the more complex ikats, this process is repeated several times, passing repeatedly between the designer and binders and the various dyeing workshops.

When all the dyes are applied to the ikat warp, the threads are once again returned to the binding workshop and unbound for the final time and sent to the weaving workshop. There the warp is cut into shorter lengths ready for weaving. The warp is attached to a simple treadle loom (a loom in which pedals move the warps so that the wefts can be passed through). Central Asian ikats are warp-faced textiles, which means that the warp thread is much denser than the weft thread. The pattern of the warp is therefore not interrupted by the weft so the work of the designers, binders and dyers is visible to full effect.

The final stage is to apply a finish to the textile to give it its distinctly shiny surface. Various methods such as an egg-white solution or a type of glue are used – this is applied to the cloth and beaten with a convex wooden hammer or a glass sphere, which also helps to shine, soften the surface and give the cloth a slightly rippled effect. Alternatively, no finishing solution was applied but the cloth is beaten in the same way. This releases the natural oils of the silk thread and provides a shine to the surface.

The motifs and patterns that decorate ikats respond to both the long-standing traditions of Central Asian art and the particular urban tastes of the 19th-century market. The prominence of overall repeating patterns reflects the Islamic tradition, while motifs such as ram’s horns and cypress trees reach back to a more ancient past. Floral decoration, dominant in Islamic art and inspired by the flora of the steppe lands, often features. The influence of the local arts of carpet making and embroidery is also strikingly present, for example in the use of large repeating circles. Designers combined, abstracted and moulded these inherited motifs to work with the technical and aesthetic demands of ikat. Some of the motifs, such as the jewellery and pendant patterns, once had amuletic, protective qualities. But they lose these special meanings when incorporated into the contemporary design vocabulary of ikat.

Specialised workshops prepared the warp threads for the weavers of a variety of silk fabrics. At the height of ikat production in the late 19th century, the cosmopolitan city of Bukhara had a number of workshops dedicated to making warp threads solely for ikat fabrics. For every loom, over 200 yards of warp thread had to be spun, whitened, stretched and divided into bundles before a pattern could be drawn upon them. Before dyeing, warp thread also had to be soaked in alum, a mordant that fixed the dye permanently to the fibre.

The first step in the patterning process was to wrap bundles of threads on the patterning frame, two wooden beams placed 8 to 10 feet apart. The distance between the beams determined the length of the pattern repeat, which formed a mirror image of itself on either side of them. The points of contact with the beams were often kept bound throughout the dying process. They served as reference points in the consecutive installing and de-installing of the bundles on the patterning frame, which occurred for every colour application. These points of reference are the lighter horizontal jagged ‘parting’ lines seen on many ikat panels.

Once the bundles were on the patterning frame, a designer marked the threads with washable black dye or charcoal to delineate the motifs. Before each dye bath, selected sections of the bundles were wrapped with thick waterproof cloth or greasy cotton string to prevent them from coming in contact with the dyestuff. Every colour required the tying, dyeing, untying, stretching and drying of the bundles. The dyer, who charged according to the size of the item, the number of dye baths and the depth of colour desired, sent the wet bundles back to the workshops for this process between dippings. Several weeks could go by before the thread was ready to be placed on the loom.

All ikats were woven in fairly narrow strips on simple warp-weighted looms. The weaver raised and lowered a series of harnesses with his feet, creating a passageway for a shuttle that contained the weft thread. Although a starch-like vegetable paste was applied to the warp threads to help them withstand the tension and keep them in line, distortion always occurred. This, along with the dyeing process, explains the blurry outline of the motifs on the finished cloth. After weaving, the fabric was pounced with an egg white emulsion applied with a wooden hammer and polished with a semi-sphere of glass to give the fabric a brilliant reflective shine.

Ikat collections can be found in museums across the US, Europe and Asia.