This exhibition features over 100 textiles made from the 12th century to the present, drawn from the museum’s collection and gifts and loans from the Seattle-based Collection of David and Marita Paly, including works from Asia, Africa, Europe and the Americas. Of the many handloomed textiles in the world, ikat stands out for its required dedication: the weaver must coordinate each and every thread, choosing which to tie to resist the application of dye. The term ‘ikat’ comes from the Malay-Indonesian mengikat, meaning to tie or bind. Threads are tied tightly, to resist any dye, before they are woven. Each thread’s resistance to the dye is slightly different, which results in ikat’s unique edge. Every pattern is said to be feathered or flaming, jagged or blurring where images hover inside the cloth, embedded, and serve as a reminder of the depth of dedication required to make an ikat.
Ikat examples from Japan include a display of futonji (futon covers). These domestic textiles played an important part in the home. Placed atop futons, bedding stuffed with raw cotton, which came into use in Japan in the 17th century, futonji not only provided physical warmth and comfort, but became an art-form in itself.
Indigo-dyed textiles have a long and cherished tradition in Japan. Kimonos using the kasuri technique and indigo (ai) were hugely popular and worn by men and women alike and bold designs were fashionable and widespread in the country in the 19th and 20th centuries. The depth of indigo bleeding into blue-black forms a backdrop for accents that are executed in white double ikat, a pairing that takes exceptional skill. Kasuri comes from the verb kasureru meaning ‘to blur’, echoing the heritage of ikat in all its forms. In Japan, as elsewhere, it is a method of creating patterns in cloth through a dye process whereby threads are bound or resisted before the dyeing.
The classification of kasuri is done first and is named by the technique and direction in which the resisted or tie-and-dyed yarn is done. Warp kasuri (tate gasuri) refers just to the dyed resist of warp threads (the horizontal threads on the loom). Weft kasuri (yoko gasuri) is the method where each vertical thread must be placed in an exact position to create the design. Warp and weft kasuri (tate-yoko gasuri) encompasses both. Further kasuri classification is done: by colour, by technique, by design, and finally by place of production.
In India, the tradition of ikat weaving is linked to religion as well as part of the early trade connections in the region. Indian patola cloth has been desired and traded by many cultures for centuries. One legend recounts that the Jain Raja Kumarpula (1143-1174) called on 700 patola creators to enable him to wear a new cloth every day for his visit to the temple. One of the homes of the Jain community is Gujarat and is where his legacy took hold. It took three people four to twelve months to complete each cloth with the complex calculations required for the double ikat process.
The reputation of patola spread widely beginning with the establishment of the spice trade in the 16th century. Used as a commercial tool, particularly during the spice trade, the cloth spread into southeast Asia and Indonesia and was traded to the West. As the Dutch East India Company (VOC) arrived to barter for sandalwood and spices, patola was also an important part of this business.
Often created in a range of reds, patola is said to represent the colours of the mother goddess of Jain weavers. Patola became expected for high-status brides, but they have had an even broader impact as a sacred presence worn by priests, deities, mothers, babies, those who are sick, and the deceased. Like no other ikat cloth, patola has crossed religious boundaries, been imitated and adapted, and taken on new meanings, and its influence will be seen in the coming galleries.
An example in this section is a patola sari with Vohra gaji bhat (trellis design), probably from Patan – it was the Muslim Bohra communities that developed and gave the trellis name to this patola design. The Bohra are traditionally traders and have established their own distinctive dress for centuries. This type of sari would be worn by a bride and the bride’s and groom’s families at weddings and other occasions. Abstract geometry is preferred by these patrons, while framing a central field and ending the cloth with triangular motifs is a common Gujarat patola design.
In Southeast Asia, a dynamic expansion by Austronesians from Taiwan by 3500 BC established a manner of relying on cloth that is seen throughout the region. Cloth became powerful: used as a gift, a symbol of alliance, and an invitation for the dead, gods, and spirits to form a relationship with the living. All Southeast Asian cloths are made by women, balancing men’s association with metal and imported goods. In the 19th century, Southeast-Asian cloth designs experienced extensive elaboration. There is a sense of exchange in some ikats, while others are tightly restrained. In the weavings, you can see ancient ancestors, sacred mandalas of Hindu-Buddhism, dragons from China, stars and flowers from India, as well as homage being paid to indigenous species – frogs and crocodiles are prominent in many designs.
In the Philippines, the people of the highlands of Mindanao Island consider abaca, a species of banana native to the Philippines, for weaving with ikat to be the most appropriate medium and design for ceremonial clothing and gifts. Bagobo women create three panels, with a centre called the mother and the sides called children. A profusion of intricate scrolls form rhythmic patterns throughout. Mandaya women record their alliance with crocodiles as a source of sacred character by inserting humans and crocodile outlines in a consistent alternation. Look for them in the stripes, with their hands and legs pushed to each side, as they assert their union amidst lacey patterning.
Further east, in southernmost China, Hainan Island, is considered the best-preserved tropical forest in the country and is home to the Li peoples, who have been cultivating cotton there for 3,000 years. Their penchant for decoration is seen in extensive tattooing and in their cloths, which feature lines of geometric forms, figures, birds, geometry, and frogs in animated repetition. Frogs are given tribute as the largest creatures and are known as sacred ancestors. Floating bands of golden colour are likely the result of turmeric dyes. In 2009, UNESCO put the textiles of the Li of Hainan island on the list of intangible cultural heritage in need of protection.
An exhibition on ikats would not be complete without the famed examples from Uzbekistan. Exuberant textiles filled the cities of Samarkand and Bukhara in the 19th century. Uzbeks call ikat abrabandi (cloud binding) and took it to new heights of exploration. William Eleroy Curtis, an English visitor to Uzbekistan, wrote in 1911, ‘Everybody wears a coat like a rainbow. No matter how humble or hungry a man may be, and even if he has but a single garment, it is made of the most brilliantly coloured material he can find’.
Central Asian ikats are best known for their bold, abstract designs and vibrant colours, the result of painstaking and highly skilled work by craftsmen throughout the region. Unlike a majority of textiles that are woven with solid-coloured thread or are printed or dyed after weaving, ikat is produced using the reverse process. Individual threads are first dyed with several colours that, when woven together, produce the energetic patterns unique to this textile tradition. Successful application of this complex technique requires extensive forethought and teamwork between various craftsmen and the designer.
For this reason, ikat has been celebrated in Central Asia as one of the region’s great arts. In the 19th century, when costume indicated an individual’s social rank, wealth, domestic role, tribal affiliation and geographic origin, ikat was considered the most prestigious material to wear. The production of fabrics with abr (cloud in Persian) patterns was the most labour-intensive of the decorative methods. It required a craftsman artist to draw a pattern onto the silk warp yarns and then, according to a predetermined sequence of colours, parts of the warp bundles were tightly bound with cotton threads that resisted dye penetration when they were immersed in vats of dye, once, or several times, depending on the complexity of the pattern. This technique is still used today in Uzbekistan and other Central Asian countries and the craft is flourishing and exported worldwide.
Until 29 May, Seattle Art Museum, seattleartmuseum.org