John Gillow is an author, lecturer and collector who has spent more than 40 years travelling the world in pursuit of textiles. Below he introduces the technique of ikat...

One of the most dramatic ways of patterning cloth is through the age-old technique of ikat. The multi-coloured silk robes and furnishings of Samarkand and Bokhara, the vivid mantles and sarongs of the outer, far-flung Indonesian islands, not to mention the complex Indian saris of Gujarat, Orissa and Andhra Pradesh, the sacred geringsing cloths of Bali and the painstakingly fine indigo-dyed kasuri fabric of Japan all utilize the same method.

The essence of the technique is first to wrap the unwoven threads around a frame and then to tie-dye the threads, either the warps or the wefts or in some cases both before the weaving process takes place. Because the penetration of the dye bath into which the hanks of yarn are immersed is imperfectly resisted by the fabric or plastic ties used, the delineation between those areas that have taken the dye and those that have not isn't perfectly defined. There is a slight area of overlap, which leads to the pattern on the woven cloth having a slightly fuzzy, not sharply defined aspect. This characteristic makes ikat cloth readily identifiable to both expert and amateur textile lover alike.

Warp ikat is the simplest of the ikat techiques. If, the original thread is white and the dye bath blue, the tied portions form a white pattern against a blue background. By tying up further sections of the warp threads, untying certain sections of the original tied resists and then immersing the tied hanks in a dye bath of a different colour, a pattern emerges that is of four colours, the first of which is the original un-dyed colour of the warps, the second and third the colours of the successive dye baths and the final colour the hue produced by the combination of the two dyes. The yarn dyed in this manner is woven to produce a patterned, warp-faced cloth.

Warp ikat textiles are produced in South and SouthEast Asia, Central Asia and Iran, the Near East, West Africa and Latin America.

Weft ikat is a sophisticated process originally from the Yemen from whence it travelled to India and South East Asia.

With this technique the weft threads must be wound onto a simple rectangular frame that is approximately the same width as the finished cloth. Threads that are to be given identical motifs are bunched together on the tying frame, and the resist patterns are then tied in. The tied yarn is dyed in the same manner as warp ikat, then woven in as the weft on a plain warp.

Double ikat is a most prestigious and expensive textile. Craftsmen can spend months tie and dyeing a pattern into both warp and weft threads and then painstakingly weaving the cloth so the pattern fits together without looking disjointed. Double ikat is only woven in India, Bali and Japan.Patola the vividly coloured silk double ikat woven in Gujarat was once widely traded to South-East Asia where it became a symbol of royalty and was much imitated.

Words by John Gillow

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