Ikat is a dyeing technique used to pattern textiles that employs a resist dyeing process on the yarns prior to dyeing and weaving the fabric. This style is common to many world cultures and is probably one of the oldest forms of textile decoration. The technique seems to have developed independently across many different cultures and continents, appearing in places as diverse as Peru, Yemen, Japan, Indonesia, India and Uzbekistan. Ikat is an Indonesian language word but is now a generic English loanword used to describe the process and the cloth itself regardless of where the fabric was produced or how it is patterned.
In ikat the resist is formed by binding individual yarns or bundles of yarns with a tight wrapping applied in the desired pattern. The yarns are then dyed. The bindings may then be altered to create a new pattern and the yarns dyed again with another colour. This process may be repeated multiple times to produce elaborate, multicolored patterns. When the dyeing is finished all the bindings are removed and the yarns are woven into cloth. In other resist-dyeing techniques such as tie-dye and batik the resist is applied to the woven cloth, whereas in ikat the resist is applied to the yarns before they are woven into cloth. Because the surface design is created in the yarns rather than on the finished cloth, in ikat both fabric faces are patterned.
Designs and Socio-economic aspects
Ikat weaving has social, economic, ceremonial and traditional significance. Although they are similar in form from one region to another, ikats vary tremendously in decorative technique, design format and motif. Designs represent animals, birds, and floral, geometric or ancestral figure motifs. Every village or family has its own patterns and colours that tell them their history. This makes every ikat special and unique.
18th Century Ikat Designs
The ikat process begins with bundles of warp threads being strung up on a frame, close together and properly tightened. A master weaver ties bundles of warp threads in precise patterns to prepare for colored dyes. Then the pattern is drawn on to them in outline. Bindings that resist dye penetration are applied in locations defined by the motif.
After the bindings required to protect all material that should not be coloured in the first round of dying are in place, the threads are taken off the frame and dipped in a dye bath. After dying, the bindings are cut away. The threads are strung onto the frame again and arranged carefully so that they match exactly. New bindings are put in place for all locations that should not receive colour in the second round of dying. Then the tied threads are taken off the frame again, dipped in the next dye bath – and so on until the desired multicoloured pattern has been created.
Next the weaver secures the dyed warp threads to the loom and checks for accuracy. Then he weaves the weft thread through, and the fabric design emerges.
Double Ikat (Patola)
Double ikats—in which both the warp and weft yarns are tied and dyed before being woven into a single textile—are relatively rare because of the intensive skilled labour required to produce them. They are produced in Gujarat in India, Okinawa in Japan, and Tenganan in Indonesia.
In India, double ikat is known as Patola. In India, the art of Patola is revered for its religious significance across many faiths and is used mainly for making sarees. Weaving a Patola sari requires immense amount of precision and patience. Today, there are only four existing Patola-making families striving to save the craft facing multiple threats – high investment of time and money, low returns, and lack of interest for continuing the craft among the younger generations.
The tying of yarns is an intricate and time consuming process, with measurements as small as 1/100th of an inch. The yarn undergoes multiple cycles of tying and dyeing, following a specific order of colors. The yarns have to be carefully arranged during and after dying, as displacement of even a single yarn can disturb the design arrangement and render the entire set of yarns useless. Every colour in every yarn has its own unique place in the sari and it has to be carefully aligned with the pattern while weaving. After every few inches of weaving, the design is adjusted using steel needles. Two people have to work together on the Patola loom and it can take 6 months to a year to make one Patola sari.
Each of the motifs and colours have different significance in different communities. For example, the Vohra Gaji Bhaat is a favourite motif among the Vohra community. The Jains prefer abstract and geometric motifs. The elephant (kunjar), flower (phul), girl (nari) and parrot (popat) designs are very common in Patola saris worn by Gujarati women and the elephant and tiger motifs are considered particularly auspicious. The Pan Bhaat (Leaf Design) is one of the most common patterns. It is a motif indigenous to India and can be traced back to the Indus Valley era.