Indigenous and international, old world and on-trend, ikat (or ikkat) is all over fashion and homewares. From designer threads to the cushions on your couch, this traditional dyeing technique is sexing things up boho-style.
Developing independently across multiple cultures, ikat is found as far flung as South East Asia, South America and the Middle East. The earliest examples date back to the Dark Ages, 10th century Yemen and pre-Columbian Peru.
Ikat came to Europe via Dutch traders from South East Asia, Spanish explorers touring the South Americas and travellers along the Silk Road. These textiles were a symbol of status due to the skill and time taken to produce them.
Unlike block-printed and surface-patterned fabrics that are woven then dyed, the yarn used to make ikat is resist-dyed before it is woven. The process of resist-dying (kind of like tie-dying) creates the desired design. Many have ethnic significance.
Although sometimes created by dying the warp and/or weft threads, cotton warp ikat is the most common. Traditionally this begins with the threads being spun on a spinning wheel or by hand on a spindle in lower-economic areas. Then, strung up on a loom, the design is marked up using charcoal or crayon sticks dipped in dye.
More traditional motifs are quite prescriptive in their design, detailing the number of bands/stripes, the width and even the colours that can be used.
The threads are then bound in groups as few as four for very fine ikat and dyed. This tight wrapping can be made from strips of palm, Pandan leaf or raffia, waxed with beeswax to make it more impermeable. In more recent times, this has been replaced with plastic.
The bound threads are immersed in a dye-bath for anywhere up to several weeks to achieve the right intensity and hue. The dried bindings are then cut away and the threads are strung up on the loom. This is a meticulous exercise – the pattern has to line up before the threads can again be bound and dyed.
This process of binding and dyeing is repeated until the pattern is realised. The threads are then woven into cloth on the loom.
The clarity of the pattern is determined by the level of craftsmanship. Ikat’s characteristic hazy look comes when the dyes bleed into the resist areas, making each piece unique.
Many ikats work with just two pigments – in Indonesia, typically indigo and morinda (a kind of rusty, blood-red). The fabrics can range from muted, subtle hues to striking, dynamic shades.