“Fool me once” or “I am a fool for ikat”. Both statements about me are true. In April, I was in Ecuador searching for some traditional ikat. This particular day, we were in the region where traditional ikat was still being woven; we just hadn’t seen the real deal yet (read about the Ecuadorian ikat here). Standing in the central plaza, I spotted a group of women in the distance, one of whom was wearing a shawl; it sure looked like ikat. I had to get closer for a fuller view—which I did. And I burst out laughing—a paw-print fabric. But can you see how, from quite far away and without proper glasses, it could be mistaken for an authentic one? Fooled.
Ikat is a method of creating designs in fabric by the use of resist dyeing. The pattern isn’t created by painting or printing, but by protecting parts of the yarn with a resist by binding it before the dyeing process, removing the resist after dyeing, possibly repeating this process multiple times, and then using this yarn in the warp, weft, or both. Warp ikat is commonly found, weft ikat less so, and double or compound ikat the most complicated of all. It’s slow, laborious work that takes a skilled artisan to master.
This past year, fashion fabric took a liking to ikat. Many prints were designed to look like it—some very clearly riffing off more complex ikat; others requiring closer scrutiny to reveal its authenticity, or not. One quick way to determine real from faux is to look at the reverse side. If the back is a solid color, it’s printed. Here are some tips for recognizing various ikat fabric.
At times, it’s hard to distinguish between a fabric with a printed or painted warp and one that is ikatted. Each may have blurred edges in the patterns due to the shifting of warp threads during weaving. But in warp ikat, only the warp threads are wrapped to resist the dye and create the pattern. Bundles of threads are tied together and patterned exactly the same; these bundles may consist of two to twelve threads and the woven fabric would show these small groups of identical patterns. The warp may be two colors, as in the Guatemalan fabric, or more, such as the silk Uzbeki one. Another identifier—look at the length of the fabric. If the design runs parallel to the selvedge edge and the vertical lines are a little blurred due to the shifting of the warp yarns, it’s probably warp ikat.
In weft ikat, only the weft yarns are wrapped to resist the dye and form the pattern creating distinct horizontal lines. This silk shawl from Laos shows a very simple weft-ikat pattern. Weft ikat allows for more fluidity of design than warp ikat. During weaving, it is critical to position the weft yarn precisely in relation to the preceding weft shot and to all others that will follow. Any unplanned shifting will alter the design. You may notice small loops at the selvedge where the weaver shifted weft threads to create the design, as in the complex weft ikat pictured.
The process of creating double ikat is both complicated and time-consuming. The warp and weft yarns are wrapped and dyed to coincide; the resulting design has feathery edges on both sides of the intersection, as well as top and bottom. You can see this in the Japanese example. Undyed warp and weft yarns are counted, bundled, wrapped, and folded with precision in order to produce the pattern. Some patterns, such as the patola from India, require unwrapping and rewrapping between dyebaths.
Compound ikat combines warp- and weft-ikat methods in a way that forms independent, complementary patterns all in the same fabric. The Indonesians are well-known for producing exquisite compound ikats.
Now that you too know these tips, you can impress your friends when looking at ikat and rattle off what type it is. If you want some of your very own, you can find these resist-dyed feats in the ClothRoads shop.
Before I sign off for the day, I want to introduce you to Bonie Shupe who has been interning with ClothRoads for a number of months. She’s on an adventure in the Peruvian Highlands working with the Center for Traditional Textiles of Cusco for the next three months. On Tuesdays, she’ll share some behind-the-scenes on this weaving cooperative and her project. Join her as an armchair traveler!