Handweaving of ikat cloth is not for sissies. The laborious and skillful process of resist-dyeing and weaving fine threads is not one quickly learned. Take me for instance–this resist-dyeing process has intrigued me since college when I spent a semester teaching myself warp ikat, studying whatever I could from the few books then available. I figured out a primitive method of stringing the warp between empty curtain rods in my window, stretching the cotton threads taut before wrapping a simple pattern. After numerous steps of tying, dyeing, weaving and so forth, with finished piece in hand, I met with my teacher who took one look at it and called it a schmatta, a rag. But even with that discouragement, my interest in ikat continued these forty years leading me to study and travel.
A Whole Wide World of Ikat
Since ClothRoads opened its doors seven years ago, I’ve traveled to seven countries where ikat is still being woven. (Here’s the link to my blog on identifying the types of ikat: weft, warp, double and compound.) My first trip was to Ock Pop Tok in Luang Prabang, Laos, where I naturally dyed fine silk and wove a simple weft ikat scarf. This was the first time since college that I wove ikat and it certainly was a more rewarding experience. But I was learning from a master weaver who aided me along the way.
In Ecuador, I met Jose Jiménez at his workshop in Gualaceo, 35 km east of Cuenca. Sr. Jiménez is a master weaver of “macana or makana”, the traditional warp ikat cotton shawl with a knotted fringe. He and his family continue this art and its use of natural dyes.
In Guatemala, the resist-dyed fabric is called “jaspe” and in Salcajá, Quetzaltenango, the entire town seems to be involved in the full-scale production of this cloth. Specialists in each part of the jaspe process work in different parts of town. Hundreds of people do the simple tying and dyeing work, but only fifty specialize in “labor” tying. (“Labor” is complex ikat of figures, animals, butterflies, flowers, etc.) We met Tomasa Siquina, an amarrador, a person who ties labor jaspe.. Depending on the complexity of the designs, Tomasa can tie about 160 yards of warp per day—that’s enough to make about 22 cortes (traditional skirts), give or take.
The practice of double ikat, called patola, has a long heritage in India. These fine-silk textiles with intricate patterns are tied both in the warp and weft threads and dyed with natural colors prior to weaving. Once a thriving craft practiced by the Salvi caste throughout Gujarat, only a handful of true patola are now only made in this single Indian workshop by a fourth-generation extended family of artisans. Despite a busy schedule, we were warmly welcomed by Mr. Salvi who invited us to observe them at work.
In the small village of Sallac, Peru, the Center for Traditional Textiles of Cusco discovered one man who still knew how to warp-tie traditional designs called “watay or huatay”. Over the years, other weavers in the village have learned and it’s one of the revitalized textiles cultivated by the Center.
There was only one trip where every day for ten days, we visited a different village where natural dyeing and weaving of ikat is part of their tradition, heritage and life—the Lesser Sunda Islands in Indonesia. Led by experts, David and Susan Richardson, the breadth and depth of this experience was by far my most exhaustive and rewarding. Our final stop was in Sumba where the complexity of the ikat designs and the edging of the cloth, where warp becomes weft, will leave me mystified for some time.
This year, I finally made my “bucket” ikat trip to Uzbekistan, where ikat means “to tie a cloud”. The town of Margilan in the Fergana Valley is the center of silk production of the whole of Central Asia. Our group stayed at “The Ikat House”, a small traditional hotel owned by the ikat-producing family of Rasuljon Mirzaakhmedov. We visited the workshop of ikat master Fazlitdin Dadajanov where we saw the entire ikat process. We spent a morning at the colorful Kum-Tepa market where stall after stall was loaded with ikat. Another morning we toured the Yadgorlik factory seeing silk being reeled and spun from cocoons and ikat being woven on floor looms.
I’ve written about the weaving of the exquisitely complex T’nalak, a resist-dyed abaca fiber which is backstrap woven by T’boli women in the southern Philippines and the indigo dyeing and weaving of kasuri cloth in Japan. So what’s left to explore? Certainly Africa and Cambodia have long resist dyeing traditions to explore. Honestly, my need to travel the world over in pursuit of ikat knowledge wanes, but here are two traditions and countries still on my list: the rebozos (shawls) in Mexico, and in southern India, the region of Andhra Pradesh where until the mid-20th c. the telia rumal cotton ikats, a form of handkerchiefs, survived.
Learn and Acquire Ikat Here in the U.S.
The U.S has its ikat masters too–weavers who have studied and pursued the making of this complex art form for decades. Perhaps you have had the privilege of studying with or viewing the work of these masters: Virginia Davis, Hillary Steel, Wendy Weiss and Mary Zicafoose. A year ago, I took a weeklong immersive ikat tutorial with master Polly Barton at her studio in Santa Fe. Polly’s ikat work is based on the Japanese tradition of “kasuri” having studied with master weaver, Tomohiko Inoue in Kameoka, Japan, in the early 80s. This type of ikat lends itself well to small studio work. It’s only now that I have carved out time to weave the ikat prepared a year ago. If I have the gumption, you may see the finished piece in a future blog.
If ikat has pursued you the way it has me, share your stories with us.