As we neared the end of the narrow, dusty street in Patan, Gujarat, the quiet domestic scene belied the world-renowned workshop we sought. A few women gathered on a first floor veranda to gossip and hang laundry while a chestnut vendor ambled by. Our destination, a modest building with a narrow corner entry, was distinguished by a simple wall sign “Patan Patola”. Only the decorative elephant motif above the door hinted at the complex and elegant ikat textiles that are meticulously crafted within.
Highly Coveted Double Ikat
Patola are double-ikat, fine-silk textiles whose intricate patterns are tied both in the warp and weft threads and dyed with natural colors prior to weaving. These fine fabrics have a long heritage in India. They have been important ceremonial garb for kings and the elite Brahmin caste, and for Jain and Bohra merchants. From the first century CE into modern times, patola have been important export products for Malaysians and Indonesians who highly value them for their presumed protective powers and ceremonial significance.
Once a thriving craft practiced by the Salvi caste throughout Gujarat, true patola are now only made in this single Indian workshop by a fourth-generation extended family of artisans. Because of the complexity of the process, the Salvi family produces a handful of patola each year and the waiting time for a Patan patola is several years. They are purchased chiefly by wealthy merchants and Indonesian clients.
In the Patola Workshop
Despite their busy schedule, Mr. Salvi welcomed us warmly and invited us to observe them at work. As I stepped inside the workshop, a colorful, delicate web caught my eye. Extending from the front to back wall of a small room, a loom was being warped with iridescent, fine silk that shone in the low light. Ahead, workers prepared to show us the steps they follow in producing the patola.
On a nearby table a colored design was plotted out on graph paper to provide the dimensions and placement of color along a length of warp or weft. For each color, narrow bundles of silk are wrapped so that only the area to be colored is exposed. Once dyed, the bundles are re-wrapped to expose the pattern areas for the next color. Because the patola are multicolored, this process can take a very long time.
Once the threads are dyed, looms warped, and wefts wound, weaving begins. Because the fabric is wide, the loom is usually manned by two weavers who throw the shuttle back and forth to each other, aligning the weft threads with those on the warp. As we watched each pass of the shuttle, delicate hints of color on the warp transformed before our eyes into a complex multi-colored pattern in the finished cloth. The weavers continually checked the resulting fabric, and with fine picks they carefully rearranged weft threads where the patterns were imperfect. Although there is a high degree of precision in the weaving, the artisans do not try to create the sharply defined edges visible in the original grid pattern. Instead, slightly feathered horizontal and vertical lines characterize double ikat designs.
The Salvi workshop also produces some fine smaller pieces for aficionados who appreciate their traditional methods and materials.