If Indian handloom weaves were famous artworks, we would tell you that our ikat prints are like Monet’s paintings - beautiful from afar, blurred up close, and iconic for those very qualities.
Ikat (also known as ikhat or ikkat) refers to a resist dyeing and weaving technique used to create distinct, often intricate patterns. But ikat is very different from ajrakh print or dabu print, some of the other well-loved techniques we’ve spoken about before in Craft Diaries. In most resist techniques, cloth is first woven, often by powerloom, and then tied and dyed by hand. But in ikat, it is the yarn that’s carefully dyed and then woven to create unique designs.
Ikat weaving is a great idea that people across the world had at the same time, on their own. The origin of Ikat is hard to pin down, because the craft seems to have originated independently across Southeast Asia, Central Asia, and the Indian subcontinent. Evidence of early ikat production is also found in pre-Columbian South America, in particular Peru, where ikat existed from before the common era. Its presence is also found in the works of early west African weavers, in particular in Ghana, the Ivory Coast, and Nigeria. Talk about being a global citizen!
What is Ikat Fabric?
The word "ikat" comes from the Malay-Indonesian word for "tie” - and that’s a hint about how it’s made. Skilled and patient craftspersons tightly tie together individual yarns or bundles of yarns into the desired pattern, and then dye them. These coloured yarns may be re-tied and dyed to create elaborate, colourful patterns.
It’s during the weaving of the yarn that the pattern of an ikat fabric takes form. Creating orderly patterns from chaotic coloured threads is no easy task! Ikat weavers have to carefully line up their yarn thread by thread to make sure that the pattern is accurate. But because this is pretty damn hard, ikat fabric is characterized by fuzzy edges that form due to shifting threads. And just like with Monet’s paintings, the “blurriness” that is so characteristic of ikat is prized by textile collectors.
Since the dye is applied to the yarn rather than the woven cloth, ikat printed fabric is patterned on both faces. That’s how you can determine the authenticity of your ikat and save yourself from being shortchanged by faux screen-printed fabrics sold as ikat.
Common ikat motifs and prints
Like most traditional crafts, ikat is inherently sustainable, and that’s one more reason we love it. Typically, ikat craftspersons use natural dyes derived from pomegranate skins, madder root, walnut shells and indigo. In recent times, there has been a shift to chemical dyes.
Depending on where in the world your ikat fabric is from, its typical motifs and designs will be different. But the most common ikat patterns we see are intricate diamonds, curved scrolls and paisley designs. They’re usually in monochrome, but master (ultra patient) craftspeople are able to create patterns with up to eight colours!
The complexity of the ikat weave depends on the number of colours and yarn that’s dyed. The simplest form of ikat is warp ikat, in which the vertical warp yarns are ikat dyed and the weft (that’s the horizontal yarn) is dyed in solid colours. In warp ikat, the pattern becomes quickly apparent once the threads are wound on the loom. Its counterpart is the weft ikat, in which the horizontal weft yarn is ikat dyed. In weft ikat, the pattern can only be seen as weaving progresses.
And then there’s double ikat, in which, surprise surprise - both warp and weft yarns are resist dyed and woven together- making it exponentially more complex and time-consuming to make. Due to its intricacy, double ikat is associated with celebration and prestige (See the slideshow below for the difference between single and double ikat).
Ikat Around the World
Like the fabric, the story of ikat is long, colourful, and intricate. Although ikat textiles are woven all over the world, the most varied and highest quality ikat fabric is produced in Asia.
Central Asia was known for its silk ikats that were traded along the Silk Route and are still alive in the traditions of communities like Uyghurs and especially the Uzbeks. Today, this silk ikat, known as “atlas silk” named after the atlas pattern common in Uyghur culture is one of the cultural ties that people in this community hold on to in the face of Chinese persecution.
In contemporary times, Southeast Asia and India are most famous for their ikat fabrics. Southeast Asia is known for its strong warp ikat tradition, with especially sought-after patterns on cotton textile produced by the Iban community in Sarawak, Malaysia, the Toba Batak people of North Sumatra in Indonesia, and throughout Eastern Indonesian islands. However, the renowned double ikat is only found in the village of Tenangan in Bali.
Indian ikat is known by different names in different Indian states, but is widely present in Andhra Pradesh, Telangana, Odisha, and Gujarat.
Gujarat creates the most famous and possibly the most complex of all ikat textiles - patola (not to be confused with every Punjabi rap song ever). These are saree-length double ikat silk fabrics exclusively made by a small group of weavers in Patan. Making a patolu (that’s singular for patola) print requires meticulous precision in setting up the dyed warp and weft to create sharply defined patterns instead of the softly blurred patterns characteristic of most ikat prints.
Andhra Pradesh, Telangana and Odisha also have a rich tradition of ikat fabric in both silk and cotton. Telangana, for instance, is known for its popular pochampally sarees, featuring geometric designs in silk double ikat. And Odisha’s Sambalpuri single ikat sarees typically feature motifs related to Lord Jagannath, and also adorn the idols in the Jagannath temple.
Interestingly, while ikat production in India, Central, and East Asia is mainly carried out by men, the tying and weaving of ikat in Southeast Asia is predominantly a female activity.
Who is making your ikat at Tamarind Chutney?
Akula ji is our senior artisan partner from Maniabandha, Orissa and our go-to person for all things ikat. With 30 years of experience in his skilled hands, he creates the beautiful ikat fabric that goes into our clothes. When he’s not busy celebrating festivals and eating sweets with his friends and family, you can find Akula ji running his own unit of ikat production in Orissa or displaying his team's work at various exhibitions.
Post written by: Sanya Sharma