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Ikat textiles


One of the many forms of human expression is that of textiles. They represent a peoples aesthetics, technology and social order. And they are also an individual's expression within that group. Ikat is an age-old method of decorating or patterning a textile. Since the effort and time it takes to produce a textile is considerable, the ikat is often imbued with a kind of magical quality. Such a textile is an item of great value.


The word ikat is from the Indonesian or Malay mengikat which means "to tie, to bind". The term ikat is used for both the technique and the textile and uses a tie-dye process to apply a pattern on the warp or the weft threads before weaving. It is the weaving that makes the pattern then emerge. In rare forms of ikat both the warp and the weft are patterned and are then woven so that both patterns interlock. This is called double ikat.

The term ikat also describes the technique that developed independently in other parts of the world. It is known from pre-Columbian Central and South American cultures, from 19th Century Turkistan, to India, Japan, South East Asia and the Phillipines. "Ancient trading routes linked India and South-East Asia and also linked Central Asia with India. Because woven fabric rarely survives for more than a few centuries it is extremely difficult, if not impossible, to determine where the technique of Ikat originated." (wikipedia)


Ikats vary widely and are often symbols of social status, power and prestige. There may be ritual meaning in the way they are used, such as the occasions they are displayed, or given as offerings or gifts. Gujarat, India produced the extraordinarily fine double ikat cloth that was traded to the islands of Indonesia for use by royalty. During the Dutch East Indies period, these fabled cloths would be brought in and given to rulers in the islands as goodwill for trade privileges. The pattern of these Patola cloths has probably influenced textile designs in Sumatra, Bali and islands such as Sumba.

Textiles first developed in Indonesian pre-history from the techniques of weaving baskets from grass, palm leaves and bamboo. At about the 7th Century BCE, a bronze age culture called Dongson spread from what is now Viet Nam throughout the Indonesian archipelago. They brought bronze kettledrums and ceremonial weapons ornamented with unique geometric decoration: spirals, meanders, straight lines, triangles, circles, etc. These had an influence on decoration throughout the Indonesian archipelago, but an especially strong influence on textiles.

Nature was supernatural to neolithic man, particularly the sun, stars, certain flowers and animals. The ancestors, too, were attributed special powers. These subjects, abstracted, simplified and geometrically rendered, then became the ornamentation of special textiles. Crocodiles, lizards, birds, and the tree of life describe a cosmology. The ornamentation may have been decoration or may have been symbolic, the meaning sometimes lost with the passage of time. The meaning could also change as different influences dominated an area: animist, Hindu-Buddhist (4th Century), Islam (15t Century), and European colonization.


In ikat all tying and subsequent dyeing takes place before the weaving. In Indonesian ikat there are three types: warp ikat, weft ikat and double ikat. Being one of the oldest known fibers, cotton was an early choice for ikat. The fluff was cleaned of seeds and spun into thread. This was divided into vertical thread (the warp) and the horizontal thread (the weft). Based on the ikat type, the thread is arranged on two parallel bars. Per the design or motif the bundles of thread are tightly tied with some fiber at those spots where the dye is not wanted. The bundles are then repeatedly dyed and dried. These bundles may be re-tied and dyed for additional colors.

In warp ikat the dyed vertical strands are arranged on the warp and cloth beams of the loom. At this point the weaver can see the pattern and make final adjustments with the threads to line up the ikat precisely. This takes some expertise. There are usually repeating patterns in ikat design but also non-repeating figurative designs, which are more difficult. These complex ikat patterns are handed down from generation to generation in the same family or clan. (wikipedia)

Weft ikat is generally more demanding. The patterned weft thread is wound around a bobbin and then inserted crosswise over and under the warp threads on the loom. The warp is undecorated. Precisely arranging the weft threads to line up with each other is very tedious. The places that have weft ikat seem to be the Indonesian islands that had a significant Hindu-Buddhist influence and use brighter, livelier colors. Sumatra, Java and Bali would be among these. Warp ikat techniques were practiced in the islands east of Bali, places having no significant interaction with Indian Hindu-Buddhist influence such as Savu, Sumba, Timor, Flores, Alor, etc. Traditionally, the cotton would be heavier and hand-spun, using indigenous vegetable dyes obtained from roots, bark and leaves. The Indian Patola motif would influence the weaving design, however.

In valuing a particular piece of warp ikat which uses the more muted colors of vegetable dyes, the richness and saturation of those very colors is of key importance. The rarity and desirability of a color is also a consideration. In Sumba, for example, the amount of, and the saturation of the kombu red in an ikat textile, gave it great value and prestige. Such a piece might require many months of repeated dyeing, perhaps even a couple of years. By its nature this ikat would belong to royalty.

Distribution of Ikat

Indonesia consists of over 13000 islands and many cultural groups. These have all been exposed in varying amounts to the larger influences of the Dongson culture, India, China, Islam and European traders. They have all mixed somehow with the pre-existing animism and created cultural expressions through their textiles. Ikat is distributed through Sumatra, Kalimantan (Borneo), Java, Celebes (Sulawesi), Bali, Lombok, Savu, Rote, Sumba, Flores, Timor, Alor, Tanimbar, Maluku and more. Many islands, sometimes even the smallest, have more than one distinct cultural group. This would seem to lead to a profusion and perhaps a confusion of ikat styles. Curiously, with just a modest exposure to many of these textiles and some good reference material, a person can recognize some major styles very quickly.

The ikats in the collection will be described individually as information exists. Some pieces will have much information, and on some unusual or very old pieces such little information as could be obtained. They are all treasured pieces of a quickly disappearing textile art form.