Ikat is ubiquitous. This heritage textile has taken the world by storm and finds itself charming global patrons and nudging locals to become patrons.It’s everywhere you look these days – bags, shoes, accessories and all things bohemian. The term ‘ikat’ comes from the Malay word ‘mengikat’, meaning to tie or to bind. This refers to the tie-dyeing method used to give this textile a unique vibrancy of colour and design.
The Mystery of Ikat
The earliest existing examples are fragments found in the Middle East that date from the 10th century. That being said, ikat-esque fabrics emerge in 7th century Indian cave paintings. The method of weaving has its roots across Asia and Africa. These designs have been made all across the globe from Japan, Bali, Thailand, Cambodia and India to Mexico, Peru, Argentina, Colombia and Guatemala. The unearthing of frescoes in the Ajanta Caves proves that ikat had presence in India by the 7th century and had also gained fame via trade routes with China and Indonesia. Anuradha Ramam from the eponymous Anuradha Ramam says, “Ikat has definitely been revived in the recent past. We do see more people wearing ikat garments and sarees to work and events with the awareness and accessibility of ikat as a wearable fabric of life.” Throughout the centuries, Indian craftsmen refined the craft of ikat dyeing and weaving, enhancing it and facilitating its diffusion in the modern era.
The Famed Ikat
Ikat was once prominent in Tamil Nadu, but today, it is prevalent in the states of Andhra Pradesh, Telangana, Odisha and Gujarat. Andhra Pradesh and Telangana, are celebrated as the place of birth of Indian ikat. The most distinct ikat of Andhra Pradesh is the Telia Rumal, which is characterised by the obscure process of oil treating the yarn. The Nalgonda district, which is now part of Telangana state, has been the perpetual hub for ikat production. Weaving continues to occur in the Pochampally, Puttapaka and Choutuppal areas of the district where the skilled weavers continue to reside.
Ikat can be categorised into three sub-techniques – warp, weft and double. Warp refers to the yarn that is held within a frame or a loom with exerted tension. Even prior to the use of plain coloured weft that is introduced to the warp to produce fabric, patterns in the warp threads are visible. This technique is widely practised in Koyyalagudem village and Chirala town, Andhra Pradesh and the Nalgonda district of Telangana. As sarees are a sought-after garment by Indian locals and modern-day fashionistas, warp ikat sarees produced in these regions continue to be in high demand. Weft refers to the yarn that produces visible dyed patterns as it is woven into the warps in order to produce fabric. The process of weft ikat is more time consuming compared to warp ikat. This is due to the artisans’ intricate attention to detail in the adjustment of the weft, necessary throughout the weaving process in order to maintain the consistency and clarity of patterns. This technique is only produced in India, Japan and Indonesia and incorporates both warp and weft techniques. The warp and weft are both resist-dyed before being worked on the loom where precision and patience is the key to sustaining the patterns. Weaving in double ikat is so intricate that it can take from seven to nine months to weave the length of a single saree. Within India, the double ikat technique is most renowned in Nalgonda and Patan, Gujarat, where it is known as Patan Patola.
Motifs and Patterns
The patterns can range from basic circles to elaborate paisley designs. Depending on how the warp and weft threads are aligned together, the pattern can be either sharp or have a blurred effect. As ikat is historically rooted in many different cultures across the globe, the weaving techniques though similar, tend to vary. Patterns in ikat are produced from resist dyeing yarn before it is woven into fabric. Traditionally, patterns were often derived from ethnic or religious symbolism or were developed for export trade. Over the millennia of its existence, ikat has come to represent status, wealth and prestige. Vinita Passary from Translate – Handwoven Ikat, says, “The versatility of the textile has attracted many across the world. The quality of the fabric can be changed to suit garments or furnishings whereas other Indian textiles have limitations on this. The design can also vary according to end use, smaller prints for garments and bold bright hues for furnishings. Ikat patterns stand out compared to other subtle coloured hand loom textiles. The uniqueness lies in the beauty of ikat which comes out in any type of design, be it small motifs, big patterns, monochromes, multi colour, light weight, heavy weight, modern contemporary motif to traditional Telia Rumal designs. The final fabric travels in so many hands before completion.”
The ikat weavers of Andhra Pradesh have always been receptive to ikat’s international market. Thus, ikat from the state features traditional as well as innovative motifs, ranging from floral and zoomorphic patterns to geometric shapes, occasionally even including abstract designs of objects such as airplanes. Colours reflect local heritage and are bright and contrasting.
In recent years, modernisation and diffusion of ikat in contemporary fashion has seen a change in designs and colour combinations. Anuradha elaborates, “Earlier, only a few traditionally accepted colours were being used like bottle green, maroon, mustard and white and black. But now new colours like lime green, orange, red and turquoise have been introduced. Aspects such as the modern-day use of eco-friendly synthetic dyes also play a role in the creation of contemporary motifs and colours. Vinita adds, “We at Translate are always experimenting with creating new motifs taking inspiration from the traditional designs. We fuse traditional motifs with contemporary cuts for garments.” Though the use of natural dye in ikat has decreased over time, it has recently regained popularity as an element of fine quality and the true art of ikat. Traditionally, ikat weaving was used to primarily produce shoulder cloths, turbans, sarees and lungis, a type of sarong worn by men around the waist. Today, the technique of ikat dyeing and weaving has been integrated into contemporary items such as bags, bed sheets and even files.Ishaan Bharat of Nappa Dori states, “We’ve come to realise that ikat worked best with our harness leather products. The range of goods we’ve used ikat extend from our new Explorer backpacks to the Ikat Satchels and also accessories like clutches and laptop sleeves. Recently, we’ve even come out with a new line of bespoke Trunks and Valet Boxes with different kinds of ikat lining on the inside. Why we’re so inclined towards ikat is because we believe it’s the most vibrant and sophisticated way of adding a hue of Indian heritage to what we make.”
Iconic fashion brands such as Oscar de la Renta, Madeline Weinrib and Manolo Blahnik have been known to incorporate ikat prints in their high-end designs. Of ikat, Madeline Weinrib said that, “It’s not a print, it’s an heirloom.”
Written by Shruti Tomar