Ikat means "to tie" or "to bind" in the Indonesian language and has come to describe both the process and the cloth itself. The technique is used in cultures all over the world, in Central and South America, Uzbekistan, India, Japan and several South-East Asian countries. Double ikats are found in India, Guatemala, Japan and the Indonesian islands of Bali and Kalimantan (Borneo).
Ikats vary widely from country to country and region to region. Designs may have ritual meaning or may have been developed for trade. Ikats are symbols of status, wealth, power and prestige because of the difficulty and time required to make ikats. Some cultures believe the cloth is imbued with magical powers. Ikats created by dyeing the warp yarns are the easiest to make. Before the warp strings are attached to the loom they are strung between poles and arranged into bundles. Each bundle is tied and dyed separately, so that a pattern will emerge when the loom is set up. This takes a good deal of skill. The tightly bound bundles are sometimes covered with wax or some other material that will keep the dyes from penetrating like strips cut from plastic bags or plastic tapes. The process is repeated several times for additional colors.
Some patterns have many strands in the cloth that are all dyed the same way, which creates a blocky design. In some weaving traditions each strand of the cloth may be dyed differently from the ones next to it. Usually the pattern repeats in symmetrical or asymmetrical ways. To make elaborate patterns the weaver will still bundle and dye several threads together, but when the loom is prepared, a single thread will be used from each bundle for each section of the pattern. Elaborate ikat patterns like this are often handed down from generation to generation in the same family.
After the threads are dyed the loom is set up. The pattern is visible to the weaver when the dyed threads are used as warp and threads can be adjusted so that they line up correctly with each other as the warp is tied on to the loom. Some ikat styles (like in Japan and Guatemala) don't try to get the patterns precisely lined up, while in others (like in Timor in Indonesia) the patterns are so accurate, you have to look closely to determine that the pattern was not printed on the cloth.
Dying the weft yarns makes it much more difficult to make ikats with precise patterns. The weft is one continuous strand that is woven back and forth, so any errors in how the string is tied and dyed are very obvious. Because of this, weft ikats are usually used when the precision of the pattern is not the main concern. Some patterns become transformed by the weaving process into irregular and erratic designs. However, the precise images of Japanese ikats are often made from weft ikat when they are not double ikats.
Double ikats are the most difficult to produce. In the finest examples from India and Indonesia, the warp and the weft are precisely tied and dyed so that the patterns interlock and reinforce each other when the fabric is woven.
The most precise ikat is the Japanese Oshima - thrice-woven cloth. The warp and weft threads are used as warp yarns to weave stiff fabric, upon which the thread for the ikat weaving is spot-dyed. Then the mats are unraveled and the dyed thread is woven into Oshima cloth.
Today there are many takes on ikat, such as Featured Artist Jane Evans, who paints directly on the warped loom to achieve wonderful Impressionist feeling landscapes.
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