Understanding Ikat


Bright ikat dyed fabric

Stack of rayon ikat fabrics from Guatemala, 2015.

The original definition of IKAT is fabric made from threads that were resist-dyed into patterns before being woven. Village hand weavers create these “true” ikat fabrics on simple looms after many labor-intensive steps, as we’ll see below. In some places, weavers work on more mechanized looms, but the basic process of tying and dyeing the threads remains the same. Note the vertical pattern bands on the glowing fabrics at left. Artisans tied and dyed the patterns into the threads, then they wove the fabrics by hand. The ikat technique typically results in soft-edged designs as opposed to crisp patterns.

Nowadays factories also produce industrially-printed fabrics that mimic the feathery appearance of ikat. Over the past twenty or so years, factory-printed or industrially-woven ikat has shown up in America on clothing as well as on home furnishings such as upholstery, drapes, duvet covers and decorative pillows.

Much of the continuing popularity for ikat is due to fashion designer Oscar de la Renta’s exposure of the aesthetic style. He was the first to show handwoven ikat fabric in a collection as long ago as 1997. He commissioned these brilliant fabrics from Uzbek master weavers working in the Margilan area of the Ferghana Valley, Uzbekistan.

Nowadays, if you Google ‘ikat’ images, you might be amazed at the thousands of choices of commercially-produced ikat-patterned objects available for your wardrobe or your living room or bedroom. Some of them such as the armchair below exhibit quite appealing (but not traditional) colorways.

Oscar de la Renta coat of ikat woven by Uzbek artisans. 2005

Chair with orange and brown ikat designs

Armchair with factory woven ikat-patterned upholstery. 2018 

On my travels in various parts of the world, I have visited weavers who create superb ikat textiles in villages in Thailand, Laos, Cambodia, India, Guatemala, Ecuador, Indonesia, Bolivia and Peru. (Chile also has minimal examples of ikat that I have not witnessed.) That list leaves out the fabulous ikat textiles of Japan, the Philippines, and Uzbekistan, places I have yet to visit. Thus I have only digital images and textile dealer examples of those fabrics.

All over the world, the time-intensive and intriguing ikat process is basically the same. The many steps to make an ikat textile are absolutely fascinating! I want to go into detail here about how the technique works and what the variations look like worldwide.

The fact that this adaptation clearly comprises cultural appropriation (reproducing an indigenous idea or design motif for large-scale, mass-market sale and profit) is thought-provoking… but not what we are concerned with here. Since ikat designs have become so popular in readily available manufactured versions, let’s go back and see the real handmade stuff and how it is made.



Ikat cloth with orange elephant

 Ikat from Odisha state, India.

Ikat differs from batik or tie-dye cloth decoration techniques that start with existing fabric; it begins with just threads that must be bound and dyed, and then woven into cloth. The name ikat comes from the Malaysian/Indonesian word mengikat meaning to bind or tie. (ENDE? INDO??) But in different countries and languages, it has different names. In Guatemala, it is jaspe or jaspeado; in Peru it is watado, from the Quechua word watay, meaning to tie. In Thailand, Laos and Cambodia, it is variably transliterated as mud-mee, mat-mi or mut-mi. In India it is called bandha kala or tie art. Here I’ll refer to this cloth by the most common name used in the US which is ikat. It is also sometimes referred to as space-dyed or resist-dyed. And I’ll mostly refer to the ikat makers as ‘she,’ for simplicity’s sake. However in a few places such as Guatemala, Uzbekistan and parts of India, men are instrumental in creating ikat.


Ikat fabric is either ‘single ikat’ or ‘double ikat,’ depending on the technique. Single ikat involves resist-dyeing the threads to be woven in one direction only. Either the warp (long threads stretched straight out in front of the weaver) or the weft (horizontal threads that the weaver manipulates sideways through the warp) is patterned for single ikat. Double ikat is twice as much work because both the warp and the weft are bound off and dyed to make patterns and motifs from intersecting areas. Whether the ikat is warp ikat, weft ikat or double ikat depends mostly on tradition in many areas.

but creative refinements happen when visionary weavers decide to innovate.?


White cotton threads partially bound with blue plastic twine. Thailand.

Many different people can work as a team to produce ikat, or one person can do all the processes herself, such as the Thai artisan in the example here. To begin the process, she winds the threads tautly, in bundles, on a frame, left. She then draws the pattern guidelines on the threads with a marking pen or pencil. Next she binds the threads tightly in specific places to protect the white sections for the dye bath. The threads are then dyed the first (or only) color, and dried. For the example here, the dyer used only one hue, natural blue indigo.

Finally the threads are put onto a reeling device so the sequential bobbins can be wound.–back on the frame?. At this point the artisan  may bind off more sections to protect the first dyed color, then dip it again.  The first dyed section will blend with the secon overdyed Or sometimes she will apply dye to certain sections of the unbound threads

and all the bindings are carefully cut off. The dyed threads must be meticulously wound onto bobbins or winders in the precise order of the pattern. Only then can the weaving begin.


Common plastic twine often used to bind ikat threads.

Repeated RE_DO THIS!!

Dyer dips threads in blue indigo.

Artisan dyes bound weft threads with natural indigo. Thailand, 2017

Second: Winding the threads onto a frame.
Ikat starts with an artisan (not necessarily the weaver) winding the cotton or silk threads for the warp or the weft  onto a wooden frame. photo  In the case of double ikat, the winding, binding, dyeing processes are all done twice (on both warp and weft), with the coordinating part of the pattern on another frame.

Three: Then that person or the weaver carefully traces guidelines of the design-to-be onto the threads with a marking pen or other marking device.

indigo and white ikat threads.

Dyed threads with ties unwrapped to show white areas that were protected from the dye. Thailand.

Binding off the threads: This is done with various materials available in different areas. Generally nowadays strips of some sort of plastic are used because they are water-resistant. In Sallac, Peru, narrow strips of corn husk are wound around the wool yarn then plastic strands unwoven from big white grain sacks are tightly wound over the corn husks. In Thailand and many other places, plastic twine or shards of plastic bags are used. Artisans using colored plastic twine often use the different colors of twine available often differentiate what color a section is to be dyed. In Indonesia, natural raffia or palm fiber is used by the most traditional weavers.


Four: Dyeing the bound threads:

If more than one color is desired, the artisan puts the threads back on the frame to insure taut strands to bind. He or she then binds off more areas to protect the red color previously dyed.  The bindings can also be cut off some of the protected areas to reveal white threads.


Now the dyer dips the threads into blue dye, for instance. The red sections will be overdyed a purple-ish hue and the white areas will be blue, and so forth. Dyers in some areas (NE Thailand for example) sometimes paint more colors onto the threads in specific areas to avoid dipping the whole bundle.


binding the threads in specific places

maybe put elsewhere with a photo as a caption:
Symmetrical patterns are easier to create than motifs that depict a bird with its head turned to one side, for example.

These spools were strung in careful order ready for weaving. If this order was disarranged, the pattern was lost.

When the dyer finishes and the threads are dry, the weaver ***Puts threads back on the frame or onto a reeling device (show photo) and carefully unties the bindings. Then the threads must be wound onto spools or bobbins, and kept in the exact order to maintain the design. This is usually done by threading the bobbins in precise order, on a piece of cord, like beads on a necklace.  photo

Indigo blue weft ikat weaving with bobbins on loom.

Weft ikat on the loom, showing bobbin of ikat used alternatively with plain thread; NE Thailand.

Once the bobbins are out of order, the design is lost. Guatemala is the only place I have seen where weavers occasionally utilize threads with scattered bits of color that don’t align into any particular shape or design. This ‘carefree’ style may have begun when someone dropped the bobbins for a project but decided to go ahead and try weaving with the scrambled bobbins!

Calcha Bolivia:

Very fine older ponchos bolivianos, like the one shown in Fig. 41, had multiple bands of ikat and at most a single band of pallay at the outer edge. The older ponchos usually had both ikat and pallay while the more recent have only pallay. The ponchos may also have two outer bands of ikat on each half with a band of pallay near their inner edge and a wider band of pallay placed in the center of each half of the poncho.

Femenias, Blenda; Medlin, Mary Ann; Meisch, Lynne A.; Zorn, Elayne / Andean aesthetics : textiles of Peru and Bolivia

EDIT AND MOVE UP? In 2005, one of the most famous US designers, Oscar de la Renta, was the first to present Central Asian ikats in his collection. Fabrics for this collection were produced by a hereditary craftsman from Marghilan (Uzbekistan) named Rasul Mirzaakhmedov. Later, in 2007, a series of experiments with Uzbek ikats was successfully made by Nicolas Ghesquiere (House of Balenciaga). Frida Giannini, creative director of Gucci and Dries Van Noten, was inspired by the traditional textiles of Uzbek culture. Since that time, ikat has become one of the hits in international fashion.


developments, refinements, variations, modifications



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