Pattern Recognition: Ikat

Examples of different ikat patterns

Funny thing—I had actually intended to cover Ikat as my next blog post in the Pattern Recognition series quite some time ago. However, upon learning that the Seattle Art Museum was having an exhibition on this fascinating textile, I decided to hold off on publishing this post until I had the opportunity to visit the exhibition myself. 

If you’re in Seattle and have a chance to stop by the art museum to see this exhibit, I highly recommend it! Curated by SAM’s Oliver E. and Pamela F. Cobb Curator of African Art, Pam McClusky, the exhibition features ikat-woven textiles from all over the world. It’s an excellent opportunity to appreciate how this art form travelled across continents and was adopted and adapted by numerous cultures. The exhibition runs until May 29.

Uzbek ikat examples from the Seattle Art Museum exhibition “Ikat: A World of Compelling Cloth.”

What is Ikat? 

Ikat (pronounced Ee•Kaht) is a textile and pattern that is produced by weaving resist-dyed yarns into a fabric. Individual yarns are bundled up and then small sections are bound along the lengths of the yarns before being dyed. These bindings create a negative “resist”, or areas where the dye does not penetrate and color the yarns. True ikat patterns are designed using this resist-dying technique at the yarn stage, rather than being dyed on finished woven fabric (as is the case with batik and tie-dyed fabrics) or printed. This produces the tell-tale variegated “blurry” look of traditional ikats, since lining up the pattern of the individual threads during weaving can be difficult. It also means that true Ikat fabrics have a double-faced pattern. 

This video from the International Trade Centre (a joint agency of the United Nations and the World Trade Organization) shows the process of making true ikat fabrics in Uzbekistan.

The yarns themselves are typically composed of natural fibers like cotton, linen, or silk. Traditionally, artisans have used natural dyes. The resist-dyed yarns can be woven in a number of ways, with warp weaving being the most common. A double Ikat fabric is one in which both warp and weft yarns are dyed and woven together, which is an extremely challenging technique due to the difficulty in lining up the pattern along two axes. 

A Balinese double ikat shoulder wrap produced in the 19th century.
This 19th century shoulder wrap from Bali was created using a double ikat weave. Notice the intricate, complex pattern.

The actual origins of ikat are rather murky, but the tradition is prevalent in India, Central and Southeast Asia, and radiated outwards from Asia through the Silk Road. In fact, the word “ikat” itself is of Indonesian origin. It is derived from the Indonesian word ikatan, meaning tie or bond, and related to the Malay word mengikat, meaning binding. Both the word and fabric were introduced to the West by way of the Dutch East Indies. 

Late 20th century ikat fabric from Guatemala.
This colorful ikat textile was woven in Guatemala in the late 20th century. It exemplifies how far the technique has travelled around the world.

Ikat for Interior Designs

Ikat is considered an ethnic or “global” pattern and is most often used in interior designs with a bohemian or Asian aesthetic. However, when used strategically, it fits in especially well in eclectic interiors. Occasionally, ikat can be used in traditional interiors, particularly if the pattern is derived from a European antecedent.

A printed ikat cushion from France (Fragonard) featuring a female fallow deer.
Ikat works well in “global” interiors, but also in eclectic interiors. This cushion features a small splash of vibrant ikat color against a softer eclectic background.
Estee Lauder had this room covered in Toile De Nantes ikat from Pierre Frey.
The main bedroom of Estée Lauder’s East Hampton home was covered in Pierre Frey’s “Toile de Nantes” pattern in the Ancien Bleu color. The pattern was derived from late 18th century French ikats. You can see here it was used on the walls, upholstered chairs, and bedding of this traditionally decorated bedroom. Can you see the pattern’s resemblance to the antique textile below? Photo from Elle Decor.
Silk French ikat Textile as displayed at the Seattle Art Museum.
This antique 18th century textile exemplifies the French interpretation of ikat, which they called chiné à la branche.

Ikat fabric is still produced around the world, but the laborious process makes true ikat expensive. Additionally, much of the true ikat yardage that is woven is not especially wide due to the smaller loom sizes used by artisans (most upholstery fabrics are produced in 54-inch widths), making it even more expensive to use for covering things like sofas, club chairs, walls, or bedding. 

This antique fragment of fabric was produced in Italy. The luxurious velvet pile is actually stamped with a damask pattern which you might be able to just make out from this video. Italian ikats were called a flamma, because the Italians thought the pattern resembled flames. This fabric would have been used as a wallcovering.

Instead, ikat fabrics produced for home decor are commonly printed or, less often, embroidered. This allows decorators and consumers to achieve the look of ikat at a less expensive price and at more practical yardage widths. 

Ikat printed curtain panels.
These large panels are machine-loomed and chemically printed with an ikat design, as opposed to being a true ikat weave. The wide width and printing makes such industrially-produced fabrics suitable for wide home decor use at a cheaper price.
Schumacher for Williams Sonoma ikat table runner.
This table runner from a collaboration by fabric house Schumacher and WIlliams-Sonoma features ikat patterns in refreshing cool colors.
A simple table-setting in a Southeast Asian theme featuring an ikat table runner.
Here, the Schumacher x Williams-Sonoma ikat table runner was used for a Southeast-Asia-inspired table setting. Ikat patterns often appear on table linens, particularly for spring and summer home decor collections.
An example of an interior design fabric featuring a silk embroidered ikat pattern.
This decorator fabric features an ikat pattern embroidered with silk threads. Notice how the embroider pattern is visible on the back on the turned corner, but it is not a true reverse face.

In addition, ikat patterns can pop up in other decorative items like ceramics and artwork. 

A ceramic ginger jar with lid featuring a stamped ikat pattern.
Here, we see a ceramic ginger jar stamped and glazed with an ikat pattern.
A porcelain trinket tray featuring gilding and a hand-painted ikat motif.
This porcelain tray features gilding and a hand-painted ikat pattern in greens and red.

Ikat for Everyone!

Ikat textiles have been created by many cultures around the world for centuries, with their highest production concentrations in Asia. As a result of trade through the Silk Road and the Dutch colonization of Indonesia, ikat became increasingly available to other countries where it became highly valued for its intricate patterns and vibrant colors. 

Ikat’s rich cultural history continues into the present day, and it remains a popular textile for use in home decor. 

A screen-printed ikat fabric.
What say you? Is this an example of true ikat, or just an affordable imitation?


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