How is Ikat Made?

As noted, ikat is a type of textile characterized by its unique dye-resist process. A water resistant material is tied around small bundles of threads in an intricate pattern to prevent dye from adhering to the threads.  Once the threads are dyed, the resists are removed to reveal a design, and the threads are woven on a loom to produce an ikat textile. Although this process can be broken down into the three overarching categories of tying, dyeing, and weaving, the ikat production process in island Southeast Asia is extremely complicated and vastly diverse. This ancient process is still in use today, vibrantly so, and is embedded in the cultures and everyday lives of many Indonesians and Malaysians from Sarawak state. The cultural importance of ikat in these regions of Asia combined with the complexity of ikat’s creation processes calls out for in-depth study of how this textile type is made.

Threads

handspun cotton, Threads of Life Dye Studio, Ubud, 2012
Hanks of handspun cotton, some dyed, some not.
Threads of Life Dye Studio, Ubud, 2012.

The ikat production process begins at the most basic level with the threads used to weave the textile. In Indonesia (a nation which has hundreds of distinct ethnolinguistic societies on hundreds of islands), handspun cotton and imported machine spun cotton are both used as threads. Although many times weavers will use machine spun cotton today, hand spun cotton is preferred in many Indonesian communities.  Handspun cotton is often considered more valuable and more linked to heritage. One specific advantage to handspun cotton is that the difference in thickness of the handspun threads allows for dyes to adhere easily to the cotton, which provides richer colors. Deep resonant coloration is very hard to attain with natural dyes and often demands ten or more dyebaths.  Such time-intensive and difficult-to-achieve dye practices are highly regarded by cognoscenti (both local and international).  But, the techniques are passing from use, in many areas.

Endek factories

 

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Endek factories today employ factory-made thread.
This woman is spinning thread.

Weavers generally decide which type of cotton to use based on availability and time. The plain yarns are initially placed on a frame. In warp ikat, the threads are wound around the frame from top to bottom. Weft ikat, although less common, is produced by wrapping the yarn around the frame horizontally from side to side. Often these threads will be referred to as “the warp” or “the weft.” These threads are tied, removed from the frame, dyed, and finally placed on the loom for weaving. A skilled weaver will place the warp threads very close together on the loom to hide the weft and to create a sharp, well defined pattern.
           
Tying Process

The tying of dye resists around the threads is debatably the most crucial step in the ikat production process. It is this method of tying that dictates design and ultimately defines an ikat textile.

This painstakingly slow process requires great patience and precision and is traditionally done by older women who are highly skilled (this gender and age situation is changing today). After the threads are placed on the frame, waterproof resists are carefully tied around the threads to create specific designs and patterns. Most Indonesian and Sarawak ikat textiles are single ikat, which means the ties are placed on the warp (vertical) or the weft (horizontal) threads.

Before the yarns are tied, they are separated into small bundles. These bundles allow for multiple threads to be tied at once, which saves the weaver from the time consuming process of tying each thread individually. The resists are then tied around the bundles to create a pattern. The applied resists are always waterproof, and once they were natural materials such as the fibers of a plant (most commonly, palm fibers). Today, however, plastic ties (from plastic twine) are commonly used. In our fieldwork, we used banana leaf fibers when we attempted to learn how to ikat tie cotton threads at the Threads of Life Dye Studio in Ubud, Bali.

The first step in tying the resists is to wet the resist to prevent tearing or breaking. The fiber (or whichever medium used) is then looped around the small bundle of threads tightly and repeatedly to create a strong resist on the threads. (see picture and video).

Patricia

 

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These ties are impermeable and they prevent dye from adhering to the threads when they are dipped into the dye baths. Many weavers have methods of tying resists in specific ways to indicate which dye colors to use for specific portions of the design. After the threads are dyed for the first time and the ties are removed, two colors result. These two colors are the natural color of the cotton (which is present wherever a tie was located), and the color of the dye used.

Pua cloth with ikat ties
Threads for Pua Cloth with ikat ties inserted onto threads on frame,
Tun Jugah Foundation, Kuching.

Resists are often added again or removed and the threads are then dyed to create additional colors in the eventual textile. This process will continue until the design on the threads and the colors of the ikat are final.  Recall that all of this design work occurs before the threads are on the loom for weaving.

Although the majority of ikats in island Southeast Asia are single ikat, there is a rare form of ikat known as double ikat. In double ikat, resists are tied on both the warp and the weft threads. Geringsing, a type of Balinese textile, is the only double ikat made in Southeast Asia. There are also double ikats produced outside of Southeast Asia. For example, the patola  double ikats(described in What Is Ikat?) is a double ikat made of silk that originates in Gujarat, north India. The patola cloths are thought to be the inspiration of many single ikats in Southeast Asia today; patola came into royal house treasuries throughout the Indonesian archipelago as trade cloths in the circa 1400s-1600s C.E. period of intense South Asia/Southeast Asia economic and religious interaction.

Double ikats (shown at left) are extremely difficult to successfully produce because the patterns tied into the weft need to line up precisely with those in the warp, to yield well-shaped motifs.  In other words, when the weft threads are woven into the warp threads on the loom, say to produce a motif such as a prancing tiger, the resultant design must line up properly to produce a recognizable, well-organized animal figure. The textile is woven in such a way that both the warp and the weft threads are visible.

Due to the importance of aligning the warp and the weft motifs, the tying of double ikats requires great expertise. A well-made geringsing or patola has more clearly defined patterns and richer colors than does the typical single ikat, which can be blurry. Consequently, double ikats are very expensive and even have an air of the miraculous to them. These are magically powerful healing and protective cloths.  In the case of geringsing, there are strong taboos at work precluding their use as fashion wear, in secular markets.
           
Dye Process

synthetic dyeAs briefly mentioned above, the ikatted threads are removed from the frame and dyed in a dyepot (today, a big plastic bucket in many cases) after they are tied. The dye process proves to be extremely important across the vast diversity of Southeast Asian weaving cultures. Historically, the natural dye process in ikat was associated with magic  and secret knowledge. Yet, in Indonesia today, both natural and synthetic dyes are used. Natural dyes were used traditionally and many people worldwide believe that they produce a subtler color than synthetic dyes. Although naturally dyed textiles have increased value, they are also much more time consuming for the craftsperson to produce. Generally, synthetic dyes provide solid color after the yarns are soaked in only one dye bath, whereas natural dyes require the threads to be submerged in as many as twenty dye baths to achieve the desired result. Commercial, aniline dyes are also more predictable as to hue.  In fact, almost anyone can make an aniline dye process work well.  As a result, many weavers today are using synthetic dyes to save time and reduce anxiety in the dye process. The synthetic (shown above) vs. natural dye debate is extremely controversial (not to mention politically fraught) and is further discussed in our section, Natural Dyes? Commercial Dyes? Ikat Controversies.

Design

Iban Pua threads on backstrap after dyeing
Threads tied according to specific design, Iban Pua. Threads on backstrap loom after dyeing.

The design of an ikat is essentially the cloth’s identity. Where the ikat ties are placed and what motifs emerge dictate the value of the textile, lock in its relationship with the spirit world, indicate what the cloth will be used for, and provide insight into its origins. Oftentimes, the region and even the specific weaver of an ikat can be identified through careful analysis of the design and quality of the textile. The designs of Indonesian and Sarawak Iban ikats are embedded with rich social structural and gendered information and are aligned with complex belief systems centered on taboos and secret knowledge. Although the majority of the overt design work stems from the tying process, there are also additional aspects of textile production that add to an ikat cloth’s appearance and meaning.

In Indonesia, weaving in general is associated with gender, femininity, and fertility. A variety of gender taboos are present in ikat home production.  In many village settings women are generally the only people who tie designs into the threads and weave the ikats. In most rural communities, only older women possess the knowledge of how to create certain patterns and designs. These women are the only people in their villages who know how to tie specific patterns successfully; they are highly respected and even feared for their skill and knowledge. Often times, this knowledge is kept secret and treated as sacred lore only to be passed on to certain female kin  (and among those, only to women who prove to be skilled enough).

When young women do weave sacred designs, their work is delimited by taboos. One such taboo exists in Borneo (Indonesian Kalimantan) when young girls weave pua cloths, a famous type of ikat. The Iban people of Sarawak and the Dayak people of Kalimantan believe that young girls should not weave strong spirit figures into their pua cloths on the loom. The girls’ souls are often thought to be too fragile for this activity as yet.  Their spirits are said to be too weak to handle the powers of the spirit figures as those emerge on the growing cloth on the back-strap loom. As a result, older women (say, a grandmother) must aid in the weaving of a girl’s first full-scale spirit figure on her pua on the loom.  The older woman guides the production of the cloth as the girl weaves it so as to guard against too powerful a force emerging from the pua and endangering the girl.

indigo dye bathMany island Southeast Asian weaving communities also have taboos that relate directly to fertility, gender, and age. In many eastern Indonesian weaving communities, for instance, women who are menstruating are not allowed to weave or to be involved in the cloth production process in any way. If a woman weaves during this time, she is thought to chance ruining the end result of the textile by creating low quality weaving or causing the colors to run. Similarly, a woman is not allowed to weave at any point during pregnancy. This could be harmful to both the developing fetus and the growing cloth on the loom.  These two are metaphorically allied with each other in much Indonesian weaving thought.

In our studies in Indonesia, we found that men are now sometimes involved in some steps of ikat cloth production. The strict gender taboos and beliefs aligning weaving with femininity and fertility may not still be practiced in all communities. For example, while learning about the dye process at Threads of Life NGO in Ubud, we watched a young man create the indigo dye bath(as shown in image above left). See the section Ikat, Gender, and Ceremonial Exchange for more information on gender, cloth, and social change.

One example of the previously mentioned norm that older women possess secret knowledge to create the proper design of an ikat is found in the production of the geringsing double ikat in east Bali. The geringsing is tied only in the village of Tenganan Pegeringsingan, Bali, by a few elder women who possess the knowledge of their famous designs. The most famous geringsing design is a Mandala, a kind of ‘world plan’ image of the entire sacred cosmos. These older women are the only ones in the whole world who know how to create this pattern precisely and accurately in double ikat form. The knowledge of this pattern is passed on to other women through family ties, when younger kin become old enough and achieve excellence at weaving and tying textiles.

ikat

These older women are essentially the most powerful players in the geringsing production process. Once the threads are tied and dyed, these women farm out work to weavers in their own village and in the two smaller Tenganan villages. Some piece-work weavers of geringsing geringsing weavereven reside in the tourist town of Candidasa today. The pre-dyed yarns are then woven into various geringsing textiles, and the weavers give all but one of the geringsing they weave back to the older women, their supervisors. The weavers keep this one textile as a commission, and hope to sell the valuable cloth for income.  We came across an example of this hierarchy in our fieldwork in Tenganan Dauh Tukad, one of the smaller Tenganan villages. During an interview with Pak Kadek, a calendar maker and tour guide in the village, we discovered that his wife was a geringsing weaver. (shown on left) Pak Kadek explained that she cannot actually tie or dye the threads herself, but she is given already tied and dyed threads to weave into geringsing. Usually, out of each of the five textiles she produces, she is allowed to keep one to sell for her own profit.  She supplements this cash income by selling such goods as dried vanilla beans.

The farming out of the weaving of geringsing reflects the labor hierarchy that persists in most  village-based weaving cultures of Southeast Asia. The most valued and successful players in the weaving process are the older women who possess the knowledge and ability to dye and tie the esoteric and magically powerful designs. The actual weavers of the textiles, however, are considered less important as they carry out the part of the process which has the least amount of value.

In present day Indonesia, we found there is a persistent loss of knowledge among the weavers of ikat. Due to the secularization of Indonesian traditional cloth in general and to the decreased numbers of young women who are choosing to learn how to weave, the knowledge of how to tie specific designs and create extremely high value textiles has begun to fade, in some instances. One example of this decrease and at times outright loss of secret knowledge was presented to us by staff of Threads of Life in Ubud, Bali.

Threads of Life is a non-governmental organization (an NGO, shop shown at left) that seeks to empower Threads of Lifeimpoverished weavers in places like eastern Indonesian villages by sponsoring the production of natural-dyed ikat textiles. The organization attempts to revitalize endangered weaving traditions by providing advance payments to the weavers and occasionally providing them with thread, loom, and dye materials as well. Threads of Life staffers discussed one instance where they showed pictures of an antique Timor ikat to a weaver in Timor and asked the weaver if she could attempt to revive the specific old patterns. The weaver did not know how to create the pattern as the knowledge of the specific design was lost. However, after many attempts and experiments she was able to produce an ikat of similar quality to that of the pattern cloth. The common theme of the loss of knowledge of how to create certain patterns and designs is clearly evident in this specific example.  We found it notable that American, British, and Balinese staff at this very internationalized NGO were the ones who provided assertive tutelage of this eastern Indonesian weaver in her own “weaving traditions”—heritages which are obviously transnational social constructions today.

In addition to the knowledge necessary to tie a specific design, tying and design work requires great skill, not to mention patience and physical endurance. This also contributes to the theme that generally it is older women who are the most skilled and highly respected weavers. Learning how to successfully produce an ikat from start to finish can take years. Only women in their later years have spent enough time tying, dyeing, and weaving threads to learn the best techniques and become truly successful. Due to the amount of time it takes to learn how to become a great weaver, tie the correct patterns with skill, and understand the full dyeing process, fewer and fewer young women are choosing to weave in present day Indonesia. Other means of earning income beckon, especially if they have a high school degree or a college diploma. In many parts of the colonial Dutch East Indies this flight from the village weaving looms for schools and paid jobs was well under way by the 1920s. The village of Kotogadang in West Sumatra illustrates this: once a great old songket weaving center, this village now does no weaving at all. Kotogadang women work today as teachers, journalists, lawyers, doctors, and civil servants.

In addition to the traditional designs created thanks to possessing specific conventional knowledge, some older women create patterns from their dreams. Dreams are often said to inspire cloths, and an expert weaver may have a dream where a spirit or god comes to them and shows them the precise pattern to weave. In fact, the pua of the Iban peoples are specifically known as “dream” cloths.  Many Iban weavers take much pride in the fact that their own individual dream cloths are unique to them in some respects.

Cepuk textileA few prominent ikat designs used in Indonesia and in Malaysian Sarawak are the following.

The geringsing is often characterized by the Mandala, a four pointed star that separates the textile into semi-circles. In addition, the double ikatting of the textile yields a bold and impressive appearance. The textile is the same on both sides and is made with muted colors of reddish brown, yellow, and deep indigo.

The Cepuk textile (shown above in Threads of Life shop on wall) is another famous ikat type, in this case from a small island off the coast of Bali called Nusa Penida. The field of the textile is a deep reddish brown color. Cepuk is identifiable by the intricate ikat work on the borders of the field which create the “barong teeth” motif. These barong teeth are repetitive white triangles which run the length of the textile on both sides.  This is a magically protective cloth but is also sold to anyone today for cash. ikat, East SumbaThe NGO Threads of Life is currently reinvigorating cepuk weaving in partnership with a few Nusa Penida households.

Ikats from east Sumba (shown at left) are characterized by bigger spirit or animal or human figures. Skull trees harking back to an earlier era when head taking was part of inter-village warfare are also found on ikats there.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Lizards and sometimes crocodiles are present in the design on Timor ikats. These animal motifs relate to myths. Ikats of this sort can be used as mnemonic devices that storytellers use to relate old myths to village audiences. Ikats from West Timor and Timor Leste are also used as status markers for high nobles and as exchange goods in marriages between families. lizard design on ikat


ikat by Lio weaver Flores textiles are known for their warm browns and reds. The ikats made by Lio weavers often mimic the overall field design of old patola trade cloths.

Although there are designs like these specific to regions and groups of people, the ikat is a transnational textile.  There are many similarities in designs across borders. The basics of design are often adopted and reinvented by different weavers across Indonesia. A classic example of this is the silk patola cloth from India. The techniques used to create the double ikat patola were adopted by many Indonesian weavers and embedded into different textile traditions. As a result of this transnational characteristic, most ikat textiles are a collage of different techniques and patterns from a variety of regions, religions, and cultures.

One fascinating example of the transnationality of ikat textiles pertains to a weaver’s use of an old Dutch coin as inspiration for design. A lau, or women’s skirt, woven in Sumba featured the large repeating motif of a pair of lizards facing each other with a ceremonial tree between them. This motif was inspired by the image of the lions rampant on the Dutch coins. The use of a Dutch image as inspiration for a motif in eastern Indonesian ikatting displays how Southeast Asian ikats are transnational textiles.

Tying the threads dictates the majority of design on an ikat.  However, there are a few other aspects of ikat production which contribute to design. The selvedge bands are the bands which surround the textiles and act as a border to the interior field. Selvedges often indicate the quality of the textile by how tightly they are woven. These bands are an element of design added onto the main field of the textile and they can be patterned or plain and simple.selvedge band

 

 

 

 

 

In addition to the selvedge bands, beadwork may be added on to an ikat to finalize design. Beads may be added to the fringe of the textile, or woven into the main field of the piece.

supplementary warp

Supplementary warp or weft is another weaving technique which can add to the design of an ikat textile. This technique involves the addition of a differently colored thread to the warp or weft on the loom. Sometimes, the supplementary threads will be un-dyed or white yarns. Or, they can be metal-wrapped threads, as in songket cloths (see Songket section). The threads are added to the warp or the weft by using a variety of specialized weaving tools, including bamboo pattern sticks. The contrasting color of the supplementary threads often causes the added motifs and overall design to stand out against the main field of the textile.

When we visited the Tun Jugah Foundation in Kuching, Malaysia, we saw many pua-in-progress strung on backstrap looms in this NGO’s large weaving studio. Some had supplementary weft work, as does an important textile displayed in “Transnational Ikat.”

The finishing touches placed on an ikat involve the design of the fringe. The ikat is often finished by twisting bundles of the cut and unwoven warp together to create a fringe. Various weaving communities finish the fringe in a different ways, and often the fringe design is dependent on the textile’s use. An ikat may also lack a fringe if the textile is never cut after it is woven, or if the cloth is sewn together to create a skirt or sarong. In many eastern Indonesian weaving communities, keeping an ikat uncut as it comes off the loom allows it to be used as an item of ceremonial marriage exchange. See For Ikat, Gender, and Ceremonial Exchange Further Reading.

Weaving
            Once the yarns are dyed (often multiple times) and thoroughly dried out, the resists are removed and the yarns are placed on the loom to be woven. The warp threads need to be carefully placed on the loom and matched up perfectly with the other threads in the pattern. If this part of the process is done incorrectly, the weaving will appear to be extremely poor and the design will be indecipherable. The most commonly used loom for ikat is the back-strap loom. However, other looms such as the ATBM and frame loom are used as well. These looms are generally used for commercialized ikat because they speed up the production process of ikat (shown below).

ATBM loom

 

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Despite the slight variation in different types of back-strap looms, the weaving process is generally the same. When using a back tension loom, the threads are woven in continuous warp. This means the yarns are continuously wrapped around the loom longitudinally, and after weaving is completed the finished textile is removed from the loom in a complete circle. The rectangular form of ikat is created when the unwoven portion of the warp is cut, which also produces the fringe of the textile. The shed stick and heddle stick on the back strap loom are used to aid the weaver in manipulating the threads. The shed stick attaches to every second thread and the heddle attaches to all of the other threads to create separation between threads. The weaver also commonly uses a wood beater, which packs down the threads once the weft is passed through. The wood beater is an important tool for skilled weavers, as it creates tight threads that hide the weft.

Backsstrap loom

Backstrap loom for geringsing weaving.
Although weaving is quite possibly the simplest step in the process of producing an ikat, there is still great skill involved in being an expert ikat weaver. When threads are woven tightly and accurately, the weavers create sharper patterns and bolder colors. The resultant cloth will also have a good “hand,” as a finely wrought fabric.

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For Further Reading

Please see the list of suggested sources for the previous section, What Is Ikat.  Especially useful for understanding how ikat is made are Sylvia Fraser-Lu, 1990, Handwoven Textiles of Southeast Asia (Singapore: Oxford University Press) and Rosemary Crill, 1998, Indian Ikat Textiles (London: Weatherhill for the Victoria and Albert Museum). The websites of the NGOs Threads of Life (www.threadsoflife.com) and the Tun Jugah Foundation (tunjugahfoundation.org.my) also have good sections on ikat production processes.