Ikat is so much more than just a beautiful fabric. An ancient weaving tradition that is at least a thousand years old, Ikat was used to symbolize wealth and prestige. It also travelled east from India and forged strong links between India and its neighbours in South East Asia in medieval times. Today, this fabulous textile is the darling of fashion designers, and when adapted to suit 21st-century tastes, can fetch exorbitant prices.
The Ikat weave is very distinct and ranges from geometric patterns to abstract designs. A common element of the designs is a ‘fuzzy’ or ‘blurry’ effect, which is the result of the extreme difficulty experienced by the weaver in lining up the dyed yarn. Although this fuzziness is a signature element of the textile, weavers can create Ikat with little or no blurriness. Since this involves greater skill and takes longer to produce, fabrics with these patterns are more expensive than the classic ones.
At the heart of the Ikat weave is the use of resist-dyed yarn. Resist-dyeing is a process where sections of yarn are tied off so that the dye does not reach them. This method allows one to achieve intricate and complex patterns when the yarn is woven. And, did you know that Ikat employs mathematics to achieve its fantastic design symmetry?
In India, the tradition of Ikat goes back hundreds of years, and some of the earliest references to it come from the famous murals in the Ajanta caves, which are over 1,000 years old. Historian Lotika Varadrajan, an expert on Indian textiles and crafts, has written on how a range of Indian fabric styles can be seen in the murals of Ajanta in Aurangabad, Maharashtra. These include bandhani (tie-and die cloth, not yarn), Ikat and other printed or painted styles. Varadrajan says the range of designs made with Ikat increases across time and one can see the addition of the signature Ikat checked design in the Veerabhadraswamy Temple in Lepakshi, Andhra Pradesh.
Historian Archana Roy says there are references to the Ikat of Gujarat in the Lalitavistara Sutra, a Buddhist text dated to the 3rd century CE, where a fabric called ‘Vichitra Patolaka’ is mentioned. She adds that the Manasollas of Someswara, written around the 12th century CE, also mentions cloth made using the tie-and-dye technique. Roy interprets the textiles called ‘Vichtrani Pattasutra’ and ‘Nanavarna Vichtrani’ in the Manasollas as varieties of Patola.
Ikat has deep roots in India but, interestingly, the name is Indonesian. In Indonesian languages, it means ‘tie’ or ‘to bind’, referring to the resist-dyeing technique typical to the process. It is believed that India had strong trading relations with Indonesia and Java from the early centuries of the Common Era, and that different kinds of traditional fabrics from India travelled to Indonesia via trade routes. Most scholars believe Ikat first left Indian shores in the 12th century CE and this trade grew exponentially by the 17th and 18th centuries CE. Fabrics with Ikat became a significant part of bridal wear in South-East Asia and Ikat weaving centres emerged there as well.
Ikat can also be found among indigenous communities in the Americas, which suggests that it may have developed in those parts independent of its development in India. Ikat has also been found in West Asia in places like Yemen, and in Central Asia in places like Uzbekistan. These Asian Ikats may or may not have been influenced by Ikat from India.
Today, in India, there are three main Ikat-making centres – in Gujarat, Odisha and Telangana – and each has its own unique technique and style.
What is Ikat and how is it made?
Although a craft, Ikat is also a precise science. The intricacy of the craft needs mathematical calculations and the design needs to be laid out on graph paper. The designs are then transferred to the threads, which are dyed on the basis of these designs and then set on looms and bobbins.
Traditionally, pigments and dyes derived from plants and minerals were used to dye the yarn. This included the rich blue from the indigo plant, deep red derived from madder roots but today artisans have shifted to chemical dyes.
There are two types of Ikat: single Ikat and double Ikat. In double Ikat, both the warp and weft threads are dyed while in single Ikat, only the warp is dyed. Double Ikat is woven only in India, Japan and Indonesia.
In their seminal book on Indian art and crafts, Handmade in India, M P Ranjan and Aditi Ranjan talk about different kinds of Ikat in India and how they evolved. Delve deeper into the subject and you realise that Ikat is known by different names in the different parts India – Bandha in Odisha, Patola in Gujarat and Paagadu Bandhu in Telangana.
Patola of Gujarat
The Patolas woven in Gujarat are arguably the most famous Ikats in India. Patolas are woven in Rajkot and Patan, and it is the Patola of Patan that is most distinctive as it is double Ikat on silk. One can see that some of the motifs of the Patola fabrics are inspired by the sculptures of the Rani-ki-Vav of Patan, the fabulous 11th-century stepwell built by a Solanki queen.
The Patolas of Patan are woven by the Salvi community, which traces its origin to Maharashtra and Karnataka. According to oral legends, the 12th century Solanki king Kumarapala invited the Salvi community from Jalna to weave a special kind of silk cloth to be used in prayers. According to legend, the cloth would be worn only once by the king for prayers before being given away or sold.
The Patan Patolas are known for their geometric, floral and figurative designs. The double Ikat Patola saris of Patan are some of the most time-consuming and laborious weaves in the country, and there can be as many as 25 steps in the process of making it, depending on the number of colours.
One sari can take a year to produce and is extremely expensive, considering the time and labour involved. Sometimes, just the process of colouring the thread can take up to 75 days. The loom of the Patan Patola is made of rosewood with bamboo strips.
Paagadu Bandhu of Telangana
Telangana has an Ikat weaving tradition known as Paagadu Bandhu and its most famous form is the Telia Rumal. This is practiced in Nalgonda and Prakasam districts of the state. The Telia Rumal is thus called because oil (‘telia’) was used to soften the threads before dyeing them, and the format of the cloth is square, just like a rumal or handkerchief is.
The Telia Dupatta was also produced here, to be used as a veil by Muslim women and as a lungi (a type of wraparound) for men. The Telia Dupatta and Rumal bear a predominantly red with black and white chequered pattern. The fabric produced in Telangana was used extensively by local fishing communities as lungis. It was also a popular export in the 18th and 19th centuries and was sent to the Arab world, Burma and Africa.
Different villages in this region have developed their own specialisations. The village of Pochampalli is known for silk saris; the village of Puttapaka for fine cotton and silk saris; and the villages of Gatuppal, Chautupal and Koyalagudem are known for cotton and silk yardages used for furnishings and shirts.
In the Ikat from these parts, geometric designs, stripes and multi-colour patterns are common. The Ikat tradition of Telangana is a vibrant one, with entire families involved in the process. They have also introduced innovations in designs, aimed at the global market.
Bandha of Odisha
In Odisha, the Ikat craft is known as Bandha and is practiced predominantly in Sambalpur district along with some villages in Cuttack and Bargarh districts of the state. In Odisha, single Ikat is predominant, except for one design – the Saktapur, which is done in double Ikat. The Saktapur design is influenced by the board game, Chaupad, and has red and white squares with black outlines.
These Ikat saris are also known as Sambalpur saris, after their biggest producer. These saris are often used for ceremonial purposes and have motifs like ducks, fish, lotuses, conch shells, creepers, temples, elephants and deer to symbolise fertility and prosperity. These symbols are derived from mythology, Odisha’s coastal influences and the rituals associated with weddings and prayer.
Ikat has a strong mathematical base and Carol Bier, a researcher at the Textile Museum in Washington DC in the US, has even suggested that Ikat may have played a role in the transfer of mathematical knowledge from India to West Asia, and from there to Europe.
Bier explains the mathematics of the textile by saying that counting was necessary to achieve the repeated patterns of chevrons, lozenges and stripes. Also, colour division was used to form the discrete groups by colour division. The transmission of this cloth may have also influenced the transmission of the mathematical knowledge required to produce it. She wonders whether these mathematical aspects of patterns and pattern-making were or were not consciously understood by either contemporaneous mathematicians or by the artisans engaged in the processes.
The development of Ikat in different parts of the world tells us about the need of humans to embellish cloth and that dyeing threads in patterns before weaving it together was almost instinctive.
At our partner platform, Peepul Tree, you can find beautiful shades of Ikat dupattas and bedcovers, some of them carrying the most traditional motifs and colour combinations like the Telia Rumal in red, black and white. The warp of the single Ikat and the warp and weft of double Ikats are patiently dyed into unique motifs and are handwoven by weavers from the weaver's co-operatives in Koyyalagudemm, Telangana.
The story of Ikat is one of human creativity, migration, trade, the transmission of knowledge between people and communities, and the enduring allure of textiles from India.