The Fabulous Handwoven Indian Ikats
In the small village of Ponchampally outside of modern, bustling Hyderabad, India, lives a weaving community working hard to keep the fabulous handwoven Indian ikats alive. Using age old techniques for the natural dying and weaving of these intricate Indian ikats, their struggles to make a sustainable business viable are real. For someone such as myself who spent over 20 years in the fabric design business it was a visual feast and authentic honor to meet this group of artisans.
It might help to explain what ikat (ee-khat) actually is. The framed pieces below from several Pottery Barn designs show examples of the types of finished patterns you can achieve. Ikats are thought to have originated in Asia, but examples during the same time period have also been discovered in South America. Creatives working simultaneously across the globe? Why not! These fine fabrics have a long history in India, especially among the royals.
Initially the yarn from organic cottons and silks is spun and wound into spools that are either dyed or used in their natural form in the woven textiles.
The beautiful fabrics are patterned before they ever are threaded onto the loom. Handwoven Indian ikat can refer to both the thread and/or the finished textile. All of the intricate decoration is made before the fabric is woven by wrapping and dying the WARP, WEFT or both beforehand.
Similar in concept to both batik and tie dye all three are resist dying techniques. Indian ikat is light years ahead in terms of technique complexity. The more binding that is done before weaving, the more complicated the pattern.
Dying Indian Ikats
The artisans of Ponchampally further employ the labor intensive practice of using only natural dyes prior to weaving their Indian ikats. A wide variety of plant and flower ingredients achieve subtle hues. Recipes allow artisans to achieve all colors of the rainbow. Marigolds, pomegranate and indigo are just a few of the types of seeds, bark, pods and full plants used in different combinations for the process.
The potions are boiled to bring out the true colors. The dyes are set using either allum or sodium bicarbonate. Marigolds are responsible for the golden yellow above and below.
Wrapping Indian Ikats
The Indian ikat threads are wrapped and bound to resist the dye. This is the critical “ikat” technique to make the pattern. Above, rubber bands, tape or other dye resistant materials are wrapped around the area he wants to preserve yellow when it goes into the next dye bath. This process is continued until all the colors and wrapping are complete. All digits come in extremely handy.
The multipart technique becomes more complex by successive overwrapping and overdying making the pattern possibilities infinite.
Weaving Indian Ikats
The dyed yarn is then woven into fabric, usually for a pre existing clients order. Production is slow and meticulous.
This is one of the finished warps being loaded onto loom. Isn’t the pattern achieved amazing? I would have loved to see the finished product.
As always, we are cheerfully greeted by the village children who are curious about two blonde women in their village. Anxious to practice English and have their photo taken, the joy all around is immediate and long lasting.
Insider Tip: When purchasing an Indian ikat:
- If you burn the fibers of 100% silk or cotton the fabric will turn to ash. A synthetic fabric tends to ball up and look like its melting and smell like hair burning. Acrid!
- True Indian ikats (or ikats from other areas) will have the pattern just as bright on both the front and back. If the design is lighter on the reverse, the fabric was surface printed. Obviously the price will be higher for a true Indian ikat, but after reading about the complicated process, you know it’s money well spent to support local artists trying to keep their craft sustainable.
After I observed some of the primitive techniques used to produce these gorgeous textiles, my appreciation grew tenfold. Spinners used an up cycled bicycle wheel to spin the threads into yarn.
The cooperative is partnering with companies around the world who are committed to offering fair pay to Indian artisans who use eco friendly techniques to produce their fabrics. Centuries old techniques are combined with modern sales and renewed interest from the public to safeguard the future of these traditions. The SLOW FASHION movement is helping to promote these and additional artisans.
The hand-crafted nature of the process insures that even when a pattern is repeated, all yardage is unique and individual. Really one-of-a-kind. Slight variations add to the charm of the fabric. The finished product is a labor of love, sure to be treasured for generations to come.
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Wait: There’s more from India
- In Rajasthan, you won’t want to miss these adventures.
- The Taj Mumbai is a wonderful place to stay.
- Make sure to visit Elephanta Island when in Mumbai and discover the Glory of Shiva
- Vegetarian love for the food in India
- A Sustainable Retreat on the beach for lovers and anyone else in Kerala