How the Technicolor Ikat Designs of Central Asia Thread Into Textile History

A new Smithsonian exhibition sheds light on the rich backstory of an oft-imitated tradition

This silk velvet ikat robe was made specifically for a woman, as evidenced by the pinched waist. Velvet ikats were considered top-of-the-line, the Freer|Sackler's Massumeh Farhad explains, because two rows of weft were needed instead of the usual one. Freer|Sackler

From power ties to flashy jewelry, it’s no secret that what the wealthy wear tends to signal their lofty standing in society. Far from an exclusively modern or American phenomenon, the practice of making class statements with one’s clothes extends deep into the past, and is a constant across a myriad of disparate global cultures.

Among the most elegant and vibrantly colored prestige garments of world history are the ikat coats of Central Asia, made with an intricate thread-dying process and notably sported by the seminomadic peoples of the region throughout the 19th century. Polychromatic and patterned with crisp geometric designs, these coats—along with their wall hanging cousins—are the subject of the just-opened Smithsonian exhibition “To Dye For,” on view through July 29 at the Arthur M. Sackler Gallery in Washington, D.C.

All of the 19th-century ikat on display comes from a donation made by private collector Guido Goldman. This year, Goldman bestowed nearly 70 pieces of ikat art on the Freer|Sackler collections on the occasion of a major anniversary—20 years ago, Goldman had exhibited ikat at the same venue, introducing many Americans to the splendor of the style in what was the museum’s first-ever textile show.

The technique of ikat, whose name derives from an Indonesian word for “tie,” is by no means exclusive to Central Asia. Massumeh Farhad, chief curator of the Freer and Sackler Galleries, says that the method has deep roots in Indonesia, India and Japan as well. But Central Asia—Uzbekistan in particular—is where the craft was perfected. “What makes these Central Asian ikats special,” Farhad says, “is their boldness. They really arrest you in your step.”

How the Technicolor Ikat Designs of Central Asia Thread Into Textile History
Farhad singled this piece out as an exemplary specimen. The extreme diversity of color makes it all but certain that the fabric was passed through eight separate dye baths. Freer|Sackler

Fabricating an ikat design demands vision as well as time. Before any actual weaving takes place, the lead craftsperson must picture a fully fleshed-out color pattern. Next, assistants soak the warp threads of the textile-to-be in a series of dye vats—up to eight in total—accumulating hues along the way. Prior to each dying phase, all stretches of warp are strategically bound with dye-resistant greasy thread, leaving exposed only those portions meant to be colored.

By repositioning the dye-resistant thread before every immersion, textile makers gradually cover the entirety of the warp in an array of different tones. The most skilled designers will subject some sections of the material to multiple immersions, combining red and yellow dye to produce sunset orange, or red and blue dye to yield rich royal purple.

Finally, when the Technicolor warp is ready, loom operators stretch it taut and gird it with a cotton or silk weft. The result is a long, narrow oblong textile bearing the designer’s repeating geometric pattern. This can be shaped into an eye-catching coat, or alternatively kept two-dimensional and made into a wall hanging.

What Farhad finds especially fascinating about this involved process in Central Asia is that each step in the sequence has a close historical association with a particular ethnic group. “The Tajiks were responsible for the yellow and red dyes in the dye bath,” Farhad says. “The Jewish community was responsible for importing indigo for the indigo dye bath. And then the Uzbeks would be weaving the pieces together. It was definitely collaborative.”

How the Technicolor Ikat Designs of Central Asia Thread Into Textile History
The "To Dye For" exhibition features an assortment of wall hangings as well as coats. Divisions between the strips of ikat fabric are more readily apparent in the hangings. Freer|Sackler

The first gallery of the “To Dye For” exhibition focuses on simple wall hangings with only a couple colors. The designs grow increasingly vibrant and complex, suggesting the use of additional dye baths. The highlight of the show is a spacious room toward the end containing a panoply of ikat coats, dyed with singular style and featuring ornate linings of Russian cotton and Indian chintz.

Farhad stresses the degree to which clothing mattered as a status symbol among the roaming Central Asian peoples of the 19th century. “People were much more mobile than they are now,” she says. “There were no banks, so basically all your wealth was with you or on you. Ikat coats were one form of wealth. And if you wanted to show off the extent of your status and importance, you did it by wearing fancy clothes.”

Even in the contemporary world, ikat fashion holds a special allure. One icon of haute couture who drew ample inspiration from ikat—and helped to popularize the look in America—was the Dominican-American designer Oscar de la Renta, a sample of whose ikat-patterned work (an op-arty 2005 trench coat and a floral 2013 gown) is represented in the exhibition’s coat room alongside the boxier traditional garments.

How the Technicolor Ikat Designs of Central Asia Thread Into Textile History
This 2013 silk and wool jacquard Oscar de la Renta dress, while not produced with authentic ikat technique, pays clear homage to traditional ikat with its patterning. Freer|Sackler

De la Renta seized on the look of ikat but not the actual technique—his pieces were produced using more modern processes, and have a seamlessness to them that’s uncharacteristic of historical ikat (in which division lines between panels are often quite conspicuous). De la Renta’s update to the centuries-old style paved the way for a global proliferation in ikat patterning. Ikat popularity has soared to the point where “All you have to do is type in ‘ikat’ on the Web and you’ll see Crate & Barrel couches and products from Target,” Farhad says.

In light of this contemporary boom in ikat designs, “To Dye For” serves as a fascinating historical reminder of the grueling work and visionary artistry associated with bringing those rich colorful patterns to life. The final room of the exhibition presents an assortment of latter-day ikat, cementing the link between past and present.

“We’ve all probably bought products with ikat designs,” says Farhad, “but few of us consumers really know the origins of these compelling patterns.” Now’s your chance to learn.

“To Dye For” is on view at the Arthur M. Sackler Gallery through July 29. A complementary ikat exhibition at George Washington Universitys nearby Textile Museum, “Binding the Clouds,” is on view through July 9.

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