Charles Petzold

Ikat Textiles at the Met

September 16, 2006
New York, NY

As a kid, I was fascinated with looms and weaving. I even had a little plastic loom that let you weave yarn. This interest was rekindled a few years ago when I began studying the history and technology of the Jacquard loom, the first machine to use punch cards. The Jacquard loom was a mechanized version of the draw loom, which originated in China for weaving complex designs in silk.

The draw loom is not the only technique to weave patterns in textiles, and yesterday evening we braved the rain to see an exhibit of ikat textiles from Indonesia at the Metropolitan Museum of Art. (Information about the exhibit and some photos can be found on the Met Museum site here. The exhibit ends in about a week.) Tucked between African Art and Pre-Columbian Americas Art on the first floor are about 25 ikat textiles, mostly from the 18th, 19th, and early 20th centuries.

The technique of ikat requires dyeing the threads before weaving. Cotton is the most common fabric used in ikat, although some silk is sometimes added, and occassionally some gold wrapped threads. Usually the warp threads are dyed. (The warp threads are those strung longitudinally on the loom.) Groups of threads are bundled together and tightly wrapped in patterns with a dye resist. The threads are then dyed, sometimes with multiple colors as layers of dye resist are removed, and then the threads are used for weaving. The whole process sounds very imprecise, yet when done with enough time and skill results in gorgeous patterns — some abstract, some figurative — in textiles used for shawls, skirts, shrouds, and ceremonial cloths.

Although generally the warp threads are dyed, alternatively the weft thread (which winds crossways back and forth through the fabric) can be dyed. As you might imagine, this is a much more difficult process, because the weft thread is continuous, and it must be dyed assuming a particular width of the textile that must be exactly duplicated on the loom. Some ikat textiles are even created by dyeing both the warp and weft threads. (The Wikipedia entry on ikat has some good information and links.)

Although most of the ikat textiles on display are from the 19th century or early 20th century, my favorite was a piece from the 15th century, and which possibly originated in India. About 3' by 8', it had only two colors, a rich dark brown dye and the lighter brown of the undyed threads, in a series of intriciate diamond patterns. It didn't have the bright colors that most of the ikat textiles had, but it drew me in with its deep subtle beauty.