From the Pip Rau Collection. Photo courtesy of the V&A
From the Pip Rau Collection. Photo courtesy of the V&A

from Issue 3


Exhibition: Central Asian Ikats

Ruby Clark, curator of a vibrant new exhibition on Central Asian ikats at the V&A in London, explains their importance in everyday Central Asian life at the end of the nineteenth and beginning of the twentieth centuries.

Central Asian Ikats from the Rau Collection

5 November 2007 – 30 March 2008 

Victoria and Albert Museum (V&A), London

Ikat textiles produced in nineteenth-century and early twentieth-century Central Asia are among the finest in the long history of this technique. The continually inventive range of patterns, vivid use of colour and the mastery of the technique achieved by teams of dyers and weavers all combined to produce magnificent, striking textiles. The exhibition currently at the V&A comprises sixty ikat robes and hangings from the world-class Rau Collection.

The term ikat comes from the Malay word mengikat, meaning to tie or bind. This refers to the tie-dyeing method used to give the textiles their unique vibrancy of colour and design. (Ikat has now come to refer to the textiles themselves as well as the process.) Carefully prepared lengths of silk thread are laid out and tied onto a patterning frame at the abr-bandi (ikat-binding workshop). The chosen pattern is marked out directly onto the threads in charcoal, following which the pattern designer marks out which areas are intended for which colours. The threads are then tightly bound with cotton ties and covered in wax over the areas that are intended to resist the colour of the first dye bath. They are then sent to the dye houses, the colour is applied, and the threads are returned to the binders. The process is repeated until the pattern is complete, and threads can go back and forth to many different dye houses according to the complexity of the design and the number of colours used.

During the period of sustained economic and cultural revival in Central Asia in the 1800s, the golden age of ikat-making was closely bound up with this new social dynamism. Whole neighbourhoods housing dyers, weavers, binders and designers sprang up amidst expanding and prospering centres like Samarkand and Bukhara in modern-day Uzbekistan and Kabul and Kunduz in Afghanistan.

Ikats were shaped into more or less elaborate personal costumes, or suitably enlarged and employed as hangings within the home. Hence they became crucial indicators of social power. Richness and originality of design, especially in a person’s ceremonial robes, came to be more and more a key marker of age and social standing. Some high-ranking officials wore up to ten robes at once according to their wealth and status. Naturally, the royal courts took a leading role: ikats became a preferred item of diplomatic gift giving, with especially sumptuous and intricate examples exchanged between rulers and honoured guests.

   Ikat was popular at all levels of society. Textile hangings adorned the walls of Central Asian mud-brick houses and would sometimes include sections of ikat. In poorer families, ikat textiles were reserved for use in the most important family rituals where textiles had always played a part – ikat cloth wrapped newborn babies; was an important part of a dowry; and was worn at weddings and by widows in mourning. None of the cloth was wasted – smaller sections of ikat would sometimes be sewn into blankets or made into children’s clothes.

Central to the appeal of ikat to collectors and art lovers is the sheer vibrancy and imaginativeness of their designs, as well as the way they provide us with clues to the everyday life of the great region to which they belong. They are distinctive nineteenth-century creations full of unmistakable urban energy, but they are also the product of a culture in which the making of textiles had been, for many centuries, a treasured and highly skilled specialty. The making and trading of fine fabrics had been one of Central Asia’s chief economic activities ever since the beginnings of the Silk Road, and through the long period of Islamic dominance, crucial skills and standards of judgment were preserved. The patterns and colours of nineteenth-century ikats from Central Asia at once declare their place and time of production and reach back to an unparalleled textile tradition.

A guide to ikat, with articles on classical ikat, Soviet faux-ikats and contemporary ikat is available when you buy Steppe 6.

Ruby Clark is Assistant Curator in the Middle East Section of the Asia Department of the V&A Museum, and worked as part of the curatorial team for the Jameel Gallery of Islamic Art, which opened at the V&A in 2006.