Ikat is an enduring, enticing fabric. Ikat comes from the Indonesian word ‘mengikat’, which means “to tie or bind.” Unlike most other types of surface embellishments like block printing or tie and dye which are done after weaving, the warp and weft yarns in an ikat fabric are dyed before the weaving to create a pre-destined pattern. The dyeing uses a complicated clay or wax resist process where the yarn is repeatedly immersed in dye interspersed with a drying cycle to allow the color to set in.
Made up of a series of islands east of Bali, including Lombok, Komodo, Flores and Sumba, Nusa Tenggara is a treasure trove of textile making in Indonesia. The diversity of textiles in this region is truly astonishing, with each province featuring its own weaving traditions and varying production techniques that directly relate to its cultural and multi-ethnic influences and rich history. The fabric must be present at all cultural occasions such as births, weddings and death ceremonies. It is also an important form of dowry that should be presented by a bride to her groom.
A skill that is continuously passed on from generation to generation, ikat weaving is used to create textiles for different purposes, varying from island to island, with the double-weave ikat showcasing more complex sequences and colourful threads. The warp and weft are made separately, tied together and dyed, which requires great skill to ensure both coincide at the same place to achieve the desired imagery. The colours are vibrant – red, yellow, brown, indigo – each used in seasonal ceremonies and festivals, while the patterns often feature natural and mystical elements, such as flowers and spirits. Weavers also incorporate manta rays in cloth used during ritual dedications of outrigger boats heading out to sea.
Ikat is the decorative technique predominantly used in Nusa Tenggara. More complex weaving techniques are also found such as supplementary warp which can be seen on the striking Lau Pahudu textiles of Sumba.
The ikat tradition in East Nusa Tenggara constitutes one of the most outstanding examples of cultural heritage in Indonesia and other parts of Southeast Asia. By contrast with other forms of cultural and artistic expression, ikat weaving remains a major living expression of East Nusa Tenggara’s contemporary culture and identity.
Ikat itself binds East Nusa Tenggara people together starting from making the thread into the finishing process. Ikat is a complicated process demanding much patience, considerable design skill, and a good geometric imagination. The process begins by spinning thread from cotton. The thread is then tied into knots and submerged in dyes for two days. After that, it is washed with clean water while the knots are detangled before the thread is spread out. The dying process, using natural dyes, is performed several times to produce the desired color. Candlenut will then be used for the thread, a process that is called ‘mordan’ or an oiling process using primarily candlenut to adhere the red onto the fabric. For one month, the fabric is aired day and night. Once it is truly dry, the weaving process can begin.
An intricate and arduous process of “resist” dyeing using natural vegetable dyes. Various natural ingredients, such as indigo plants and noni roots, are used as coloring for ikat fabrics. They believe that by using natural ingredients they protect their relationship with nature and associate the natural dyes with magic. Once wrapped in their appropriate places, the skeins are removed from the rack and given their first dye bath.
Requiring such complex skills and investment of time, it is no wonder that ikat was once a key marker of status and social dignity. And event today this vibrant, living art is in the mainstream aesthetics of the globe, appearing on runways, in homes and art galleries.
Around Rp5 million is needed to produce three or four cloths, each sold for Rp1.5 million to tens of millions, depending on the complexity of the motifs, colors and the length of the fabric. Ikat, with its mesmerizing symmetry of age-old motifs and its vivid colors has held our fascination for centuries. With novel translations of the fabric that allow new experiences, ikat will continue to be in the mainstream and flourish.
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