As we get ready to welcome our new exhibition, All the Colors of the Rainbow: Uzbekistan Ikats from the Collection of Peggy Slappey, it is important to consider what makes these 19th-century ikat robes so unique, intricate, and fascinating. To understand what makes an ikat robe so special, we wanted to start from the beginning and explore their origination: how is an ikat robe made?
A cooperative effort between people of different religions and backgrounds, the production of an ikat textile is a complex process that takes many skilled hands. From the raising of the silkworms to the final polishing of the material requires great effort and time. A set division of labor between a variety of specialized craftsmen from the Jewish and Arab communities were involved in this complex process.
Here are the 10 not-so-simple steps of the ikat-making process:
- The process began with the cultivation of silkworms on mulberry leaves. Once the silkworms began pupating in their cocoons, the cocoons would be immersed in boiling water; then the long fibers of raw silk would be extracted and spun onto spools. Considering the high number of fibers needed, the process was tedious and time consuming.
- Several strands of the silk fibers would be spun together onto a reeling wheel to make threads that would either be sold for embroidery or made ready for the next phase of producing ikats.
- Meanwhile other technicians (often women) would be busy preparing the weft threads. The early ikats of Central Asia had cotton weft which would have been woven onto the patterned silk warp threads.
- The cotton wefts would be wound onto four or more sticks in the courtyard of the workshop. Often the less experienced weavers would be given the task of handling the cotton wefts as cotton was less expensive. Once they mastered their craft, they were promoted to handling the silk threads.
- Those technicians responsible for handling the silks were busy preparing the warp. The threads would be spun on a larger reeling wheel and then stretched onto a vertically positioned spinning wheel. These two processes would produce silk threads of the uniform thickness necessary to sustain balance in the design.
- Another technician would build the looms from reed and wood bought at the local market. The looms were often long and narrow. After the loom was prepared, the silk warp was threaded into it.
- The most important, complex, and time-consuming stage was the process of tie-dyeing the warp threads. Producing the dyes was an art in itself, a talent usually passed down from parents and grandparents along with their closely guarded secrets for creating specific hues and saturations of color.
- With these dyes at their disposal, the dye process would begin. When the thread was dipped into the dye, the exposed areas absorbed the colors.
- Then the dyer removed the cotton and tied it onto another section of the threads, exposing another area to be dipped onto a different color dye. The process continued until each thread absorbed the necessary colors.
- The mathematical precision and delicate touch needed to produce a length of ikat was phenomenal. Every stage of production had to coordinate meticulously or the design would not work. No mistakes could be made at any phase. Even the simplest design was painstakingly woven thread by thread.
For more information about the exhibition, click here. This text was taken from our exhibition catalog, which will be for sale soon in the Museum Store!