Last winter, at the “Fabric of India” show at London’s Victoria & Albert museum, one of the most prominent international design exhibitions, a handwoven double ikat silk saree from Andhra Pradesh in a striking yellow-black combination was a key part of the opening display. This acknowledgement from the world’s leading authority on design re-affirmed evangelists of textile revivalism in India, David Abraham and Rakesh Thakore’s (of the label Abraham and Thakore or A&T) experiments with ikat.
The designers call it a complete process – working with the ikat weavers of Andhra Pradesh, Odisha and Gujarat, on a particular fabric, charting the designs from the nascent stage to the completion of a gorgeous piece of work. In this pre-loomed process, as the earthy designers put it, the weavers are as important as the designers.
History and origins Ikat literally means “tie, bind or wrap around”, derived from the Malay word mengikat. In Laos, the word is mut mii, in India bandha, in Japan kasuri, and in Thailand mudmee. The technique results in intricate patterns, which are achieved by resist-tying and immersion dyeing of the exposed sections of bundles or “chains” of warp and/or weft yarns prior to weaving. Multiple colours applied in sequence of re-tying and dyeing from light to dark result in more colourful and detailed patterns. Ikat weavers plan the positioning of the pattern in the cloth in advance. The more knots tied, thesmaller and tighter the bound area of bundles of weft or warp threads, the finer the pattern created.
Historical texts differ on whether ikat began in Indonesia, India or southern China. Traditional and tribal communities took turns at refining the techniques and the outcomes. There is, however, evidence indicating that ikat fabrics were produced in southern China by non- Chinese tribes as early as the 6th century CE. Ikats were also found in India by around 7th century CE, with geometric warp patterns on clothing depicted on cave frescoes in Ajanta.
Indian heritage Ikat from every region has its unique identity in terms of weave and design, says Thakore. While the Patan Patola weave mostly focusses on the double ikat technique, the Odisha ikat can be distinguished by its clarity and precision, and play with different yarns. The Andhra ikat focuses mainly on floral and geometric patterns on cotton, silk-cotton and silk fabrics. “While we work a lot with the single ikat technique, the double ikat lends more clarity in design and colour. The black and whites look even more stark yet stunning, the spurts of colour create the pop effect,” says Thakore.
Of India’s legendary textile heritage, few are as highly prized as the Patola, the double ikat silk fabric in which both warp and weft yarns are separately tied and dyed before weaving. Patan (the ancient capital of Gujarat) has been the centre of Patola saree production for centuries. These double ikat silk sarees are worn at social and religious ceremonies, and the colours used are mainly red, yellow, green, white and maroon. Apart from the double ikat silk, in the past few decades, single ikat saris are being produced in Rajkot and its neighbouring villages in Gujarat. The ikat of Odisha is known as bandhas and the characteristic trait of these textiles is that the ikat technique is combined with a brocade anchal (end piece) and borders. The most striking feature of the Bandha sari is the anchal, the oldest design being the Bichitrapuri anchal.
In Andhra Pradesh, ikats are known as pagdu bandhu, Buddavaasi, Telia rumals and chitki. Ikat weaving was introduced in this region about two to three generations ago in the early 1900s. Since the ikat technique is relatively new to the weavers of Andhra Pradesh, they are more experimental in their work. Constantly working with ikat weavers from Andhra Pradesh, the creations of the label Abraham & Thakore are fresh, stark, edgy and universal in appeal. “It’s the sheer outcome of so many processes. The final product is not merely the result of a plain yardage and a few designs put together. Months of research
Ikat weaving is multi-textured. The flaws of weaving are its beauty. With every wash it attains a new dimension
and sittings with the weavers culminate in an extraordinary piece of fabric — be it the versatile saree or the stoles and scarves. Ikat is fascinating, as it allows us to experiment with the single and double ikat techniques. Working with double ikat is more challenging, as there is scope to toy with the warp and the weft and play with colours, yarns and resistance-dyeing,” Thakore adds.
The resurgence The process of making an inroad into the traditional mindset of rural craftspeople has been painstaking and laborious. “It’s sad that weavers today face the perennial problem of sustenance. Hence, weave-oriented fashion can be a major fillip to them. Ikat has had its great moments in the past. It’s that richness that we seek to attain in our creations,” say the designers. They have some of the best ikat weavers of India working for them, delivering from season to season. “Our long association with the weavers has borne fruit. Handlooms have limitations, but thanks to the flexibility of the weavers and their faith in us and our design modicum, they have been able to weave some of the most exemplary works for us. We are not sacrificing quality for design. The pleasure is when the weavers are experimenting with the old structure using our innovative designs,” says Abraham. For instance, a cotton ikat shirt with woven polka dot design may sound traditional, but the designers have convinced the weavers to integrate a unique type of dots. The result is contemporary and crisp. Their silk ikat sarees have given the weave the much-needed global touch – blending yellow, black and white, the designers have achieved a chic look. At the V&A exhibition, the saree was displayed with a black shirt! Imagine a black and white double ikat fabric with spurts of bright red stitched into modern separates.
“There is a beauty and richness to natural fabrics that no power-loom product can attain. A weaver starts weaving an ikat fabric in the morning. By afternoon, he is tired and someone else takes over. So, when the full length is ready, it merges the work of so many hands. The weaving is multitextured. What you call the flaws of weaving turn out to be its beauty. With every wash it attains a new dimension, a fresh sheen. Anyone who revels in natural fabrics will know the kind of ethereal feel these textiles deliver. It’s classic, rich and magical,” conclude the designers.