Ikat Textiles of Central Asia


Central Asian Ikat

From a lecture delivered at the International Ikat Conference in Kuching, Kalimantan, Malaysia, in June 1999 – © copyright by Kate Fitz Gibbon

In the 19th century, in western Central Asia, there was an extraordinary flowering of the art of ikat. Central Asian ikat fabrics evolved from a lengthy tradition of textile production, yet were uniquely, astonishingly inventive.

These exceptional Central Asian ikats were made within a very limited time frame, from about 1800 to about 1880. The latter date does not represent the end of ikat production, but rather an expansion of the craft in which its commercial qualities became more important than its artistic values. The initial date of 1800 continues to be a matter of debate because we do not really know what came before the brilliant silk warp/cotton wefted ikat fabric that the Central Asians called adras. So far as our research tells us, adras is first mentioned in 1813 – in a document written by a British-Indian commercial agent. The vagueness of this initial date is characteristic of much that we know about Central Asian ikat production. We have very few early sources contemporary with the bulk of the material from this period. But these few early documents allow us to paint for ourselves a picture of this place and time.

Turkestan was the name in general use through the19th and early 20th centuries to the part of Central Asia that today forms the Republics of Turkmenistan, Uzbekistan and Tadjikistan.. In the second half of the 19th century, Turkestan was the title given the area of the southern oases under Russian political control. Greater Central Asia is a huge land area - roughly defined West to East as between the Urals and the borders of China, including the great plains of Kazakhistan to the north, and reaching down to the middle of Afghanistan to the south. Much of this land is either desert, or a steppe land that lacks sufficient water for anything but pasturage.

The most important oases areas were those in the southern region, surrounding the cities of Bukhara, Samarkand, Tashkent, Khiva and the town of Kokand in the fertile Ferghana Valley to the east. The oasis cities usually contained a fairly small, densely packed urban center, and then many miles of gardens and orchards interspersed with dwellings. Every household that could maintained at least a small personal garden and orchard, and wealth was calculated largely in land. An intensive agriculture has been practiced for millennia in these oases. Agriculture sustained the oasis cities and provided surplus goods which were traded for other products on the steppe and beyond. The merchants of these oases towns became the preeminent traders in Central Asia. More than a thousand years before, their ancestors had established the great silk road from China to the shores of the Mediterranean, and although by the 19th century, their role had diminished, they still organized and operated much of the caravan trade between Central Asia, Siberia, and Russia.

The towns had a very mixed population that included Turkic language speaking Uzbeks, who had held political power for several centuries past, Persian speaking Tadjiks, who considered themselves the most ancient inhabitants of the oases. In most towns there was a commercially active and important minority Jewish community, and an Iranian population that included many slaves captured and brought to work the fields in the early part of the 19th century.

The oases towns were essentially little kingdoms, each ruled by a Khan or Emir; smaller townships were administered by feudal lords. The first half of the 19th century brought a degree of political stability to each of the oasis kingdoms. But during the latter half of the 19th century, their lack of cohesion made them easy prey for the Russians, who sought to establish a bulwark against British attempts to bring Central Asian into its sphere of influence. Russian troops conquered each section of this patchwork of little kingdoms, and Russian administrators and Russian merchants followed soon after.

The Central Asian ikat weaving process developed entirely in the cities of the oases, within the guild structure and formal organization of the urban bazaars at their center. The city of Bukhara had the most vital economy, the most active trade, and the greatest amount of surplus wealth. All indications are that adras ikat production began in the city of Bukhara. In Bukhara there were over 50 neighborhoods involved in textile production of all kinds. There were many bazaars, each with its own specific range of goods, for both locally made and imported wares. The bazaars were also the center of social life for the men of the city; full of entertainers, food vendors, and tea houses.

Most of the artistic textile production from 19th century Central Asia comes either from the nomadic steppe or from the embroidery work of urban and rural women - well established, conservative and long standing types of production.

Ikat was entirely different. It was the work of men. Instead of a single woman or the women from a single family, a whole variety of specialized craftsmen performed the various stages of the ikat making process. In discussions of Central Asian textiles, there is often a tendency to divide the urban arts along ethnic lines – in much the same way as tribal art from the nomadic tradition is broken down. You can only speak of ikat in these terms if you are talking about the stages of its production. The ikat process involved practically every ethnic group within the cities. It drew on the skills and creative abilities of Uzbeks and Tadjiks, Muslims and Jews.

The production of ikat belonged entirely to the commercial milieu – to the world of the bazaar and trade fabrics, to the world of business. Yet soon after this startling new fabric appeared, it was adopted for the most traditional textile uses – as dowry, as decoration for the marriage bed and the bier, as costume for the most sacred family rituals.

This also took place far beyond the cities. The active trade with the steppe made ikat readily available to nomads. And as soon as we have photographs of the steppe peoples, we see them wearing and using ikat. On the steppe, ikat and other luxury fabrics served as currency, and robes were often received in payment for military and other services rendered to the towns.

All woven silk fabrics in Central Asia began through the work of women. Women from almost every household raised their own silkworms, and the best quality cocoons from the their home production were eventually sold in the bazaar to make silk cloth. The cocoons were placed in a cauldron of boiling water, and the individual threads were teased out with a stick, and then reeled directly from the pot.

The drawn threads were combined with others to make a multi-filament, strong warp thread. An evenly tensioned thread was made by winding the skeined filaments onto a hand turned wooden frame or cage-spool. A large wheel was used to set the crosses in the warp to prepare it for eventual weaving, and to measure the threads for each warp. The original warps were up to 200 meters long, and were cut into more manageable sections – probably about 15-20 meters - before weaving.

The plain warp threads - which had yet to be tied and dyed, were placed in lots of 30 to 40 warps. Each group was then threaded through a board with many holes pierced in it. When all the warp threads had been divided into these lots and placed through the holes in the board, the board was wound tightly around two wooden struts, so that many layers were set very closely, one atop the other. Adras ikat was woven in quite narrow widths. There are often about 2000 warp threads in a 30 cm wide section of finished fabric.

The pattern was marked on the tensioned warp with a sharpened stick dipped in charcoal. The pattern that was applied was usually the design that would later appear only on one half of the finished fabric. The master craftsman’s assistant then bound the warps in groups of 10-40 warps width, so that each bundle on the frame contained that number of warp’s width times the number of layers of warp. A greasy cotton thread was used to bind the warps. When all the areas of warp that were not to receive this dye bath had been covered with the tightly wrapped cotton, the warp was removed from the patterning frame and brought to a dye house for its first application of color.

Dyeing was a highly specialized and secret art. It required an exact knowledge of the ingredients for each dye bath, and the methods for achieving each color. In Central Asia, the Jews had an effective monopoly for cold dyeing with indigo, because they controlled the trade and distribution of the dyestuff. Jews were often found among the hot dyers along with many Tadjiks. Despite its commercial importance, dyeing was a very low status occupation; messy and often foul-smelling.

After the first application of color, the partially dyed warp threads were returned to the designer’s workshop. They were unbound, stretched again on the patterning frame for another set of ties, and then returned to the dye-shop for the application of another color.

When the warp had been completely dyed, the patterns on the threads were manipulated and changed by dividing the threads in half and placing then so that one of the original edges became the central vertical axis, with the pattern appearing symmetrically on either side. Sometimes several divisions of the warp were made, with each division narrowing and multiplying the pattern. Still other specialized craftsmen made a harness with loops for each of the warp threads to pass through, and brought the warp to the weaver.

Adras ikat was woven on a very simple, warp weighted loom. The weaver sat on boards set into the ground. Two treadles at his feet raised and lowered the two warp sections, and the finished cloth was wound around a beam at his waist. The weaving of cotton wefted adras ikats was mostly done by Uzbek weavers, while the somewhat later all silk and satin ikats were usually woven by Tadjik weavers. Adras ikat fabric was finished by beating the surface with wooden mallets or polishing it with a heavy glass semi-sphere. One face of the fabric was often glazed with egg white to give it gloss and shine. The loom for silk velvet ikat was more complex and involved five harnesses instead of two.

Clothing showed rank and status within the rigidly structured society of the oasis towns. The wealthiest people tended to wear either imported fabrics, or like the Emir, heavy, gold embroidered silks and velvets - most of which appear rather garish today. These gold and silver robes more likely represent a continuation of Chengizid Mongol traditions regarding the appropriate cloth for the ruling elite than a rejection of ikat as a somehow lesser textile. Courtiers of middle rank, and wealthy merchants and warriors certainly wore ikat robes.

Photographs from the late 19th and early 20th centuries provide many references for the costume typical of the day. The djigits were popular subjects; members of the loosely organized cavalry attached to the households of the Amir or other lords. We often find photographs of these dashing types wearing ikat robes. In contrast, many photographs taken in the bazaars and great squares of the towns show men dressed equally colorfully - but in the less prestigious cotton fabrics typical of ordinary urban dress.

In Central Asia’s sexually segregated urban society, a few young men worked as entertainers for public and private men’s festivities, dancing and singing in imitation of women. These boys wore long hair and dressed in the costumes appropriate for young girls. The boys also wear the lighter weight, all silk ikat fabrics. These were not generally considered appropriate for male attire, as only the half-silk, cotton wefted adras fabrics were meshru, permitted for men.

In a photograph from the teens of this century, Jewish boys at school wore robes with a tight waisted, Western-influenced cut. In the 19th century men and boys often wore several robes at a time, one atop the other. Robes were cut wide, and were simply folded to close them. Those from Bukhara usually had a firm T-shape, with wide sleeves, and were often lined with a contrasting cotton fabric. Even the most wretchedly dressed members of society occasionally obtained a few scraps of ikat fabric. I have myself seen a dervish or Malang’s coat, made entirely from tiny, worn scraps of silk velvet ikat.

Lush harem settings are often posed photographs - perhaps intended as a Russian version of a rather warmly dressed odalisque. The multiple layers of fabric in the backgrounds are an unexaggerated picture of urban household decoration. Textiles were essential to the decoration of the home in the 19th century - whether home was an urban dwelling or a yurt on the steppe. Hangings decorated the walls. Cushions served as chairs. Padded cloth mattresses served as bedding. Meals were taken upon a cloth set on the floor. The use of ikat textile decoration for the home was not determined by one’s ethnic background or religion. It was an urban style, and the choice of pattern and form were decided by the fashion in the town in which they were made.

Women in the cities were cloaked from head to foot in padded robes, and wore a dark horsehair veil that made it almost impossible to see. Beneath this hideous outer covering, well to do women wore layers of brilliant silks and satins, and those who could afford it wore ikat. Jewish women also veiled themselves to avoid harassment. The public dress of Jewish men was very restricted. They wore only humble materials; and bound their robes with rope belts. In the home, sumptuary restrictions were cast off. In the photographs of affluent Jews in this region taken in the 19th century, families were dressed entirely in silks, often made of adras and shahi ikat fabrics, and men wore heavily ornamented silver belts.

While women’s robes were often indistinguishable from those of men, there were certain types of robes that were distinctly feminine. The munisak robe was often the most luxurious garment within the dowry of a bride. It was cut to fit the figure, although it was worn atop all other robes - like a cape, over the head, at a bride’s wedding. Muslim brides wore it like that for weeks – sometimes even months after the wedding. The sleeves were held in the teeth while doing chores, to keep it from slipping off the head. Children were largely exempt from sumptuary restrictions. An 1880s photograph of Jewish children in a synagogue school shows almost every child in a rich silk ikat dress.

In Central Asia, social relationships involved spending an enormous amount of time sitting around looking at textiles. All interactions in the home - with persons from outside the family - took place in the guest room, the most lavishly decorated room in the house. Guests were expected to look at and admire the textiles on the floor and on the walls. It was your host’s duty to provide you with the means for visual enjoyment of your surroundings – and with food – and that was your entertainment. There was an expectation that you would appreciate and understand textiles.

Early Soviet ethnographers were able to observe customs in Jewish households in the 20’s and 30’s, when access to Muslim women’s quarters was denied. Their descriptions closely parallel these photographs of wedding and betrothal ceremonies which were taken much earlier, in about 1870. Weeks or even months of ceremonies, many involving the display of dowry and bride price, preceded the actual wedding ceremony. In one slide the representatives of the bride’s and groom’s families are examining ikats which formed an important part of the dowry of the bride.

In all matters concerned with textiles; in their ceremonial use, as dowry and bride price, as luxury garments, and as household decorations, Muslim Central Asian customs resembled Jewish traditions - and the other way around. Often, these similarities may be due to the development of patterns in common by both communities over the centuries. For both Muslim and Jewish communities, the role of textiles within family life was tremendously important.

These shared traditions make the identification of Central Asian ikat with one ethnic or religious group impossible. The production of Central Asian ikat was an art defined by geography, and the urban environment, and several thousand years of economic dependence on textile production.

Waves of invasion and migration had brought together people of many ethnic and linguistic backgrounds in urban Central Asia – Uzbek, Tadjik, Irani and Jews. When we look at the production of ikat we can see the multiple skills - and inter-ethnic cooperation - required to make such a complex textile. Their communities remained largely in opposition, but individuals within the majority Sunni Muslim, the minority Shi’a and minority Jewish population worked together; joining their talents in the production of ikat silks.

I would like to raise a few issues regarding pattern, composition and color. Because we have no written documents, no manifestos or interviews with the artists, the makers of these ikats, we can best discuss the formal qualities of the ikats from a modern perspective. How does ikat work? Why are we so affected by it?

The adras ikats can be so dazzling that it’s good to remember that even for the blind, an ikat hanging or robe can provide a sensual experience. The silk fabric is light, but also very dense. The ribbed surface of the adras cotton wefted ikats is faintly nubbed. The albumen coating crackles slightly as it moves. The silk velvet is incredibly soft. Even its name, baghmal, sounds rich!

And for the seeing, an undyed fabric of like kind shimmers, and delights the eye. Why go to all this trouble to apply color? Why do so much? The variety and treatment of motifs is quite astounding, especially given the lengthy and unforgiving process required to apply color to very specific areas of warp. And where do we start in seeking an explanation of their variety?

Does ikat patterning do anything other than enhance the worth and visual appeal of its silk fabric carrier? Do the designs carry a symbolic value, a specific message? Do they say – I am a functionary at a certain bureaucratic level", or "I am wife number two", or "I’m from a certain town", or "This is a Jewish - or a Muslim household?" Some textile art within Central Asia carries this kind of explicit signage. So far, we have found no evidence to support this kind of identity within ikat.

Are there other kinds of symbolic messages in ikats? Motifs in ikats are almost never sufficiently representational for them to be called one thing or another. Yet a degree of consensus among the viewers of these ikats can be reached. We may agree to call a certain motif a tulip – or a bouquet in a vase, or a bird. Some Central Asianists, myself included, are notorious for seeing scorpions everywhere. Can we assert that the same uncertainty – or the same consensus was felt by the original 19th century owners? No, we can only speculate. We can consider what we know from recent years of research in the area.

In the Central Asia of my youth, I spent quite a bit of time asking people about what ikat and other textile designs were and what they were called. I quickly realized that if you ask a lot of people what the name of a certain design is, and what it represents, you are going to obtain contradictory information. On certain levels, agreement exists. The women of a certain village may all call a bow-like or comb shape the marker for the weavings or embroidery of their village. No matter that the same pattern element is used in the next village – it just isn’t charged with that meaning over there. And there are a few forms that virtually everyone will identify and give the same name – even if their own renderings of the same subject are different.

Frequently, rural embroidery work contains highly stylized elements within a composition which the owner – who is often the maker – will identify as a specific animal or flower. Other pattern elements within the same composition will not be given an identity – there is a shrug, and we are told that they are they are naqsha –ornamentation. And except in the Turkoman tribe gul rugs, in which certain large scale field pattern carry a tribal identity, the arrangement of these patterns in a composition is not determined by the meaning or content of these designs. The traditional pattern, the variant on an old theme, and the one made up at the spur of the moment are given pretty arbitrary placement and weight. So even within the tradition-bound, made–for-home textile arts, there is an acceptance of ambiguity and a powerful element of individuality.

In ikat, this willful current of inspiration and individual artistry overflows its banks. When we encounter familiar designs in ikats – forms that appear related to the scorpions and birds of rural embroidery- or echo the garden like constructions of urban suzani – we are faced with an entirely different phenomenon. Because design elements that have all sorts of different meanings in other textiles, have lost those meanings entirely in the ikats. There are no talismanic forms, no totems, no signs of family or tribe. The patterns may be there, but the makers of ikat have rejected identity and value in individual designs, in order to embrace formal considerations of composition and color.

The art historian Oleg Grabar has suggested that in seeing art, in responding to art, our thoughts often fall into certain pathways that act as intermediaries - enduring structures for the apprehension and appreciation of art . Dr. Grabar has discussed at length four important - but not exclusive - "intermediaries": geometry, calligraphy, architecture and nature. These "intermediaries" can be very useful to us in even a cursory examination of ikat fabrics. They can help us to understand what we are seeing in Central Asian ikats, and also to consider certain forms and certain levels of communication that are not generally found in this particular fabric.

In many cultures and periods, geometry is found most often in the ornamentation of folk art, and especially in the textile arts of women - all along the periphery of fine art. This can be true as well in the Islamic world. But so was its opposite, for mathematics, astronomy and natural science were important courtly arts, and the greatest of public works and royal treasures received geometric ornamentation. Figural decoration was often restricted to the common arts, even to children’s toys and the decoration of vernacular ceramics.

We can look to the use of geometry as a means of composing ikat surfaces and for seeing and understanding them. In ikat, we need to think of geometric decoration in its broadest sense, as a regular figure repeated regularly.

The geometric ornamentation that is associated with ikat has less to do with the woven structure of the fabric than one might expect. The vertical division is determined by the warp, but the horizontal, wefting thread is entirely hidden. one way in which the fabric structure builds an internal geometry is through manipulations, movements and division - of the warp. The first division of the warp may have encouraged further warp manipulations. Increasing the number of horizontal repeats gave a narrower and narrower appearance to the individual bundles, and stretched the pattern vertically and also brought a more symmetrical structure to the composition.

The silk velvet ikats were very difficult to weave, and design exercises of a different kind, because the designer had to make a very elongated pattern on the warp that would appear compressed after the weaving and looping process. It is no wonder that they are often far simpler in pattern than the adras ikats. In the silk velvet we can find a very pleasing "loose geometry", in which repeating medallion forms are softened by the texture of the velvet material.

The most powerful geometry at work within ikat design is implied rather that explicit. This implied geometry is built on curving, vaguely floral forms. Here, stems, tendrils, blooms are constrained within regular pattern repeats. Tension and variety depend upon the interlacing of other repeating patterns, and on scale. We find repetition harmonious, and beauty in symmetry - especially - in ikat - when our eye wishes to see a pattern completed - and it’s not. Our brain has to do that work internally, and that makes the pattern much more exciting and beautiful.

The scale and size of certain giant ikat patterns is suitable for the field of a large carpet – or even for a painted or tiled wall mural. Here they are destined for use in a robe of a standardized size – in which fragmentation of the pattern is inevitable, and it is impossible that the entire lozenge could be seen.

In contrast to the many ikats that play with the intersection of floral and geometric form, there are very few ikats that may be inspired by architecture. Those that I know of contain rows of arch-like forms, and are from the latter part of the nineteenth century. They are very static, they have to be. Architectural forms send us a message of organization and control. If an image surrounded by a frame or an arch is made formal by the frame, then the frame itself is stiff and authoritarian. This is not like Central Asian ikat. Ikat often contains a reflection of the local architecture in its layering and blending of patterns, but no more.

There many examples of the interplay and tension between different patterns in the great architectural monuments of Bukhara and Samarkand, where bands of geometric tile challenge the eye to complete the discontinuous patterns. On a very different scale, but with some of the same intent, panels of dissimilar ikat are laid together in a single ikat.

A little offhand decoration with writing – bits of poetry, household homilies – is fairly common in other urban textiles. Not ikat. They could certainly have done it, they had the technical skills, but they didn’t. It was not the place of ikat to carry such a specific message. In Central Asia, the arts tend to be more discrete. Poetic expression belongs in poetry, Sufism in the khanaqah. As a friend of mine, an Islamic scholar, once told me, "In Iran, a glass of wine is union with the Beloved. On the steppe, a glass of wine is a glass of wine."

In ikats, things really don’t look quite like anything from the real world, or quite like anything from the mathematical world of precise geometric form. These ways of defining what we are seeing, as objects, as concise shapes, always elude us when we look at ikat. I think that it’s one of the ways they work. We take pleasure in the elusive quality of the design, in which harmonious composition stands first, then vegetal representation and geometry and pure color intersect. This loose association with mimetic form brings the pattern into another level of experience, triggers other reactions in the brain.

These gigantic floral forms are hardly the flowers found in the Bukharan garden. Central Asia is rich in flowers, but this is the steppe, not the rain-forest. Tulips are native to the steppe, and at the spring solstice there are miles and miles of flowers, a carpet of small red tulips. The silk flowers in these ikats aren’t what flowers look like, they’re what you feel in a garden, or when you look deeply into the heart of a flower. A lot if that good feeling comes from a visual harmony, a sense of rightness because of the underlying geometry of the composition.

Most people are drawn to the early Central Asian ikats through their colors. We react first to the clarity, saturation and depth of the larger areas of color, and then to the intersection and blending of balanced hues in the areas of overdye, and at the edge of each tied warp bundle. The large ikat wallhangings have a tremendous visual impact. We are seduced. Our eyes are teased in, tickled by the sophistication of the composition, by the elegance of the forms. The motifs float – they never appear to really touch. However richly colored the fabric, we are looking , not at surface, but into space, into a void. We can lose ourselves in an ikat’s intertwining motifs, but it is color that holds us entranced. Color is the great "intermediary" in ikat, a pathway to real intoxication.

Emotive response to color will differ across cultures and time. I do not think that we can build any objective correlation of color with emotion – not even for ourselves – and certainly not for the artists who made these ikats, or the 19th century consumers who bought it. We may be able to establish a cultural identity within a common range of colors used in Central Asia at this time – just as we recognize a range of motifs. Before the introduction of synthetic and artificial dyes, many if not most tribal and urban textiles contained the same hues. In the case of some nomadic production, it was not technique or materials or even the choice of colors which allowed us to differentiate between the work of different groups. It was how the colors are arranged, how they were juxtaposed.. This range of colors common to much of Central Asian textile art is not merely fortuitous or accidental. Any of you who are dyers will know how difficult it is to achieve these clear, saturated colors. The virtues of natural dyestuffs derive from the skills of the dyers, not their natural base of the dye material. The choice of colors reflected the taste of the area and the time.

Nonetheless, it makes me uncomfortable to set up standards of color; to equate certain hues with quality, and call others debased. There is a habitual and unfortunate valorization of color as the measure of quality within textile studies of Central Asia – in which all colors obtained from natural dyes are good and all synthetics are bad. In art, there are always exceptions to the rules. There are phenomenal late 19th century ikats with motifs in slate-pink and sulphur-yellow and toothpaste-green - which come together with such dynamism that the entire effect is superb.

The question has been asked, "Are Central Asian ikats art?". They look like art - they affect us, they give something to us, and we send something back. Each one of them affects us differently. We know, looking at them, that each ikat is the work of an individual who thought deeply about his every choice of color and form, in order to build a harmonious composition on a blank white field. There is always a concern with negative and positive space, for the placement of each pattern and its corollary. We can see the risks that these anonymous craftsmen took, and trace their response to each step of the dyeing process. Each ikat is a discovery of a new kind of order.

The defense of the 12th century ecclesiastic, Abbot Suger of Saint Denis, for his collection of jewels was that in gazing at their brilliance and color, he found a kind of spiritual contemplation, a state which brought him closer to God. I am not prepared to claim so unambiguous a spiritual connection for Central Asian ikats. But it is of great value to know, through the guild records that remain to us, that these craftsmen believed firmly that their skills, their artistry came as a gift from God. Good thoughts and virtuous behavior were necessary for the successful completion of the work. The ikat craftsmen found inspiration in chaotic nature and in a culturally resonant vocabulary of design. Using the tools of geometry and pure color, they built an ordered universe.

Copyright © Kate Fitz Gibbon