Revival of Indigo Blue Silk ikat fabrics for the modern Fashion Industry

The term “ikat” has a Malay-Indonesian origin, and a rich historic background affiliated generally with Asia and particularly with the Indian Subcontinent (present-day Pakistan and India). Broadly defined, in English “ikat” refers to fabrics made from resist-dyed threads. “Ikat” can mean any of the nouns, “thread”, “knot”, “finished ikat fabric”, or “knot”, or depending on the context, it could refer to the verbs: “to bind” or “to tie”.

Furthermore, the term “ikat” is etymologically related to the same word in the Japanese language. Talking of the ikat fabric in the Japanese context, its finished form is said to originate from threads that are dipped in dye and then intertwined to form the final product. Unlike resist dyeing techniques such as shibori, tie-dye, and batik, in which the fabric is dyed, in ikat fabric dyeing it is the thread that is dyed.

The wonderful aesthetic and eye-catching details of the ikat fabric are easily recognizable with their distinct motifs and patterns. Anyone with an eye for fabric with a distinct character knows its value, and so when you find some incredible pieces made with designer silk ikat, it is okay to not be able to resist.

What is Ikat Fabric?

It is important to note that the term “Ikat fabric” does not refer to a specific fabric material or any type of fiber, rather it refers to the fabric pattern which is created by using a unique refining and dyeing process. The ikat fabric pattern is achieved by following an intensive and unique technique called resist dyeing.

Although still seen as a traditional fabric pattern process, over time ikat fabric, particularly designer silk ikat, has made its name in the fashion world. While donned as dresses and sweater tops too, it is most commonly used for scarves and shawls. Ikat fabric has become culturally central to (Middle and South) East Asia and some parts of Europe.

How is Ikat Fabric Made?

As mentioned above, “ikat” refers to the unique art of resist dyeing that directly dyes the threads. The warp or weft threads are first tied and then dyed. The tying and dyeing is a demanding process that requires following a particular sequence. To prepare the threads for ikat dyeing, they need to be carefully bundled and stretched out in frames. By doing this the desired pattern is marked on the thread, and the areas on the fabric that need to be resist dyed are rightly wrapped and exposed. After that, the cables are lined up on the loom to begin weaving. The same process is carried out for producing designer silk ikat.

Single Ikat

In “single ikat”, only one of the two threads, warp or weft, is dyed while the other is left in solid color. This means that if the ikat is “warp dyed”, then the warp is dyed while the weft thread is a solid color, while if it is “weft dyed”, then the weft is dyed and the warp thread is a solid color.

Double Ikat

Double ikat means both the warp and weft threads are dyed, making it a more complex process than single ikat. Once both the warp and weft are dyed, they are woven to create wonderful patterns through the intersection of the dyed threads. The warp threads require constant adjustments, making double ikat production, on a simple 1×1 weave, a meticulous and time-consuming process. The contours of the pattern vary depending on the complexity of the ikat and the skill of the maker. Mostly the double ikat patterns tend to be blurry. 

Fabric Weaving in Uzbekistan

In Uzbekistan, the technique for producing ikat fabric by resist-dyeing before weaving the threads is called the brand. The word “abr” literally means “cloud”  in Persian, while “abrband” means “tying a cloud”. The ikat fabric produced by resist dyeing is called “abra” fabric in Persian. Hand-woven and hand-dyed Uzbek abra fabrics, or ikat silk fabrics, were the treasures of the past and backed by the significance of their centuries-old heritage, they continue to stay relevant in modern culture, interior designs, and dresses.

Uzbekistan has held a renowned status in fabric weaving and other decorative weaving crafts. Margilan, Bukhara, Kokand, and Namangan were known for being the centers of Uzbek weaving crafts with their several workshops for handmade silk. There is an Uzbek legend about the origin of the ardband technique and how it was inspired by the reflection of clouds in a stream, observed by an artist.  According to the legend, the artist observed how the clouds changed their form in their reflection showing in the fast-moving stream, and watched the sun’s rays split and reflect as a rainbow.

The rainbow and the clouds seemed to be playing together, and the artist painted his vision and showed it to weavers who transferred it beautifully to the fabric. The story of the inspiration taken from clouds led to the coining of the term “abrband” for the process of resisting dyeing base threads and weaving them into traditional fabrics. There are special names for handwoven pure silk fabrics in Uzbekistan, such as atlas, shoi, khan-atlas, etc.

Ikat fabric patterns were named after the shapes they resembled, and diversity was the essence of ikat silk fabrics, with each silk weaving school proudly displaying its unique local artistic specialties. Some ikat were made in shapes inspired by traditional Uzbek jewelry such as triangular pendants and drop earrings. Back in the day when Uzbek women got married, they were expected to wear jewelry that represented their family wealth. Lack of jewelry at a wedding was considered shameful, therefore those who couldn’t afford jewels made use of ikat fabric with jewelry patterns.

The History of Indigo Blue Dyes

The Indigo blue dye, also known as “blue gold” in the olden days, was derived from the Indigofera Tinctoria plant. As the name suggests, the dye originated from India. Besides India, it was also found in the tropical regions of Africa and China. When the British colonized the South East Asian subcontinent, they forced the Indian farmers to cultivate more indigo instead of food crops and paid extremely low prices in return for it. Back in Europe, the same indigo blue dye was sold at multifold prices, expensive enough to only be afforded and donned by royalty and nobles.

The Commercialisation of Indigo Blue Dyes

The initial boom of modern chemical companies at the end of the 19th century brought with it a shift towards synthetic alternatives of the natural indigo blue dye. As the natural indigo blue dye continued to stay relevant and highly sought after, huge investments were made to create its synthetic version. A decade or two down the lane, the naturally derived Indigofera dye was almost completely replaced by its synthetic variant. Currently, the cultivation of the Indigofera plant species has greatly reduced and is mainly limited to El Salvador and Brazil.

Very few producers continue to offer naturally dyed blue silk ikat and indigo blue dyed jeans. These naturally dyed jeans tend to be of a lighter blue than those dyed with the synthetic variant. The synthetic indigo dye is a superior alternative to the original version, in terms of purity, color saturation, pricing, ease of production, as well as its impact on the environment.

Even 5000 years after the discovery of the indigo blue day, the human love for the enchanting midnight blue color, as well as its lighter variants, has not lost its magic. People continue to adore the color and choose to wear it repeatedly. Modern times have changed the discrimination in society based on the colors of the wardrobe and made blue fabric accessible to people with all sorts of buying powers. Be it dresses or sweaters, scarves or skirts, work pants or dungarees, indigo blue never goes out of fashion or our wardrobes.

Use of Indigo Blue Dye in Modern Fashion Designs

While the modern fashion world continues to observe the dominance of synthetic indigo blue dyed fabrics, in recent times, the natural indigo blue dye has again started to gain popularity, particularly in contemporary fashion. Blue ikat fabric has been enjoying its regained status on the list of trending goods, along with some other traditional handmade textile techniques. High-end fabric designers have blessed their designer silk ikat collections with blue ikat fabric. Those who can afford pricier labels with a focus on quality and unique aesthetics can enjoy naturally dyed blue ikat fabric and other eco-friendly designer silk ikat pieces.