The spectacular patterns and vivid colors of the ikat fabrics - the status symbols of 19th-century Central Asia. In pre-Soviet Uzbekistan and Tajikistan, though, it was more than a colorful accent: The ikat (pronounced EE-kaht) was the supreme expression of the designer’s art and the dyer’s skill, a practical part of households that could afford it, an important product of a growing urban economy and a gift of significance and prestige whether to a loved one or to a tsar. It was glue in many spheres of life, from political to economic to social. One reason for the prestige of ikat fabrics is the difficulty of making them. 

The tricky part of ikat is that you introduce your colors and patterns to the yarns before you weave them, and then you weave the material, and then when you’ve finished the fabric, the design clearly comes in front of you.

Each strand of yarn might be dyed and dried three times — in the primary dye colors of yellow, red and blue — and before each stage in the dying process, the designer must tie up each yarn to protect sections that are not supposed to absorb that color dye. So a section that will be blue must be knotted for the yellow and red dye baths; a section that will be green must absorb the yellow dye, then be knotted for the red dye, then be untied for the blue so that the yellow and blue combine for green.

Ikats have been produced in many parts of the world, with some variations; the word “ikat” derives from a Malay term meaning “to tie.” Central Asian ikat fabrics use fine silk yarns that are dyed and placed on the loom — the weft of the fabric. The warp, the yarn woven across the weft, would typically be a plain cotton that is not noticed.

The ikat technique is known elsewhere, but in Central Asia, it’s a very, very different story. Theirs is the most colorful: jewel-like colors with very bold designs. Nowhere else in the world will you see that used this way.

The ancient cities of Central Asia, along the northern Silk Road, had been known for centuries for producing luxury fabrics. In the case of ikat fabrics, the major production started in Bukhara and spread to Samarkand and then the Fergana Valley. It just blossomed on the scene in the beginning of the 19th century and basically died in the 1920s and ’30s when the Soviets took control of this region.

This boldly striped robe from the mid-19th century was made in Uzbekistan, possibly in Bukhara. The simple T-shaped robe was a basic part of men’s and women’s apparel.

Krody can spot the development of Central Asia’s ikat art as she walks through the exhibition. “If you know Islamic art and Islamic art vocabulary, you start to see that this is really based on that tradition, but it’s really abstracted to a new level,” she said.

Early pieces often involve quick color changes from one spot to the next with no obvious distinction between foreground and background designs, Krody said. That changed by about the middle of the 19th century, once artisans had mastered their technique. “When it came to the mid-19th century, they were ready to explore the designs, new designs. And you see, 1850 to 1880, there is this big explosion of new designs,” she said.

Older designs were repeated, too — but not exactly. “These artists weren’t static. While trying new things, they were also very much observing the traditional designs but reinterpreting them,” Krody said. “You can call ikat designers like jazz improvisation: They improvised the same things again and again, but they added new things and created new tunes.”

Old ikat masters interviewed in the 1940s and 1950s said they wanted their designs to capture the mood of a season, for example, by using abstracted forms from nature, Krody said.

The variety of ikat designs presents a special challenge for Krody. She said the man who assembled this collection and donated it to the museum, Turkish-born international banker Murad Megalli, made an effort to find unusual and unique designs. “And it’s good to receive wonderful, new things; it’s hard for scholars like me because it’s hard to date and provenance them,” she said. The exhibition includes more than 60 of Megalli’s collection of more than 150 ikats.

Although the designs are elaborate and the production process laborious, the ikat fabrics were used in very simple garments: dresses and pants for women, and T-shaped robes for men and women. “There is a slight difference in one type of this T-shaped coat that made it a woman’s coat,” Krody said. “Under the arms, [a] woman’s coat has little pleats, just basically makes the top part of the coat a little more fitting, and then the skirt bulges out a little bit.” 

The coats typically were lined with an equally bold fabric, but a printed cotton cloth, not an ikat. Ikat fabrics were too “precious and prestigious” for most people to hide as liners. “It was a luxury fabric, so it was very special,” Krody said. “It wasn’t for everyone, although everyone wanted to acquire it, but you had to have a certain wealth to be able to. Depending on your wealth, you may have one in your wardrobe or you may have dozens of it.”

No scrap of usable ikat fabric would be thrown away, she said. A worn-out coat for an adult might be salvaged for a child’s size, or for a border on another garment. 

Although the ikat fabrics and garments were made in the urban centers of Central Asia — the oases of the Silk Road — they were worn by the nomads of the countryside as well as middle-class townspeople, Krody said.

In the 20th century, the prestige of Central Asian ikats led to the demise of the industry that produced them. For one thing, the private workshops — the designers, the dyers, the weavers and the tailors, sometimes represented by different ethnic and religious groups — could not fit in with the communal ideal of the Soviet Union. “They tried several ways to kind of hold onto the tradition, but unfortunately when the Soviet regime came in, ikat was considered to be a very middle-class fabric, for a wealthy clientele, so they were basically suppressed to produce and use this material,” Krody said.

Colors of the Oasis will remain on view at the Textile Museum through March 13, 2011. Krody said that only the Kunstkamera Museum in St. Petersburg, Russia, has a more extensive collection, including spectacular ikats given to the czars by Central Asian rulers in the 19th century.


Textile Museum Receives Gift Of 148 Central Asian Ikats

Coat Central Asia Uzbekistan The Textile Museum The Megalli Collection Coat, Central Asia, Uzbekistan. The Textile Museum. The Megalli Collection. Textile collector Murad Megalli of Istanbul has donated a collection of 148 Central Asian ikats to The Textile Museum. The gift includes numerous men's and women's ikat coats, over garments, pants, cradle covers, hangings and various fragments. All of the ikats are from Uzbekistan and date primarily to the Nineteenth Century.

In announcing the gift, director Daniel Walker said, "We are honored that Mr Megalli chose The Textile Museum as the repository for such an important collection. The gift should be a point of pride for those who love the museum, for it serves to validate what they already believe, that the museum is worthy of support and remains a serious collecting institution."

The gift represents one of the largest additions to The Textile Museum's collection of Central Asian textiles. All of the textiles are silk ikats with interesting and graphically striking patterns, making the collection important both for scholarship and connoisseurship. Among the designs are some that are very unusual, such as black and white combinations, and others clearly recalling the textiles from which they were inspired, such as Persian and Ottoman textiles of previous centuries.

Cradle cover Central Asia Uzbekistan The Textile Museum The Megalli Collection Cradle cover, Central Asia, Uzbekistan. The Textile Museum, The Megalli Collection. Illustrating the Central Asian penchant for strong colors and bold patterns, these ikat fabrics were produced by highly skilled and specialized dyers in the urban centers of Uzbekistan for consumption by both urban and rural populations.

Murad Megalli, managing director with JPMorgan in Istanbul, has had an interest in Oriental textiles since the late 80s. His passion for textiles and collecting them flourished over the years under the influence of Istanbul and the region.

Of choosing The Textile Museum as the recipient of this gift, Mr. Megalli said, "A key consideration in donating the ikats to The Textile Museum was conversations with Bruce Baganz, president of the Board of Trustees, and director Daniel Walker. Their vision and enthusiasm for broadening the museum's audiences convinced me that the collection would be used to further understanding of ikats within a cultural context."

The majority of items in the collection are ikat coats called khalat, which were produced in the urban centers of Uzbekistan by professional male tailors. Some of these coats are quilted and all are embellished with decorative edges. These coats are worn over other layers of clothing, including a long shirt and baggy pants, and held in place by a leather or embroidered belt with metal buckle. Women's coats have a slightly different cut. A young woman would wear lighter and brighter colors, while an older woman would wear darker colors. Children's coats are smaller replicas of the adult coats.

Large hangings were used to cover alcoves, as bedding or were hung on a wall as decoration and to keep the room warm in cold days. They are also used to divide areas of the room for separate activities.

Coat Central Asia Uzbekistan The Textile Museum The Megalli Collection Coat, Central Asia, Uzbekistan. The Textile Museum. The Megalli Collection. Ikat is a resist dye textile-patterning technique that requires careful planning before weaving starts, as the colors on the yarns, which are used to weave the textile, are what create the desired pattern once the textile is woven.

The process involves arranging yarns in the order in which they will be placed on the loom, separated into bundles, and tightly binding areas to be protected during the dyeing process; these areas resist penetration of the dye when immersed in a dye bath. The process of resisting and dyeing is then repeated for each additional color that will be used in the pattern. Once dyed, the yarns are transferred to the loom with great care taken to ensure preservation of their alignment, thus keeping the design intact.

This technique can be done only in the warp, like these Central Asian ikats, or in the weft, or, less commonly, in both warp and weft. The resultant designs range from highly complicated compositions involving several colors to more subtle three-tone patterns. Because silk warp yarns are resisted in the dyeing, the Central Asian weavers chose to use satin weave to produce the fabrics, completely hiding the weft yarns and thus giving prominence to the ikat patterning on the luxurious silk warp.