Wool: a precious and ancient fibre with surprising properties. Insulating and waterproof, it has always been by our side to keep us warm in winter. Also, it lets the skin breathe: desert peoples teach us that wool clothes can be very useful even under the sun, as they wick moisture away from the skin and regulate body temperature. Last but not least, it’s easier to work than vegetable fibres: also very important in the premodern times.
Wool can be obtained by just shearing animals: sheep, goats, but also rabbits, camels, antelopes and yaks. Each of them gives us different kind of yarns with different properties. This variety involves the types of wool as well as its manufacturing: humans have always invented different wool weaving techniques. Everything always begins from the loom, ancient tool with which people, like we say, weave plans or plots.
Behind this millenary art, archetype of human activities, there’s the weaver: s/he interlaces warp, the vertical yarns, and weft, the horizontal yarns, which are perpendicular to the first ones. Like in a dance, s/he weaves warp yarns in and out the weft yarns by alternating them in various ways, and so creates different fabrics, like for instance the diamond weave, the fish bone weave or the twill weave. The weaver can also choose to dye the yarns, thus creating decorations, patterns and images.
This is the case of ikat. The special thing about this ancient technique, which comes from India and other eastern countries, is that yarns are dyed before being woven. If warp threads or weft threads are dyed, that's called a simple ikat; if both are dyed, then we have a double ikat. The crucial moment is the dyeing phase: the weaver wraps together bundles of yarn and leaves others untied, so that the dye colours only the loose threads. This is no random choice: the weaver already knows the motif s/he is going to create on the loom. Here, with great artistry, s/he weaves weft and warp so that the dyed parts match up and are always in exactly the same place in order to obtain, in the end, the same motif along the length of the fabric.
Ikat weaving is an extremely complex technique, but it’s this complexity that makes it unique: at a closer look, no ikat motif is the same, and it has often a blurred, hazy quality to it. You will easily tell an authentic ikat fabric from an ikat-look printed fabric: you just need to look at the reverse side, where you will find the same pattern.
Ikat's charm crosses the centuries: despite its complexity, it spread simultaneously in different parts of the world, where various styles, patterns and colours developed. South-America knew it, but also Japan, India and Southeast Asia, from where the Dutch traders who travelled the Silk Road brought it to the Old World. Here, in France, a ikat inspired technique developed, the chiné à la branche, which was very fashionable in the 30s and 40s of 19th century. But ikat continues to inspire the creation not only of beautiful wool scarves and shawls but also of tapestries in modern interior design.