Sunday, August 3, 2014

My Most Favorite of All

Stunning Silk Velvet Ikat

The question I am asked most frequently is “what is my favorite textile?”.  In some ways that is like asking a parent “which is your favorite child?”.  Each is loved for their unique qualities.  But I will admit that there is one textile that is, hands down, my favorite: silk velvet ikat robes of Central Asia.

Nearly two decades ago I happened upon an exhibit of Central Asian ikats at the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston. I was so overwhelmed by the beauty of the collection that I visited weekly.  I would be among the first in the gallery so that I could be close enough to clearly see each textile displayed.  I attended every gallery lecture, and there began my fascination with ikat, but most specifically robes of silk velvet ikat.

Over the years I have visited Asia many times and have accumulated a modest collection of ikats.  I have watched textile dyers create the threads, pre-dying the patterns, which, miraculously are then woven into the most intricate, colorful cloth.  But, until last month I had not seen silk velvet ikat cloth actually woven. 

Thankfully, there has been a revival of this most difficult of techniques and collectors (and lovers) of beautiful fabrics and clothing can now purchase velvet robes and silk wraps from talented weavers.

Velvet is classified as a pile fabric.  It is not a type of fiber, but can be made from cotton, silk, or rayon/acetate. Original pile fabrics were created by forming loops by adding supplementary wefts during weaving and the loops remained uncut.  The basis for velvet weaving is a warp loop created from supplementary warps.  As the cloth is woven, thin wires are placed parallel to the ground weft and are woven onto the surface of the fabric with the supplementary warp threads forming a tight loop across the rods or wires.  After several rows of rods have been attached, a knife is drawn across the top of the wire or rod and the rod is pulled free and used in the weaving of subsequent rows. The development of the rich pile surface is a slow process. Subsequently, further technique by the French produced a double woven cloth which was sliced apart as it came from the loom.

The process of velvet ikat is very much more problematic.  Not only is the resist method of dying the warp threads to form a pattern in the finished fabric labor intensive and demanding of a very skilled worker, there is the additional problem of the supplementary warp matching the ground.  For every inch of finished cloth there might be as much as 5 times the length of warp thread required.

At the recent International Folk Art Festival held last month in Santa Fe I saw a loom prepared for demonstration.

One can see the pre-dyed warp threads at the top of the photo

Note the silver wires at the top of the woven cloth.  The supplementary warp  had been woven over these wires.  The wires will be sliced free, removed and used in subsequent rows.

My Most Favorite of All

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