Fashion Forward Ikats
Prepare to be dazzled. The 60 ikat robes in Washington D.C.'s The Textile Museum's show, "Colors of the Oasis: Central Asian Ikats," are a riot of sun-splashed color. The rich jewel toned robes, appealingly hung in the round so you can view them from all directions, are from the museum's Megalli Collection. Most are 19th century ceremonial robes from Samarkand, Bukhara, and the silk weaving centers in the Fergama Valley in Central Asia.
Silk ikat garments were the height of fashion in the 19th century. On the streets of Central Asian oasis towns, a brilliantly colored ikat coat was a symbol of wealth --- equivalent to driving around today in a Bugatti Royale Coupe. Ikat textiles also had pride of place in the homes of the rich. Silk robes were often used as diplomatic gifts to distinguished dignitaries. The khans and emirs of Bukhara, Samarkand, and Uzbekistan made a practice of sending robes to the tsars of Russia as well as to important heads of state to cement political alliances.
Today, while ikat designs are still popular in Central Asia, few workshops there can reach the artistry seen in this museum's historic collection. The royal patrons and rich emirs who traveled the various Silk Roads and collected silk robes no longer exist. Furthermore, during Communist times, mechanical looms, synthetic fibers, and chemical dyes replaced traditional methods and materials. Yet today, some workshops are turning out artisanal pieces. Ikat designs are not exactly trendy, but fashion designers like Oscar de la Renta who featured ikat-influenced coats in a recent collection, helped to focus attention on the tradition. Diane von Furstenberg is another designer who has been influenced by the dynamite colors and designs of traditional ikat textiles.
What makes these textiles so stunning and contemporary is their bold graphic designs coupled with lush, exuberant colors. The process for creating ikat textiles is exceedingly demanding requiring great skill and patience. After deciding on a design, the silk threads have to be bound in certain places to resist overall dyeing. After applying the first color, they are then rebound as often as necessary to add more colors. All this resist-dyeing has to take place even before the yarn is placed on a loom for weaving into cloth. Unlike other forms of weaving, the design and yarn colors have to be fixed before any weaving can begin. As curator of the exhibit Sumru Belger Krody has said:" It is like assembling a jigsaw puzzle. Each thread has multiple colors on it. By keeping each thread in place in relation to its neighbors, you achieve the design." In some instances for a very fine brilliantly colored robe, a single strand of silk might have up to ten different colors.
The Murad Megalli collection of 149 Central Asian ikats was donated to The Textile Museum in 2005. Tragically, Megalli, a J.P.Morgan executive who had collected textiles for some 22 years, died tragically in a plane crash in Northern Iraq in February, 2011.
"Colors of the Oasis" opened last November at the Washington D.C. museum and will run until March 13. It travels to the Museum of Fine Arts Houston in 2014. The Textile Museum is located in the Dupont Circle neighborhood of Washington DC at 2320 S Street. Details at www.textilemuseum.org (202-667-0441).