The golden age of ikat in 19th century Uzbekistan was a period of cultural flowering, but was followed by a sharp decline during the Soviet era. Today, however, a full scale revival has begun, under the auspices of the Mehmet Cetinkaya Gallery in Istanbul.
Vibrant silk ikat and velvet ikat textiles, originally produced by the oasis dwellers of Bukhara, Samarkand and the Fergana Valley, exemplify the rich, artistic history of Central Asia. Noblemen, aristocrats and rich merchants alike, wore exquisite ikat robes as signs of status, and presented them to visiting dignitaries as gifts of honor. At auspicious occasions several coats were worn in layers, one on top of the other. Ikat hangings, quilts and pillows were also used as sumptuous decoration in traditional homes.
Uzbek craftsmen still rely on local families to produce the cocoons from which the silk is extracted. The season begins in April, when each household is given twenty grams of silkworm eggs in a container the size of a matchbox. The silkworms that emerge from these eggs devour enormous quantities of mulberry leaves for about six weeks before spinning up to eighty kilos of cocoons.
The silk fibers are extracted after sorting the cocoons according to quality. In preparation for dyeing, the threads are washed with sodium ash and soap made from cottonseed oil to remove the glue (yelim) of the cocoon.
Silk ikat is a complex method of weaving that utilizes a resist dyeing process (similar to tie-dye) on the warp threads before weaving, in order to create an intricate design in the finished product.
The warping reel is used to measure warp threads that are approximately 150 meters in length when using natural dyes. Preparation of the warp, tying of the patterns and dyeing is done by men. The rasmchi is the designer, the nishonji makes the marks, the abrbandchi ties the threads and the ranguborchi immerses the threads in the hot dye pots over wood burning fires.
To begin the process, small groups of silk threads are repetitively bound in an intricate design with a water resistant material, in order to prevent penetration of the dye bath. Yellow, usually the lightest color is dyed first. Subsequently, all that is to remain yellow is bound tightly and the next color is dyed. This process is repeated for each color
When dyeing is complete, the resists are removed to reveal the design, the loom is warped and the weaving begins, frequently by women. The entire process requires 37 steps from cocoon to finished product.
Silk ikat velvet
Silk ikat velvet, a pile weave, is known as baghmal by Uzbeks and Tadjiks. The binding and dyeing process is the same as for simple ikat. For ikat velvet, however, there are two warp systems, one for the ground cloth and one for the velvet, which is considerably longer. In order to form the pile, the ikat velvet warps are raised to form loops over a grooved wire. A razor is drawn through the groove, leaving a perfectly even edge on the pile.
Design motifs include amulets or other forms of jewelry, rams' horns, plants, pomegranates, trees, tulips, scorpions, and birds, which are commonly abstracted for use in Uzbek ikat patterns.
During and following the Soviet era, there was significant stagnation in the sphere of traditional handicrafts, particularly in the manufacture of ikat.
In the early 1990's traditional manufacturing slowly began to recover because of the knowledge and the efforts of old masters. Today ikat is in high demand internationally by fashion designers as well as interior architects. For the last ten years, China has been importing silk from Uzbekistan, which has resulted in a four-fold increase in silk prices. As a result, Uzbek weavers began to incorporate mixtures of viscose, cotton, and other synthetic materials with silk fibers, in addition to using semi-automatic machines to further decrease costs.
Dyers, unable to implement the color combinations, tones and patina they desire, have resorted to chemical treatments that fade with time, resulting in a loss of the original depth and vibrancy.
Mehmet Cetinkaya Gallery began producing ikat in the Fergana Valley of Uzbekistan in 2002, utilizing only silk warps with wefts of pure cotton. Silk warp and cotton weft are also used in weaving ikat velvet, although at times the weft may also be made of silk. Mehmet Cetinkaya ikat, woven only on hand looms, maintains the venerable 19th century tradition, while providing future generations with an enduring legacy.