The Story of Ikats

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Summer is the time to wander the globe looking for treasures from the exotic corners of the world. Central Asia seems a perfect place to take our summer daydream. Look no further – this summer, Fortuny New York is pleased to introduce a selection of ikat fabrics handmade by artisan weavers in Uzbekistan and developed by Bermingham & Co.

Venice, Bukhara, New York

The oasis of Uzbekistan and the lagoon of Venice – a landlocked country and a maritime republic – once offered something very similar to the world. Both served as important hubs in a trade network that connected East and West, a position that enabled them to enrich themselves with arts, crafts and cultures from different corners of the world. Mariano Fortuny, a lifetime residence of Venice, never ceased to be inspired by Eastern arts whose trace is abundant in his city.

The bustling trade scene in Venice in the 15th century. Venetian merchant boats sailed to all corners of the Mediterranean and ferrying goods between Europe, North Africa and the far East. Painting by Erhardum Reuwich of Trajecto and Bernhard von Breydenbach. 

At the heart of the Eurasian continent, Uzbekistan was among the most important posts of the Silk Roads. Merchants passing by brought with them not only goods but also cultural, religious, and art-and-craft influences to enrich the local cities. Painting of Samarkha, an important trade hub by Richard Zommer.

Jewish children with their teacher in Samarkha in the 19th century. Notice the Ikat robe by the student to the right. While ikats have been woven into the lives of Uzbeks for generations, its significance was only discovered in the 18th century. Photo by Sergei Mikhailovich Prokudin-Gorskii.

Bukhara was a major point in the Silk Road and one of the most important knots in the textile trade between Asia, Middle East and Europe. Through the caravans of nomad traders, ikat made its way into the life of Uzbeks and, by the 18th century, became a highly prized item reserved for the royalty and upperclass. Only the most skilled artisans were allowed to produce ikat and it was them who gave the art of ikat in Central Asia its unique identity. “What makes these Central Asian ikats special is their boldness [that] arrest you in your step.” – Massumeh Farhad, chief curator Freer | Sackler, The Smithsonian.

Uzbek ikats displayed at the David Collection in Denmark. Photo by Pernille Klemp.

The country’s double landlocked position and its mountainous terrain helped preserve the art of ikat after the demise of the Silk Road. At the turn of the 20th century, Uzbek ikat went through a brief change with the incorporation into the Soviet Union when corporative, mass production replaced craftsmen’s exclusive small-scale production. While ikat became accessible to the public, the designs were simplified and synthetic replaced natural dyes. A few families managed to secretly safeguard the old, elaborated techniques and revived production after the country’s independence. One of such families was discovered by Bermingham & Co during their fateful visit to Uzbekistan.

The husband-and-wife duo behind Bermingham & Co stumbled upon ikats when a man walked into their antique shop on the Upper East Side trying to sell them his stock of Uzbek ikats. They immediately fell in love with the fabrics and bought everything the man had. Karine Bermingham, a French-trained upholsterer, started putting ikats on vintage furniture and it turned clients’ heads. They decided to invest and give the man a sum of money to go to Uzbekistan and buy ikats for their store. In a twist of fate, he disappeared with the investment. In another twist of fate, the Bermingham’s later met an Uzbek whose sister just graduated from the Textile Institute in Tashkent. Determined to chase down this elusive textile, John Bermingham agreed to hop on a plane and fly to Uzbekistan to meet with the girl who took him to remote ikat making villages in the Fergana Valley and outside of Bukhara. Days of treacherous travel through rugged mountainous terrain, in a country he has never been nor did he know the language, John found the source and started what would become a fruitful relationship. The workshop that produces Bermingham & Co’s ikats has been making the fabrics for many generations. The current owner is a strong willed craftsman who is determined to not only continue his father and grandfather’s craft but also revive the traditional techniques using natural fibers and natural dyes.

The process

Ikat is a method of fabric making where the pattern is created prior to weaving through the process of resist-dye of the yarns. Central Asian ikats are warp dyed which means the warp – the lengthwise yarn – is manipulated to create the pattern. The workshop cultivates their own silk – a technique also originated in East Asia and brought to Central Asia through the Silk Road. Silk processing is tedious but the silk yarns give ikat its highly-valued sheen. Before any weaving takes place, a master weaver decides on a pattern from hundreds he has committed to memory while his helpers bundle the yarns and lay them out on a 2×2 meter frame. He then draws the pattern on the outstretched bundles using a sharpened stick dipped in oil and charcoal, marking where the threads are to be bound. His assistant will wrap the bundles at these specific spots using dye-resistant threads of cotton soaked in wax. The yarn bundles are then transferred to the dye bath in the exact order they are on the frame otherwise the pattern would be broken. In the case of multiple color ikat – after each dye-bath, the bundles are left to dry then re-stretched on the frame for the second round of binding and dyeing. The genius of the master craftsman is in strategizing the steps so that the next dye bath adds onto the previous to either forms a pattern in its own shade or combine with the previously dyed parts to make a new color. With natural dyeing, each color may require a different temperature and condition so this is also something to take into account. From the basis of less than five natural colors, the artisans can create a variety of colors and an unlimited possibility of pattern combination. The points where the yarn bundles are tied to the 2×2 meter frame result in a line repeating every two meters or so in the final woven fabric. This line distinguishes handmade from machine-made ikats and is an inevitable feature of traditional ikat weaving.

Pages from a notebook with two traditional designs at the workshop that produces Bermingham & Co’s ikats. Having worked with such designs all their lives, the master weavers can create many patterns out of memories. They can also come up with new designs and devise the steps to bind the thread bundles for dyeing. 

A craftsman transfers the design onto the bundles which are stretched on a 2x2m frame, marking where the dye-resist knots are to be made. This process is repeat with any additional color. Photo taken at the ikat workshop in Uzbekistan by Bermingham & Co.

A silk bundle at the end of the dyeing process showing positions of the dye-resist knots. Multi-colored ikats require multiple repeating of the tie, dye, dry, and stretch steps. Photo by Bermingham & Co.

The finished fabric vs. the pre-dyed bundles. Note that the pre-dyed bundles show half of the final pattern. After being dyed, they will be split and opened on the weaving loom to create a mirrored symmetrical pattern.  Photo taken at that ikat workshop in Uzbekistan by Bermingham & Co.

The threads are stretched onto the loom, showing a fully realized pattern along the warp. The weaver constantly adjusts the yarn to ensure the integrity of the pattern. Photo by Bermingham & Co.

Once the dyeing is done, the bundles are split in half and opened up to create a mirror image of the pattern then stretched onto the loom. During the weaving, the thread is adjusted every time the shuttle passes through to maintain the design. For velvet ikats, there is an extra step – a fine wire is woven along the weft with every fly of the shuttle. The weaver will then use a blade to cut along those wires to create the “pile.” This process produces no more than 40 inches of fabric a day.

A velvet ikat by Bermingham & Co. In addition to the time-consuming ikat process, velvet ikat requires an extra step of inserting a wire with every single weft and cutting the loop, resulting in a maximum of 40 inches of velvet that can be woven a day. 

If the city of Bukhara offers a clue about the beautiful ikats being produced here for the past centuries – it must be the impressive mosaics. Characteristic of Islamic art, mosaic patterns and most ikat patterns are figurative, geometric and colorful. In contrast with the arid landscape, life here is lived in full colors – under intricate mosaic structures, men and women sway around in vivid colored fabrics. The bazaar of Bukhara is where John Bermingham found himself ten years ago in a trip that changed everything. Today, we are pleased to offer a collection of Uzbek ikats by Bermingham & Co available to designers from the tri-state areas at Fortuny New York showroom.