What is Ikat?

Lio ikat from Flores

Ikat is one of the most historically ancient forms of textile in Southeast Asia (the photograph shows a Lio ikat from Flores).  Some historians of cloth assert that ikat technologies date to the Bronze Age.  This hand-loomed cloth type is also found in southern China, Japan, Central Asia, and in parts of Africa.  These handloom industries (and now, factory systems of production) vary a great deal from one nation to another in motifs, meanings, and dyework.

Basically, ikat cloth is made by first dyeing the warp threads or the weft threads into intricate patterns through the time-intensive use of small ties that are placed around the yarns by hand, to form resists.  The clumps of tied threads are then taken off their frame and plunged into a dye bath; the little sections of the yarns that lie behind the tiny resists will not soak up that particular dye color (at least, will not soak up color in its entirety: one of the charms of ikat is that its resultant motifs can be blurry).  The yarns are then taken out of the dye bath and dried.  This whole process can be repeated several times, to build up variegated patterns in different colors on the threads.

All of this is done before the decorated yarns are placed onto the loom for the actual weaving of the ikat cloth.  Much ikat is woven on backstrap looms, in north and south Sumatra, Tenganan in east Bali, and in Sulawesi, Kalimantan, and Malaysian Sarawak.  However, some ikat home industries use frame looms. In Bali these are of the ATBM loom type (alat tenun bukan mesin, or non-mechanical loom, in the Indonesian language, Bahasa Indonesia).


Woman at ATBM loom



Backstrap loom from Tenganan village

ATBM factory

Sometimes, ATBM looms are used in factory-like settings, as in the Klungkung and Sidemen areas of east Bali for weaving a type of commercialized single ikat called endek (as seen in image on left). Beyond ikat weaving per se, various other types of frame looms are used in other parts of the Indonesian archipelago.  Some of these have historical connections to frame looms in mainland Southeast Asia (to old royal court weaving centers, which once produced luxury gold-wrapped thread cloths).

In many ikat traditions today in Indonesia and Malaysia, the actual weaving of the textile can hold somewhat lower social importance and prestige than does the ikat design work (that is, the planning out of the patterns for the ties) and the tying off of the small resists to form motifs. So, ikat pattern designers and dyers (often older women in Indonesian and Sarawak Malaysian ikat hand production) have high social status and command public respect. In some areas, dye work is seen as polluting and dangerous.

Oftentimes the ikat designs are said to come from dreams or from other communications with supernatural beings and forces.  Ikat also has many ideological and religious connections to “women’s hands” and to the feminine in general, in these home industries. But, when ikat cloth “goes commercial” as with contemporary endek production in Bali, these associations with gender ideologies and religious worlds can recede from practice.  That does not mean that the cloth is a lesser object, however—rather, its regimes of meaning have shifted in focus, from ceremony to commodity for sale.  Some textile researchers and collectors lament this transition, but we see things differently. Much ikat creativity can result from these commercialization processes, as the exhibition “Transnational Ikat” documents.

Types of Ikat Cloth

There are three main types of ikat: warp ikat, weft ikat, and the very much rarer double ikat.  In the latter, both sets of yarns (the warps and the wefts) are ikatted into patterns before the weaving of the cloth on the loom occurs. As noted, the word ikat comes from the Indonesian verb mengikat, to bind or to tie off.


warp ikat sarong,


geringsing double ikat, Tenganan


weft ikat

In Indonesia and Malaysia, double ikat is done only in a few special weaving villages in east Bali.  These are the Tenganan Pegeringsingan settlements near Candidasa on the coast; these three villages have become fixtures on the international heritage tourism circuit.  These very unusual east Balinese double ikats are called geringsing cloths. (see the link Geringsing in Transition for more information about Bali’s double ikats from 2010 fieldwork study by Professor Susan Rodgers and Robin Cumella, Holy Cross, Class of 2011).

various Geringsing, fromTenganan Dauh Tukad, Est Bali, 2010

Geringsing are supernaturally powerful protective cloths, many Balinese assert. Geringsing (intriguingly enough) are also sold to tourists and older geringsing from the early 1900s circulate worldwide in art collecting circles. These are extremely expensive cloths, in contrast to many single ikats which are modestly priced by international textile collecting standards.

Various Geringsing, from Tenganan Dauh Tukad, East Bali

Geringsing are a prime example of special ikats that have crossed borders while still indexing their rhetorics of “ancientness.” Balinese families use geringsing to protect vulnerable youth in rites of passage ceremonies.  These textiles are also worn in ritual costumes in annual ceremonies in Tenganan, east Bali, to balance the forces of good and evil. These ceremonies work to balance the world from letting in too much evil; so too do these extraordinary geringsing double ikats. Hanging such a powerful, mythic cloth on a home’s wall in America or Australia, say (or indeed, displaying a geringsing in a college museum) is therefore not a simple issue at all.

Each historical era in Southeast Asia has seen innovation in ikat production.  In other words, ikat has been a continually changing cloth form, despite overlays of  “tradition.”  These processes have yielded a variety of types of ikat.

Glittering silk patola from the late 1700s to early 1800s

For instance (in the most famous example of this), the glittering, luxurious silk trade cloths from Gujarat in North India were brought to the Indonesian islands in the 1400s-1600s C.E. period by merchants interested in trading these textiles for the archipelago’s spices, metals, and forest products like aromatic resins.  These trade cloths from India were called patola. The example shown at left is glittering silk patola from the late 1700s to early 1800s. When they first arrived, these spectacular textiles probably fascinated local weavers in places like eastern Indonesian island societies.  The patola’s deep dye colors and busy fields of animal, human, floral, and geometric motifs were probably unlike anything village weavers and dyers had ever seen. The glistening patola were made by the double ikat technique in extremely sophisticated weaving shops in India.  When Indonesian weavers saw these spectacular cloths, with their bright reds and their distinctive motifs and striking borders and selvedge bands (and their sheer intensity), they quickly set to making “copies.”  These were most often executed in single ikat and drew on very local Indonesian aesthetic systems, dye colors, and ceremonial interpretations. 

Contemporary cepuk textile
from Nusa Penida, Bali

Thus, magnificent “patola-like” ikats are found throughout the Indonesian archipelago. contemporary cepuk textile, Nusa Penida, BaliOne good example is the warm brown ikat sarong from Flores, woven by the Lio people Another example is shown at left: a contemporary cepuk textile from Nusa Penida, Bali.

It is crucial to note, however, that Indonesian and Malaysian ikat home industries are not simply derivative of Indian styles and techniques, by any means.  In weaving communities in places like Flores, Sumatra, and Sulawesi, the aesthetics of ikat cloth manufacture and use have long, firm roots in indigenous social systems and religious worldviews.  And, insular Southeast Asian dyeing knowledge and expertise was probably quite considerable long, before intense trade contacts with India.

Furthermore, Indian patola styles have often been heavily re-interpreted with much creative flair in the Hindu-Buddhist court art centers of Indonesia, such as those of 8th to 14th century Java and the palace centers of South Sumatra such as the Srivijaya kingdom (near contemporary Palembang).  These old Indic courts in themselves then strongly influenced the cloth arts of the smaller polities that were located along their borders, up in highland regions or on nearby islands. The art worlds of the Indianized royal courts and those of the smaller-scale highland societies thus intersected and mutually shaped each other.

Beyond this, local market demand for particular dye colors and motif registers in Indonesian islands “worked back” on the patola-producing studios of North India at the time of the great trade cloth exchanges.  Indian merchants would convey news about which patola types were popular in which Southeast Asian region (even, in which royal family) and the Indian dyers and weavers would tailor their products to those desires. This deeply creative dynamic was explored in the excellent exhibition “Sari to Sarong: Five Hundred Years of Indian and Indonesian Textile Exchange” at the Australian National Gallery, 2003  (see curator Robyn Maxwell’s fine catalogue to the show, Maxwell 2004.  See also For Further Reading at the end of this section ).

Textile Types Beyond Ikat

Indonesia and Malaysia have many other types of handloomed or hand-drawn textiles: see the following links for descriptions and photographs of songket, lurik, batik, prada, kain limar, and barkcloth, and for special cloth decoration techniques such as twining and embroidery. See also For Further Reading.  This is well-trod art historical territory.

A South Sumatran songket, metal wrapped thread, polyester, 2007
Songket is a type hand-loomed textile in which the weaver adds in supplementary wefts made of metal-wrapped thread as she builds up her cloth on the loom.  The supplementary wefts build up ornate patterns on the cloth.  Songket can be made on a back-strap loom (as in East Bali or parts of south Sumatra and Jambi) or on a frame loom, as in Minangkabau villages in West Sumatra.  Songket made with gold or silver-wrapped thread is often a lustrous, expensive cloth that denotes wealth and high social standing for the buyer and/or the wearer. Indeed, songket has long been a cloth of Sumatran and Malaysian Muslim marketplaces (Rodgers et al 2007).  In these regions, many songket motifs link this type of glittery, high prestige cloth to weaving traditions in mainland Southeast Asia. In east Balinese songket, moreover, motifs are sometimes borrowed from wayang shadow puppet plays.  These have ties to old Hindu epics such as the Ramayana from India.

Today, songket throughout Southeast Asia is undergoing many of the same processes of commercialization that are affecting ikat textiles as well. Cheaper songket is woven on mechanized looms in Malaysia, although good handloomed songket is also still produced there. Factory-produced cheap songket is traded across South and Southeast Asia, in emporia such as those on Bugis Street in Singapore. A 2007 Cantor Art Gallery exhibition at Holy Cross explored these commodification trajectories: see Susan Rodgers, Anne Summerfield, and John Summerfield, 2007, Gold Cloths of Sumatra: Indonesia’s Songkets from Ceremony to Commodity). And, see For Further Reading.

Lurik is an old form of simply decorated cloth woven in Java. It is patterned into simple bands and stripes and has supernatural associations through village ritual.

Batik artist

, like ikat, involves a resist process used to block off a portion of the textile from soaking up dye in a dyebath. But, in batik making (which is quite different from weaving) the craftsperson first places an undecorated large piece of cotton cloth on a frame.  She then draws a pattern onto this cloth (often, with a soft pencil).  In Javanese batik these patterns can be floral, botanical, geometric, or even images of animals or humans.  She then heats wax in a small receptacle. She places the molten wax into a canting, a small applicator with a tiny opening at the spigot end.  The batik artist then quickly “writes” the liquid wax onto the penciled-in lines.  She allows these wax markings to dry, thus forming an effective resist. The picture shows batik making in Jambi in Samatra.     Batik artist
Below, a cotton batik sarong from Lasem North Coast Java, late 1800s-1910.  

Batik sarong from Lasem North Coast Java, late 1800s-1910

Once she had drawn on her first set of wax lines and those have dried, she removes the cloth from its frame and places the textile into a dye bath. The areas behind the wax resists will not take up that particular color.  The batik-maker then places the cloth into a vat of boiling water to boil off the hardened wax. She can repeat this process several times, to build up multi-colored designs on her batik.  In Javanese court batik, certain colors and motifs are confined to the high nobility.
At least, that was the case to a degree until the late 1800s when batik too, began to “go commercial” in major ways. North coast Javanese batik ateliers in that period, for instance, targeted certain markets such as overseas Chinese communities or colonial-era Dutch women, who liked to wear sarongs around the house.  These studios created special batiks for those particular batik niche markets.  Great batiks sometimes resulted.

Batik today is a thriving industry in Java, south Sumatra, and Malaysia.  Batik cap, made with metal molds or caps (the Indonesian word) for applying the hot wax, can produce a fine product and one that is cheaper than batik tulis, “hand-written batik,” the form made with the old canting methods. Batik wear is now part of the national Indonesian costume, for men and women. Batik is also a mass market good in Indonesia, and for tourists.  Javanese batik of many levels of price and accomplishment is sold throughout the archipelago.  Many other regions have their own distinctive batik industries, as does peninsular Malaysia. Plangi cloth is a related form of resist-dye cloth often found in Indonesia.  In plangi, the dyer gathers up a small bunch of material by hand, ties it off, and plunges the fabric into a dye bath.
Plangi cloth

Prada Cloth
is a highly decorated form of batik (shown below).  To make prada, regular batik is enhanced by having some of its design lines overlaid with gold leaf---yielding a shiny, effusively bright form of cloth for costumes and ritual displays. In the last 20 years, batik manufacturing companies in Java (not to mention Javanese fashion designers) have promoted glittery prada textiles for evening gowns and housewares like table runners. Batik prada is often cut up into fashion items today; this is often done as well for cheap batik cap, but rarely for hand-written, hand-drawn batik. Is only price at issue here? Or, does handwritten batik retain some armor of supernaturalism that protects it from becoming fodder for fashion wear?

Limar textile
Some ritual textile traditions in Indonesia combine two or more cloth production and decoration techniques, to yield an especially elaborate cloth.   For instance, South Sumatra’s kain limar kain limartextiles (shown at left, circa 1900) combine fine silk ikat work with elaborate borders and star motifs done in gold thread songket weaving.

Barkcloth technologies exist in many parts of the Indonesian archipelago.  This fibrous, tough material is made from beaten sheets of the interior portions of tree bark; it can be used to sew jackets and other simple garments.  Barkcloth knowledge was recovered in the darkest days of World War II in parts of Sumatra, when villagers and townspeople had exhausted their supplies of factory-made cloth and cotton thread was scarce as well.  To get new clothes, families had to make barkcloth (this is a bitter memory today).  Upland Sulawesi communities sometimes produce barkcloth garments today.

Beyond even this, Indonesian clothmakers sometimes decorate a woven cloth with beads, embroidery, or fancy fringes.  Twining is another decorative technique.  In twining, pairs of nearby elements (say, a set of wefts) are twisted around each other to form a design such as a diamond and hook pattern.  In Indonesian textile hand manufacture this technique is sometimes used to make a striking border.  Separately twined sections can be sewn into a woven cloth, at the end of the textile production process. The Toba Batak people of North Sumatra have especially fine twining traditions.

Embroidery work is also expert and much appreciated in Indonesia. It is often a component of Busana Muslim or Muslim fashion today for women.

For Further Reading.

There is a wealth of scholarship on island Southeast Asian traditional textiles.  The following sources (not an exhaustive list by any means) all provide good entrée points.  For comparative views, beyond Southeast Asia, see especially Sumru Belger Krody, editor, Colors of the Oasis: Central Asian Ikats ( 2010, Washington, DC: Textile Museum). Buhler, Alfred and Eberhard Fischer

   1979   The Patola of Gujarat: Double Ikat in India. Basle: Krebs. Two vols.
Crill, Rosemary
   1998 Indian Ikat Textiles. London: Weatherhill for the Victoria and Albert Museum.
Fraser-Lu, Sylvia
   1990   Handwovern Textiles of South-East Asia. Second edition. Singapore: Oxford University Press.
Gittinger, Mattiebelle
   1980    (ed.) Indonesian Textiles: Irene Emery Roundtable on Museum Textiles, 1979: Proceedings. Washington, DC: Textile Museum.
   1982  Master Dyers to the World: Technique and Trade in Early Indian Dyed Cotton Textiles. Washington, DC: Textile Museum
   1989       (ed.) To Speak with Cloth: Studies in Indonesian Textiles. Los Angeles: Museum of Cultural History, University of California at Los Angeles.
   1990   Splendid Symbols: Textiles and Tradition in Indonesia. Second edition. Singapore: Oxford University Press.
   2005  Textiles for this World and Beyond: Treasures from Insular Southeast Asia. London: Scala.
Hauser-Schaublin, Marie-Louise Nabholz-Kartaschoff, and Urs Ramseyer
   1991  Balinese Textiles. London: British Museum Press.
Hitchcock, Michael
     1985  Indonesian Textile Techniques. Aylesbury: Shire.
Kahlenburg, Mary Hunt
    1977  Textile Traditions in Indonesia. Los Angeles: Los Angeles County Museum of Art.
Larson, Jack Lenor, A.B. Bronwen, and Garrett Solyom
    1976  The Dyer’s Art: Ikat, Batik, Plangi.  Van Nostrand Reinhold.
Maxwell, Robyn
   2003  Textiles of Southeast Asia: Tradition, Trade, and Transformation. Revised edition. Singapore: Periplus.
   2004 Sari to Sarong: 500 years of Indian and Indonesian Textile Exchange. Canberra: National Gallery of Australia.
Rodgers, Susan, Anne Summerfield, and John Summerfield
   2007  Gold Cloths of Sumatra: Indonesia’s Songkets from Ceremony to Commodity. Worcester, MA and Leiden, the Netherlands: Iris and B. Gerald Cantor Art Gallery, College of the Holy Cross and KITLV Press.
Selvanayagam, Grace Impam
    1990  Songket—Malaysia’s Woven Treasure. Singapore: Oxford University Press.
Summerfield, Anne and John Summerfield
   199   (eds.) Walk in Splendor: Ceremonial Dress and the Minangkabau. Los Angeles: UCLA Fowler Museum of Cultural History, Textile Series 4.
Taylor, Paul M. and Lorraine V. Aragon
   1991   Beyond the Java Sea: Art of Indonesia’s Outer Islands.  Washington, DC: Smithsonian Institution National Museum of Natural History.