The Art of Ikat: Seattle Art Museum Makes the Case


When in Santa Fe recently my wife and I went to the Museum of Indian Arts and Culture and there watched a remarkable video. Mary Weahkee, an archeologist for the state of New Mexico, showed step by step the re-creation of the ancient craft of making a cape from turkey feathers.

One might think…. turkey feathers? Well, it was a remarkable process with many time-consuming steps involving denuding turkeys (who apparently can live through feather plucking) and utilizing other natural elements such as the yucca plant. It was a tribute to the resourcefulness, intelligence, and creativity of the indigenous people of the American Southwest.

I thought of that cape and all the time and effort it took to make it when viewing the recently opened exhibition of spectacular textiles at the Seattle Art Museum, “IKAT: A World of Compelling Cloth.” 

Ikat is a labor-intensive weaving technique employed in disparate world cultures. It entails an arduous process of dying small groups of threads different colors by covering parts of them, often today with plastic wrap, so that they will not absorb color while the rest of the thread does. The thread groups can be tied off multiple times in different locations and put into different colored dye baths so at the end of the process single threads can have an intentional design with multiple colors. 

These threads are then combined on the loom with others that have complementary color patterns. The weaver aligns these differing threads to create a design. They may be placed on the loom vertically, called the warp, or horizontally, the weft. Less common, and requiring great skill, are cloths where both warp and weft have ikat threads. 

A superb example at SAM of this double-ikat is a “geringsing” from Bali made only by the traditional weavers of the village of Tenganen Pegeringsingan, and famed for the protective powers offered to the wearer.

Double ikat is also found in Indian saris and in Japanese textiles. Less eye-catching yet powerfully seductive in its simplicity is a robe in the exhibit with small double ikat designs made not from silk or cotton but banana fiber – a 19th century piece from Japan’s Ryukyu Islands.

One can imagine the skill and experience needed to weave these differently dyed threads, double or single, into a design that blends them together into a visually harmonious textile. Expertise is also required to make the dying as saturated and defined as possible before the threads ever reach the loom. In some cultures those that dye are not necessarily those that will do the weaving.

Ikat cloths have many functional uses from decorative to religious to functional (as exemplified by the Japanese bedding exhibited), and are recognizable apart from other weaving techniques by the designs that appear as slightly out-of-focus. In the best of these weavings this only adds to the depth and richness of the finished cloth. 

The SAM exhibit draws its range of material from several sources, both those owned by the museum and lent for the exhibition. The majority come from the collection of David and Marita Paly, local collectors with a specialization in Ikat. The museum is fortunate that the Palys have made a gift to the institution of a number of their pieces.

Banana fiber summer robe from Japan (Ryukyu Islands) with double ikat designs.

As a prelude to entering the exhibition space viewers are greeted by a long cascading curtain composed of clusters of ikat-dyed threads. It was commissioned by the museum especially for this show. The floor to ceiling installation employing hand-spun cotton and natural indigo dyes is in two halves, the space between allowing attendees access to the exhibition proper.  It was created by contemporary artist Roland Ricketts and weaver Chinami Ricketts. An accompanying video demonstrates how the threads were bound together and dyed.

The term “ikat” originates in the Malay-Indonesian region and means “to tie.” It is in Southeast Asia and the Indonesian archipelago that ikat textiles assume paramount importance, and the exhibition features any number of stunning examples used as wedding gifts, at funerals, for everyday wear, as decorative hangings, and for a range of ritual events. As costumes these beautiful cloths adorn bodies in a variety of styles and colors, many containing not only ikat but also other weaving and embroidery techniques, all often possessed of amuletic powers.

Another great ikat culture is found in Central Asia in Uzbekistan. It reached its zenith in the second half of the 19th and the beginning of the 20th centuries.  There men and women would wear beautifully colored and vividly designed silk ikat robes usually lined with animated trade cloth obtained from Russia. As a sign of affluence and high position men could wear several of these robes at the same time, some quilted for colder weather. 

Many consider the epitome of the form to be robes of silk velvet, now perhaps the most collectible of this fashion. There is one for a woman from the Paly collection with an accompanying hat. In Uzbekistan, as in Southeast Asia and other parts of the world, ikat fabrics are still being made but indigenous demand for them and impacts of modernity usually make them inferior to those of previous centuries. 

A particular favorite of mine is a “khamiseq” an Uzbek woman’s head covering and cape made by the Karakalpak people. A beautifully embroidered wool head covering exposing only the wearer’s face is attached to a long flowing ikat cloth that covers the back. I would have liked to have seen it on a mannequin to better understand how it looked when worn. My infatuation with the piece was somewhat diminished by my two female companions who thought that the fringe attached to the ikat section looked like it came from an old Woolworth’s notions department.  

Exhibit visitors garbed in antique Uzbek silk ikat chapans viewing a Yoruba man’s ikat agbada.

In the past, at museums such as SAM, artifacts from non-Western cultures were displayed as art objects alone, offering little in the way of educating viewers on the functional role they might have played within the indigenous cultures. Creating context was left to the natural history museum and they often did a poor job of it cramming multiple objects into overcrowded display cases. 

Over the years I have admired the sensitive work of Pam McClusky, SAM’s curator of African and Oceanic art, in bringing contextual information in a variety of ways to the museum’s first- class African art collection while still encouraging viewers to make their own subjective judgments. It’s a careful balancing act to present the work for its own virtues, while also offering information that better places it within a cultural context. We are outsiders looking into another’s world.

In the current exhibition, these wondrous cloths may have slipped too far into being presented as rarified “high” art like a Picasso or a Basquiat (in some of the cultures represented they indeed were high art) with not enough information as to how they were made, employed, and valued. It would have been good to have seen an actual loom with an ikat being prepared on it, historical photos of what Uzbek men looked like bundled in their exquisite robes, macro-photos of textiles showing the intense activity deep in the intermesh of woven ikat fibers, or visual documentation of Toraja funerary rituals where cloths help send the dead into another world. 

It was an impressive sight to walk into the large rooms of the exhibition space and see so many superb examples of woven art, a riot of color and fibers. Given the surfeit, the pieces began to blend one into another and the eye grew a little fatigued from trying to take in so much.  Fewer pieces with enough breath between them would have made me feel less compelled to move on to another.  

Silk velvet woman’s robe and bridal hat, Uzbekistan

There were support and contextual materials, though not conveniently located or with signage directing one to them. In a side room next to the exhibition proper that I missed the first time around were displayed beautiful contemporary cloths from the group “Threads of Life” based in Bali and dedicated to preserving the skills and traditions of ikat. They were accompanied by photos offering information about the living artist who created each of the cloths on display as well as video on traditional arts.  At the far end of the show’s gift shop there was an informative video of contemporary ikat production in Uzbekistan.

There was no question about the beauty of the installation of the objects in the main areas of the exhibition. Walls were painted in a pleasing palette of saturated colors that complemented and enhanced the textiles themselves. The lighting was intricate, subdued enough so that it could not do any damage to the fabrics yet with each piece clearly illuminated. Best of all were the open planked wooden tracks laid on the floor above which textiles were displayed, their design suggestive of both looms and threads.

My first visit to the exhibition, shared with a quiet and respectful group of adults was on a Sunday morning soon after the museum’s opening time. My second was on a Wednesday just before noon. There were lots of adults, though best of all were several classes of elementary age school children. My favorite moment was seeing a 7 or 8-year-old girl engaged with an antique indigo dyed Japanese children’s kimono which was about the right size for her. 

If you are a school child or a retired geezer like me, do yourself a favor and go to the Seattle Art Museum through May 29 to see Ikat: A World of Compelling Cloth. It is dismaying to watch the news these days, but at SAM you will bear witness to what we humans can create at our best.

All photos by Spider Kedelsky using an Apple iPhone 13 Mini

Spider Kedelsky
Spider Kedelsky
Spider Kedelsky is a former choreographer, performing arts producer, and a co-founder of Town Hall Seattle.


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