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Behind the Timeless Beauty of Ikat Patterns

Learn all about the ancient ikat pattern, a design movement that spans across the centuries and originated in Asia.

Marc Schenker August 6, 2021 · 13 min read

Ikat is a dyeing method used for patterning textiles. It uses another technique called resist dyeing on the yarns before fabric is dyed and weaved. One of the most noticeable and impressive aesthetics surrounding this ikat pattern is the seeming blurriness in the design itself, which is what makes it so sought-out by textile collectors.
Likely originating in Asia as a technique, the word “ikat” itself has Indonesian as well as Malay origins. Roughly translated, it can mean to tie or bind.
The intricate, multi-colored designs mean that this technique is renowned around the world and a testament to the skill of the craftspeople involved in its creation.
Here’s a deep dive into this visual texture and craft that’s been around for hundreds of years.

The History of the Ikat Pattern

Unlike many of the design trends we’ve covered over the years, this one is unique in that historians can’t actually agree on where this aesthetic came from. Since the etymology of the word is Asian, it’s a good bet that it originated on that continent. For example, certain regions of Asia—such as Central Asia (Uzbekistan, Turkmenistan, Tajikistan, Kyrgyzstan, and Kazakhstan), the Indian subcontinent, and Maritime Southeast Asia (Brunei, East Timor, the Philippines, Singapore, Indonesia, and Malaysia)—boast a storied ikat tradition.
While “ikat” is an Indonesian word, its usage depends upon its reference. It can be utilized as a noun, such as:

  • Thread
  • Cord
  • Bundle
  • Knot
  • The fabric itself

If you use “ikat” as an action word, then you can use it as a verb. For example, as in “to bind” or “to tie.” Europeans only learned of this word back in the early part of the 20th century, as they started to intentionally study the strong textile history of Indonesia.

Just the same, it’s more than likely that this tradition evolved independently in various locations. For instance, there’s some evidence to suggest that this pattern was around even in pre-Columbian Guatemala and Peru, along with 10th-century Yemen. Then, there’s also the record of the Uyghurs, the Turkic ethnic group of East and Central Asia. History says that, during the Chinese Qing dynasty occupation of their lands, there were up to 27 different kinds of ikats (which were also called atlas) that were manufactured. Today, the Uyghurs only make four kinds.
Even the west was no stranger to at least the concept of these ikat patterns. Centuries ago, folks in Europe in the Middle Ages would’ve encountered textiles of this nature from the Spanish Explorers returning from South America, numerous Dutch traders returning from Southeast Asia, and even travelers coming back from Bukhara and Samarkand (which were vital Uzbet production centers of ikat) along the fabled Silk Road.
Today, the reference to this word and concept denotes the aesthetic patterns, fabric, and the production method itself, no matter where in the world a pattern of this nature comes from. After many centuries of disparate people and cultures encountering this technique and pattern, it’s reassuring to finally refer to it by its universally recognized term.
Here’s a look at the creative interpretations of modern-day graphic designers taking inspiration from this style in their digital assets:

The Techniques Behind the Ikat Pattern

To really get an appreciation for this design trend, it’s critical to get an inside scoop on the technical skills necessary to produce these patterns and fabrics. In dyeing methodology, resist is a reference to ways of preventing the dye from reaching specific parts of the fabric, thereby creating specific patterns and textures. This resist is established by using either bundles of yarns or individual yarns bound together, strongly wrapped, and then applied to achieve the intended pattern.
Dye is then applied to these yarns. In some cases, these bindings might be changed to allow for a new pattern, before the yarns are dyed once more with a different color. Craftsmen repeat this approach numerous times to get the unmistakable, multi-colored textures that are so famous with ikat patterns. When the dye is finished, all of the bindings get removed as the yarns are then woven into cloth.

Image Credit: Wikimedia Commons

Now, there are also alternative methods of dyeing that involves this resist technique.
In both batik (wax-resist dyeing that gets applied to the entire cloth) and tye-dye (1960s term for antediluvian resist-dyeing methods), the resist gets applied straight to the woven cloth. By contrast, in ikat proper, the resist gets applied right on the yarns prior to them being woven into cloth.
It’s important to remember that both fabric faces get painted in any design that’s true ikat since the decorative art on the surface is created right in the yarns, as opposed to the finished cloth itself.

The Design Characteristics of the Ikat Pattern

Probably the most recognizable feature of this style of fabric and technique is the distortion in the designs. If you look closely at many of these visual textures, you’ll definitely see that the shapes, lines, and patterns aren’t perfectly “straight” or “line up.” This is not done on purpose, believe it or not, but luckily for audiences with discerning eyes, it affords this fabric a more interesting aesthetic.
What happens is that the weaver will typically have tremendous difficulty in perfectly aligning the dyed yarns to make the finished pattern completely “straight” in the finished weave. That’s simply the nature of working with this complicated technique. Of course, the more experienced the craftsman is—along with the use of finer yarns—the less likely it is for this blurriness to be so apparent in the final product.
While this distortion is highly valued among collectors of this cloth, it’s really the ikat patterns that only have subtle distortion—along with highly technical patterns and various colors—that are the most challenging to create. As a result, they are unsurprisingly the more expensive versions of this weave.
Central Asia ikats are more known for this blurry patterning. On the other hand, Indonesian and South American ikat patterns feature a tighter alignment of the yarns. To achieve this higher level of alignment, the artisans closely change around the warp threads as they’re put on the loom, so as to make them appear more clearly. To keep this pattern as the weaving takes place, bamboo strips are attached to the warps.

Image Credit: Wikimedia Commons

To really have an idea of the complexity and diversity of the textures, colors, and shapes we’re dealing with in this design tradition, we have to categorize this style into four, distinct techniques:

  • The Pasapalli Ikat – This method comes to us from the eastern Indian state of Odisha. The etymology of “Pasapalli” is, in part, Pasa, which refers to a board game that features four, distinct portions. Every one of these ikats made from this material features a checkered aesthetic.
  • The Warp Ikat – This style’s yarns, interestingly, are the only yarns that are dyed via the ikat method. The distinctive patterns are clearly visible within the warp yarns that are wound on the loom, even prior to the weft being woven in. This type is manufactured in Indonesia, specifically in Sumatra, Sulawesi, and Kalimantan.
  • The Weft Ikat – Here, the weft yarn transmits the dyed patterns by way of the weaving. These weft yarns are usually dyed a solid color. With this style, the telltale ikat patterns only show up as the weaving starts. It takes considerably longer to weave this style since the weft yarns need to be closely adjusted right after each individual passing of the shuttle to ensure the integrity of the whole weave.
  • The Double Ikat – This complex technique is characterized by both the weft and the warp being resist-dyed prior to the weaving. This extra time involvement means it’s also the most expensive to create. As of now, just three countries in the world produce it: Indonesia, Japan, and India.

By far, it’s the double ikat that comes from India’s Patan, Gujarat that’s the most technically complicated. Referred to as a “patola,” it features a rainbow of colors and the finest silk yarns. Usually, it’s designed with a theme that’s then repeated several times over the entire length of a sari. Other times, this style is more on the pictorial side, with no repetitive themes across the length. To achieve this, craftsmen have to individually tie every single design element and color in the weft and warp yarns.
Historically, these elaborate cloths were trade collateral, as the Dutch East Indies Company sought to obtain trading rights for exclusive spices with the various Indonesian sultanates. Today, Indonesia’s Tenganan produces ikat patterns that still come straight from the aforementioned “patola” tradition. This style is also created in India’s Nalgonda District, where it’s referred to as Puttapaka Saree. Finally, in Japan, this form of ikat is produced in the Okinawan Islands, where locals call it tate yoko gasuri.

How Ikat Patterns Are Made

The production method behind each main type of ikat is very elaborate and interesting. Here’s a close look at how each is made.

Warp Ikat

The warp version is the easiest to create. Yarns like silk, cotton, wool, or other cloths get wound on a tying frame, where they are separated into bundles. Great care is taken to minimize the workload since the binding process can be quite intense. The thread bundles are folded, and a basic ikat motif is bound. This is then repeated, until the threads get unfolded for weaving right after the dyeing is finished. These bundles get folded over either a vertical or horizontal axis.

Image Credit: Wikimedia Commons

Sometimes, these bundles are drenched in wax. Artisans then wrap these warp yarns tightly with thread or another form of dye-resistant material that has the intended pattern; this stops undesired dye penetration into other parts of the fabric. Artisans then repeat this process as many times as it takes to successfully apply all the colors they want into the fabric. Once the dyeing is over, the bindings get removed and the threads get wound straight onto the loom as the warp itself.
Finally, any threads are changed to align the pattern. Bamboo strips are attached to these threads to stop them from either getting tangled or outright slipping out of alignment during the weaving process.

Weft Ikat

This approach utilizes resist dyeing for weft yarns. The way the weft yarns move in the weaving process is why intentionally established patterns are harder to achieve. To ensure the clarity of these ikat patterns, the weft yarn needs to be adjusted after each time the shuttle passes through the weave.

Image Credit: Wikimedia Commons

It’s possible for skilled craftsmen to create precise weft ikat, however. For example, Japanese weavers succeed in producing accurate white and indigo weft ikats that only have small design elements in the fabric. In another case, weavers in India are able to replicate the Urdu alphabet in weft ikats. In Thailand, as well, artisans fashion silk sarongs showing complicated, geometric styles in multi-colored ikats.
In these more precise weaving traditions, two people weave the fabric. The first passes the shuttle while the second controls the manner in which the yarn sits in the shed.

Double Ikat

Before weaving, the weft and wrap are both resist-dyed. This is the most highly prized and costly type of ikat since it’s the most challenging to produce. These patterns feature very precise textures; Indonesia and India generally produce the best versions of this.

Image Credit: Wikimedia Commons

Prior to the start of weaving, the yarn is manually wound. This is a process referred to as “asu.” For just one sari, a process like this can take up to five hours. It’s not unheard of for craftsmen to sometimes strain their hands when creating these ikats.

Examples of Ikat Patterns in Graphic Design

Due to the worldwide popularity of these ancient textures, the world of graphic design has taken notice. Ikats are now not just for fabrics or clothing—they’re also the focal point of designs that can be used in illustrations, presentations, package design, and anything else that requires on-point messaging.
Here are some artistic examples of using this pattern in graphic assets.

60 Ikat Seamless Vector Patterns

This collection of vector patterns magnificently highlights the cornucopia of colors at play with these patterns. It’s just like the real thing. The set features purple, yellow, green, brown, orange, pink, blue, mint, and pink colors to spruce up your creative projects.

The visual textures are also eye-popping, with a myriad of geometric shapes to complement the explosion of colors. Triangles, squares, rhombuses, and other figures add more depth to these vectors and your designs. Use these patterns for all sorts of projects, such as scrapbooks, card designs, presentations, invitations, and templates.

Ikat Digital Paper

In this set, you’ll get 12 digital papers that embody the weaving traditions of this design trend. What’s unique about this collection is the choice of colors in these digital papers, which are more of the dark and pastel variety. Prepare to work with colors like plums, pinks, reds, beiges, whites, and browns.

In addition to these more ancient and tribal colors, you also get highly detailed tribal backgrounds along with ancient technique textures. Each digital paper features composition that highlights the interesting shapes and balance found within ikat patterning.
The digital assets are compatible with Adobe InDesign, Adobe Photoshop Elements, and Adobe Photoshop.

Ikat Ethnic Pattern Set 3

If you’re looking to add unique textures and detailed art to your creative projects, look no further than this set. It’s set that includes 16 coordinating papers that can be cropped to smaller sizes for customizability. It’s compatible with Adobe Photoshop and Adobe Photoshop Elements.

Colors are what make this set, and you won’t be disappointed with the olive green, marine blue, mustard yellow, coral, and brick red that define the collection. Mingling with these colors are the repeating, aesthetic geometric patterns that are all founded on the traditional Persian and Balinese interpretations of ikat textiles.
Use the papers for a range of projects such as:

  • Cards
  • Pillows
  • Prints to frame
  • Invites
  • Collages
  • Calendars
  • Decoupage
  • Scrapbook pages

MAGIKAT, 24 Ethereal Ikat Papers

Try this on for size: Here’s a printable paper pack that’s ideal for a whole range of projects. With 24 papers total, the collection features a range of timeless colors and patterns to optimize your messaging, typography, and branding. The pack includes blues, silvers, roses, and greens—all hues that nicely harmonize with each other or other designs.

There’s an almost limitless amount of uses for the ink papers here:

  • Wedding stationery
  • Physical or digital scrapbooking ideas
  • Blog or web design
  • Card invitations
  • Posters
  • Photo overlays
  • Digital quotes
  • Logos

Whether for your personal projects or for those of your clients’, this set is compatible with Adobe Photoshop, Adobe InDesign, Adobe After Effects, Affinity Designer, and Affinity Photo.

Ancient Ikat Patterns for Your Design Projects

These patterns are the perfect example of a design trend that has emerged from various cultures and influenced designers across the centuries. That it’s so popular and still in wide use today is a testament to not only its longevity, but also the sheer intricacy of its compositions.
From its traditional use in textiles, clothing, and other tangible materials, ikat has now made the jump to graphic design, where it inspires graphic designers and illustrators in a digital sense. Consider working with this pattern today to enhance your projects and stun your clients.

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About the Author
Marc Schenker

Marc is a copywriter and marketer who runs The Glorious Company, a marketing agency. An expert in business and marketing, he helps businesses and companies of all sizes get the most bang for their ad bucks.

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