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Ikat weaving technique

Follow the Thread:
Ikat weaving technique!

Did you ever wonder how weavers obtain these beautiful contrasting patterns, all with what seems to be a continuous thread? They use the Ikat weaving technique! And it is indeed one continuous thread...

Nam Lai, Chok, Kit, Matmee… Wondering what we’re talking about? They’re all weaving techniques! And, each one renders a distinctive pattern. A quick look at our webshop is enough to see that our Master Weavers use various techniques to produce our beautiful handmade products.

Did you ever wonder how the ikat weaving technique works? Of course, a guided tour of our weaving studio allows our visiting guests to see all the different techniques we use firsthand. But since you can’t come to us at the moment, we thought we could come to you … and share a little information about “matmee” or the Ikat weaving technique, one of the most popular weaves seen in our scarves and homeware.

Tai Kadai weavers use three patterning techniques: Tapestry (Nam Lai); Supplementary Weft (Chok/Kit) and Ikat (Matmee).

First, let’s get an overview of Lao weaving. Ock Pop Tok’s master weavers, like most Lao weavers, practice the techniques of the Tai Kadai ethnic groups in Laos. These are mainly the Tai Daeng, Tai Lue and Tai Lao people.

These weaving traditions date back to 800AD when Tai Kadai migrated from Yunnan, in southern China, bringing with them the secrets of silk production. Tai Kadai weavers use three patterning techniques: Tapestry (Nam Lai); Supplementary Weft (Chok/Kit) and Ikat (Matmee). Sometimes more than one of these techniques are combined in the same work, and this shows the weaver’s skill and increases the value of the cloth.

Weavers leave a knife sitting on the warp yarns if they haven’t finished tying the yarns to the loom, otherwise a mischievous spirit will make a tangle of the yarn.
— Cultural Belief

Ikat, called matmee in Lao, comes from the Malay word meaning “to tie”. Although ikat can be done in many way, in Laos we use the resist dye technique. We tie plastic string into the weft yarn before it is woven, we dye the weft yarn and then remove the plastic string. Only the fixed heddles are used.

Elsewhere in the world, artisans use warp ikat and double ikat methods, wherein both warp & weft threads pattern-dyed before weaving). However, at our studio, as in most of Lao, we only weave with weft ikat; in other words, we only create patterns using the matmee technique on the weft yarns. This allows the patterns to look the same on the back and front of the cloth.

The 5 steps of the Ikat weaving technique

  • 1. Wrapping the frame 

A single continuous yarn is wrapped in rows around a frame; which is the same width as the comb on the loom. We wrap the silk around the frame in rows.  Every motif is made up of rows, and the layering of the rows forms the motif. In Laos the row is called a louk.

  • 2. Tying the pattern

A waterproof string is tied in specific areas in each row, this is where the silk will resist the dye and become the pattern. In the old days, Lao people used strings made from a waterproof type of banana tree bark.

Fun Fact

Before the invention of plastic strings, people used a fibrous string made from leaves of a banana tree to tie the pattern. These leaves also happened to be waterproof!

  • 3. Dyeing and drying the silk

After the string has been tied the silk is removed from the frame and dyed. The string is then removed and the thread is dried in the sun. The resist dye pattern is now apparent.  For multi-coloured designs, string is tied again in different places to resist the next colour and dyed again until the pattern is complete.

  • 4. Winding the silk

When the silk is dry, it is spun onto bamboo spools for weaving. As the yarn is one continuous thread it is important that the pattern is kept in order. If the order is lost it is nearly impossible to weave the pattern. The weaver keeps the pattern by threading the spools onto a string and hanging it next to her at the loom.

  • 5. Weaving the cloth

The weaving is slow as care must be taken to line up the weft rows to maintain the pattern. Designs can take from two days to ten days to weave. Traditionally ikat is used for many ceremonial textiles. One way to see if a cloth is an ikat (as opposed to a tie dye cloth) is to look closely and see the colour of the original colour of the warp threads.

Update: You can watch this video for a closer look at how the ikat technique works.

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