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Weaving techniques: Ikat, knot by knot

Weaving techniques: Ikat, knot by knot

Phou Tai communities in southern Laos are skilled cotton farmers and master Ikat weavers. Although Ikat can be done in many ways, in Laos we use the resist dye technique. Follow the thread as we look into the intricacies of this amazing weaving technique.

If you love Ikat, raise your hand! All hands raised! Who wouldn’t? These beautiful contrasting patterns look seamless. But how many of you know how it is made? Definitely the textile connoisseurs out there. And for all other textiles lovers, this is why we love to share weaving techniques! If Ikat patterns seem to be made of a continuous thread, it is indeed because it is one continuous thread! 

A peek into Wikipedia will tell us that Ikat is a dyeing technique which originated from Indonesia. Also known as Matmee in Lao, Ikat is a striking technique. It comes from the Malay word “to tie”. Although ikat can be done in many ways, in Laos we use the resist dye technique. 

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!

Threads are tied to resist the dye, then coloured in the dyebath to pattern them before being woven as plainweave. Only the fixed heddles are used. At our centre, only weft ikat is woven. There are other types of warp ikat (warp threads pattern dyed before weaving) and double ikat (both warp & weft threads pattern-dyed before weaving). The front and back of the cloth are the same. 

Phou Tai communities in southern Laos are skilled cotton farmers and master ikat weavers. At our Living Crafts Centre in Luang Prabang, we have our very own Ikat master weaver, Ms. Phet. She started working at Ock Pop Tok in 2003 as an Ikat Shawl Weaver.

And since 2014, she has taken on the role of Head Dyer. When we need some very intricate Ikat to be done, Phet does it all. She prepares the frame, spins the yarn, dyes it and weaves. She made the Ikat sinhs for our latest collection. Watch our latest video for a step by step.

The 5 Steps of Ikat Weaving

Wrapping the frame

The undyed silk is wrapped around a frame the same width as the comb. Every motif is made up of rows. The layering of the rows forms the motif. In Laos the row is called a louk. The wrapped silk must be one continuous yarn.

Tying the pattern

A waterproof string is tied in each row, as the string will resist the dye, the place where the string is tied will become the pattern. The string is tied in each row wherever the colour is not wanted.

Dyeing and drying the silk  

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

Winding the silk

Next, once 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 impossible to weave the pattern. The weaver keeps the pattern in order by threading the spools onto a string in the correct order and keeps it hanging next to her at the loom.

Weaving the cloth

The weaving is slow. Lining up the rows to maintain the  pattern requires thoroughness. The colours blur at the edges like tie-dye. Designs can take from two days to two months to weave. Ikat is used for many ceremonial textiles. One way to see if a cloth is an ikat is to look closely to see if the colours of the weft threads blur at the edges.

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