Making Ikats: Colors of the Silk Road (VIDEO)

Making Ikats: Colors of the Silk Road (VIDEO)

Central Asian silks were some of the most prized commodities of the ancient world. Famed for their vibrant colors and bold patterns, this rich legacy of silk production can be traced back over 1,000 years to Uzbekistan, the heart of the old Silk Road.

From Tashkent to the fertile Fergana Valley, dynasties of silk weavers made their mark on ancient oasis cities that dotted the trade routes between East and West, creating hundreds of handmade designs and passing their skills and secrets down to the next generation.

When Uzbekistan became a part of the Soviet Union in the late 19th century, cotton became king, and much of the art of making silk was lost — studios were shut down, and inexpensive and industrially printed textiles became the norm. Since the nation gained independence in 1991, a new generation of weavers and designers has made significant strides in reviving the traditional styles and techniques of the ancient masters.

We caught up with MIR Tour Manager Abdu Samadov, who recently visited one of Uzbekistan’s renowned silk workshops in the Fergana Valley. While inside the studio, he captured this footage of a weaver creating a classic Uzbek silk fabric known as ikat. Take a brief look at the intricate process behind making these brilliant Silk Road textiles.

Tying the CloudsSeveral fabric styles exist in Uzbekistan, but among the most beloved are ikat textiles, which use a special method of dyeing silk threads before weaving them into luxurious robes or wall hangings.

The creation of a single ikat is an extraordinarily labor-intensive process that can take months to complete; in fact, the Persian word for ikat is abr-band, or “cloud tying,” a reference to the uniquely “cloudy” appearance of the dyed cloth, but also a reverent nod to the lofty job of the weaver who can thread together these unusually vivid and kaleidoscopic patterns.


A young weaver uses traditional ikat patterns to create carpets, pillows and other home furnishings
Photo credit: Timothy Malishenko

Spin CycleThe process begins with rearing the silkworms until they’re old enough to cocoon. Tiny but voracious, silkworms subsist purely on a diet of mulberry leaves, and need to be fed ‘round-the-clock to ensure their survival: farmers might raise about 20,000-30,000 worms at a time, which can eat up to seven pounds of leaves a day. After about a month, they’ll have grown almost 70 times their original size, and are ready to start spinning their cocoons.


A young Fergana woman smiling from her loom
Photo credit: Marina Karptsova

In Hot WaterOnce the silkworms have cocooned, they’re boiled in a pot of water, which allows the silk filaments to release. The threads are then unwound, spun onto bobbins and boiled again to soften and refine further. A single cocoon can produce about a half-mile of silk thread.


An ikat weaver carefully separates and threads dyed silk on the loom
Photo credit: Marina Karptsova

A Pattern EmergesThese soft, white threads are then looped onto a frame, where a pattern will be marked out with charcoal and tightly wound with cotton bindings. The patterns are often symbolic and inspired by nature; a woman’s robe may incorporate flowers or water to symbolize fertility, while a man’s robe might use a stylized image of a scorpion, a historic Uzbek pattern intended as protection for the wearer against the evil eye.

Ikat silks are first dyed before they're woven on the loom: here, natural fibers are tightly wound on sections where the artisans don't want the dye to penetratePhoto credit: Marina Karptsova

Ikat silks are first dyed before they’re woven on the loom: here, natural fibers are tightly wound on sections where the artisans don’t want the dye to penetrate
Photo credit: Marina Karptsova

Take a DipNext comes the dyeing process. Unlike more common textile methods that cover or seal off parts of an already woven fabric, ikats are unique in that the threads are dyed before being woven together. The cotton ties that mark off the pattern “resist” the dye, and give ikat its characteristic “cloud-like” streaks.

Threads will be dip-dyed several times in large vats of colors made from natural pigments: deep blue shades come from the indigo plant, reds from pomegranate arils and yellows from onion skins. The choice of colors is left up to the weaver – some patterns may only use two colors, while others might use up to 10 different shades in a single swath of fabric.

A silk master in Fergana, Uzbekistan Photo: Martin Klimenta

A silk master in Fergana, Uzbekistan
Photo: Martin Klimenta

Warp and WeftOnce the fabric has been dyed and fully dried, it’s time to weave it on the loom. The fabric may be woven together using cotton threads or pure silk; the resulting silk-and-cotton-mix fabric is known as adras, while the pure silk version is called atlas, the most prized of Central Asian silk textiles.

Because of the skill and time required to make pure silk atlas, such fabric was once strictly reserved for Central Asia’s wealthy elite and royalty. Clothing was an indication of honor and status in Central Asian society, and atlas ikats were typically given as gifts or as part of a bridal dowry to signify a family’s wealth.

Silk scarves for sale along the Silk Road in Margilan, Uzbekistan<br>Photo credit: Michel Behar

Silk scarves for sale along the Silk Road in Margilan, Uzbekistan
Photo credit: Michel Behar

Fashion ForwardTraditional ikat weaving is experiencing a resurgence in Uzbekistan, and while these silks are once again becoming a popular item in their native country, the rest of the world has taken notice as well.

Renowned fashion designer Oscar de la Renta brought ikats into the international fashion forefront with his 2005 spring and fall collections, collaborating with master Uzbek weavers from Margilan to create eye-popping contemporary dresses, skirts, coats and shoes.

Since then, other international designers have followed suit, including Dries van Noten, Proenza Schouler and Balenciaga, all of whom featured handmade ikat fabrics in their recent collections. Bold ikat prints have even made their way into the home, appearing on furniture, pillows, carpets and even wallpaper.


Travel To Uzbekistan with MIR

MIR has more than 30 years of travel experience in Central Asia and has an affiliate office in Uzbekistan. We have a roster of contacts that can take you to places that you didn’t even know you wanted to go. Our full service, dedication, commitment to quality, and destination expertise have twice earned us a place on National Geographic Adventure’s list of Best Adventure Travel Companies on Earth.”

Learn more about Central Asian master weavers and their ancient silk-making traditions on one of MIR’s small group tours to Central Asia, where you can visit the workshop of a renowned silk master and observe how this exquisite fabric is prepared and woven using traditional techniques:

You can also book a custom private journey. MIR specializes in personalized, private journeys, and we’d love to take your ideas and weave them into a trip tailored especially for you. Travel wherever, however, and with whomever you like, relying on our expert assistance. Contact us to find out more about our custom and private travel expertise – each trip handcrafted to your interests, dates and pace.

Chat with one of our destination specialists by email or by phone at 1-800-424-7289 to start planning your  travels now.


(Top Photo: A beautiful ikat in progress. Photo Credit: Suresh Mehta)

PUBLISHED: September 26, 2016

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