I was first introduced to ikats while traveling with friends on a private boat in Indonesia, exploring the small, sometimes roadless islands east of Bali, including Komodo, Sumba, and Sumbawa. When villagers saw our yacht approach, they would run to their stilted wooden houses and line up their wares for an opportunistic sale: old baskets, carvings, and ancestral fabrics woven in glorious patterns of indigo and earthy reds. Ikats, as these textiles are called, can be found in a number of countries around the world, but they've been closely identified with Indonesian culture for more than a millennium.
"The magic of ikats is in the rarity, beauty, and complexity of technique," says David Paly, a collector in Puget Sound, Washington. "You have to understand how they're made. It's remarkable, as ikats have largely come out of technologically unsophisticated cultures."
The word "ikat" (pronounced ee-kat) comes from a Malay term that means "to tie" or "to bind." The process is quite time-consuming, taking up to two months to create a single piece. Unlike batiks, in which the dyes are applied to an existing textile, ikats use threads (typically cotton or silk) that are dyed beforehand. In the tie-dyeing process, the threads are tightly bound with moisture-resistant strips of fabric in specific places before being immersed in the dyes. The bound sections don't absorb the pigment, so when the ties are repositioned for each new color, a distinctive pattern emerges. That pattern, carefully plotted out in advance, is then handwoven on a loom into a finished ikat.
On Sumbawa I bought a delicate pale blue–and–white piece that cost me around $100. Some 50 years old, it must have once been the cobalt of the Flores Sea. The best one, spotted by a friend, was in remarkable condition—clearly a ceremonial cloth that had been kept from the chickens and pigs that live with families. Owned by a clan chief's wife, it had been in her family for generations. My friend paid about $300.
"Textile collecting has an innocence, which makes it different from the art world, where the works command huge sums," says Esther Fitzgerald, a London dealer. "But you have to be careful buying ikats at source. Much of what is available is made for foreigners and should stay in Tashkent's airport boutique."
Fitzgerald is referring to the other great center of ikat production, Uzbekistan, in Central Asia, where the technique (known as abr-bandi in Persian) reached its apogee in the 19th century. Ikat-making's exact origins are unknown, but it is thought to have started in East Asia, probably southern China, in the sixth century and spread to Japan, India, Laos, Cambodia, Thailand, Burma, Yemen, even Peru and Ecuador. For the most part, serious collectors tend to focus on pieces from Indonesia and Central Asia.
Uzbek ikats are explosively hued, with bursts of cochineal, madder, indigo, and isparak (yellow). Most are woven in silk—Uzbekistan was a major link on the ancient Silk Road—and use more color than Indonesian examples. For much of the year, the landscape there is monotone. "It's why they created such richness in their wall hangings," says New York collector Guido Goldman, who has assembled the largest private collection of Central Asian ikats. The region also produced stunning ikat robes, which aren't found in Indonesia. The most important centers of production were the cities Bukhara and Samarkand and later—before the Russian Revolution secured the ikat's demise in Uzbekistan—the Fergana Valley in the eastern part of the country.
"Central Asian ikats from the nineteenth century feel very modern because of the dense, bright palette," says Fitzgerald. Perhaps that's why there's not much left at the source. When I recently traveled to Uzbekistan, the best address was a tiny Russian-owned shop in Samarkand, off Registan Square. Two Italian women were buying out the store to decorate some villa on Pantelleria. Prices were fairly modest—mostly under $500—but, by gosh, the pieces were beautiful.
Even unexceptional ikats can be dazzling, and they appeal to both amateur and connoisseur. "People who find paintings too expensive are attracted to ikats—they can use them decoratively," says Andrew Hale, who owns the Anahita Gallery in Santa Fe, New Mexico, with Kate Fitz Gibbon. They coauthored Ikat: Splendid Silks of Central Asia, the Guido Goldman Collection, an essential and lavishly illustrated guide to the subject.
When buying from dealers in the West, expect to pay from $400 to tens of thousands of dollars. Once you get into five figures, the ikats are exceptional. "The colors, the patterns, the overall composition, and the variety in design are unbelievable," explains Gail Martin, who runs an appointment-only gallery in New York and for the past three decades has curated the Goldman collection.
A few very old ikats reach $100,000. Mary Hunt Kahlenburg, co-owner of the TAI Gallery in Santa Fe, has two at that level in her personal collection. The rarest is a piece from Sulawesi that was probably never used but passed from generation to generation as part of a dowry. Its red and blue threads combine to create a remarkable maroon in a pattern of stripes and delicate geometric blocks. "It's so much finer than anything produced later," says Kahlenberg, who has traveled throughout the Indonesian archipelago for 30 years buying for private clients and museums. "You can see it in the composition, the craftsmanship."
The very best ikats are true works of art, insists Goldman, "as powerful as an early painting by Kandinsky." And for now, they're also a whole lot less expensive.