Woven History: Ikat and Suzani Textiles

Ikat (left) and Suzani (right) Textiles. Photography Courtesy of Schumacher

As enduring symbols of time-honored textile traditions, the diverse yet distinctive designs of ikat and suzani textiles trace the influences of techniques advanced by cultures and continents around the world. “Ikats showcase an ancient technique that has a really incredible combination of artisanship and sophisticated engineering,” says Pam Marshall, Vice President of Design at Schumacher. “And I’m always amazed by the fine needlework, beautiful stitches, and charming motifs of Suzanis, which have an incredible, quirky naivety about them.” Brimming with bold hues, intricate patterning, and culturally inspired motifs, the two textiles hold unique histories that continue to transform interiors today. The information below explores the origins and characteristics of ikat and suzani textiles.

Origins and Characteristics of Ikats

Originating from Southeast Asia, South America, Japan, Indonesia, and the Middle East, the term ikat refers to the original resist dye techniques that are used to pattern textiles. It is commonly understood that ikat techniques emerged sometime before the 10th century and came about independently within many different cultures. The name ikat is derived from the Malaysian word menigkat, which means to tie. “Ikats differ from regular patterned prints and wovens in that the yarns themselves are dyed in a patterned way before they are actually woven,” says Marshall.

Boasting bohemian-inspired designs, ikat textiles are created by tying off sections of yarns with fiber knots and dyeing them prior to weaving the fabric. “In the original methods, the bundles of the yarns that would go on the warps of the loom would be tied in such a way that allowed certain areas to resist the dye,” says Marshall. “A great deal of thought and expertise was required to create these patterns. It is very complicated to figure out what colors will land where just by tying and dyeing the yarns.” The most common fibers originally used to create ikats are cotton, silk, and wool, and since the surface design is created in the yarns themselves—rather than on the finished cloth—both fabric faces of ikats are patterned.

Photography Courtesy of Schumacher
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The level of precision varies between different types of ikats. Warp ikats tend to emphasize more defined patterning, while weft ikats showcase the allure of less precise patterns. “One thing that is really unique about ikats is the feathery, irregular, blurred edge, which comes from the fact that the yarns are dyed first and then woven,” says Marshall. “As clear as the patterning is, there is no way to align those yarns to have sharp, clean edges. These little details are part of what makes ikats so beautiful.” Ikat’s bold prints are often rendered in bright, vibrant hues with an eclectic and whimsical motif. Ikats were characteristically considered to be status symbols in deference to the skill, expertise, and time that was required to create them.

Origins and Characteristics of Suzanis

Suzani is an essential form of embroidery that originated in the area along the Silk Road, which connected the cultures of Europe, Turkey, and China with the Muslim world. As a core component of Central Asia’s textile-rich and nomadic cultures, the suzani comes from countries such as Uzbekistan, Kazakhstan, and Tajikistan. Suzanis were primarily used as a protective wrapping panels in yurts. The name suzani is derived from the Persian word suzan, which translates to needle. The oldest surviving suzanis date back to the late 18th century, though they existed long before this.

Typically composed of vegetable-dyed cotton with a cotton ground base, suzanis are commonly embroidered with silk or cotton thread following a pattern that has been drawn onto the base cloth. “The stitch that is used most for suzanis is a chain stitch and they tend to use a very fine thread,” says Marshall. “They also used a technique called couching, which is almost like drawing with thread. You lay a thicker thread down and then stitch over it to hold it down, which gives a raised outline appearance.” Suzanis are usually comprised of two or more sections that have been stitched together. “True antique suzanis were typically embroidered in pieces and sewn together with several vertical seams,” says Marshall. “There is something very charming about the beautiful embroidery paired with slightly offset seams. It accentuates the naïve handmade quality that makes suzanis so special.”

Photography Courtesy of Valley Forge Fabrics
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Embellished with emblematic motifs that represent luck and good fortune, the designs draw from an ancient iconography and often include sun and moon disks, as well as botanicals and flowers. “The amount of time and work that goes into creating the intricate motifs of Suzanis is very apparent,” says Marshall. “Suzanis are often fully covered with small stitches that circle in on themselves until the entire motif is filled in with beautiful vibrant colors, which often include bright reds and peacock blues in combination.” Suzanis also carried a symbolic significance, often signifying the binding together of two families. “Suzanis were originally made by brides to present to them to grooms,” says Marshall. “The brides stitched these by hand for their wedding day.” The handmade patterns are frequently emulated in readymade textiles and wallcoverings seen today.

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