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The Language of Design: Ikat Patterns

/ Exhibitions

Screen Shot 2016-02-24 at 4.24.10 PMIn our new exhibition All the Colors of the Rainbow, we are excited to present an array of ikat robes and accessories. With all of the designs on display, you may be wondering what influenced the patterns found in each of the robes.

The earliest human beings made clothes from animal hide or primitive textiles and wore them to cover themselves and keep warm. As human social structures advanced, people started printing and drawing shapes on their garments, textiles, and other functional objects. This was done not necessarily for decoration; these designs were motifs rooted to their beliefs. At core the simplest designs were symbols and addressed desires for prosperity, fertility, and protection. With every passing generation, the design of these symbols evolve, reinterpreting more elaborate versions of the original shapes.

The ikats you see in the exhibition are inspired by:

  1. Flowers and vegetation
    These designs on a young woman’s clothes were symbols of fertility, placed there with the hope she would have children and continue the family’s line and the tribe’s prosperity. Two especially strong nature motifs are the boteh (bud) and the leaf (which resembles paisley). The bud and the leaf are the quintessential imagery of fertility.
  2. Ram’s horns
    In Central Asia, one common protective motif is the ram’s horn. This symbol is rooted to the shamanistic pre-Islamic history of the region. Its exact origin is not known; but perhaps early cultures saw the ram, living on the mountain, close to the heavens, as the animal with protective divine powers in its horns. Therefore putting the ram’s horn on to their garments would somehow protect them from danger. Another interpretation is that the ram is male and the protector of its herd. The motif often appeared as a repeating pattern of two curing shapes (see image).
  3. Jewelry
    Another strong influence on ikat designs was Central Asia’s rich jewelry tradition. For example, triangular silver amulets with multiple long tassels known as moska often appear in ikat design. The moska was a symbol of protection.
  4. Animal hides
    Central Asian designs were not solely rooted in local culture. Along with influences from other countries, design elements also arrived via the Silk Road. In Tibet there was a tradition of weaving rugs with designs depicting the hide of a tiger or other animal. Central Asian cultures used animal hide, but as a design element it was rare. But an ikat motif representing animal skin would be a symbol of strength and protection.
  5. Everything and Anything!
    The sources that inspired the designs of Central Asian ikats are endless. But one thing is certain: there is a deep symbolic language expressing cultural beliefs and superstitions. Perhaps this explains why ikat designs are so engaging, even to those unfamiliar with the genre. Speaking with thousands of years of symbolic languages, these designs inform the viewer on a level deeper than beauty alone.

Which of these patterns do you see in the robes? Decide for yourself at the exhibition, which opens to the public on Saturday, March 19.


Text was taken from the exhibition catalog, which will be available for sale in the Museum Store.