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What is Ikat Fabric: Properties, How its Made and Where

by Boris Hodakel  • December 11, 2019 • 7 min read

Fabric name Ikat
Fabric composition Various natural or synthetic fibers
Fabric possible thread count variations Varies depending on the fabric used
Fabric breathability Varies depending on the fabric used - natural fibers generally have better breathability
Moisture-wicking abilities Varies depending on the fabric used- natural fibers are usually more absorbent
Heat retention abilities Varies depending on the fabric used
Stretchability (give) Varies depending on the fabric used
Prone to pilling/bubbling Varies depending on the fabric used
Country where fabric was first produced Malaysia - the origin of the word “ikat,” at least
Biggest exporting/producing country today Varies depending on the fabric used
Recommended washing temperatures Varies depending on the fabric used - synthetic fabrics generally cannot be washed at high temperatures
Commonly used in Shawls, scarves, wall hangings, rugs, shirts, pants, blouses, dresses, eveningwear, socks, sweaters, etc.

What is ikat fabric?

Ikat is a particular fabric pattern that is achieved with a process called resist dyeing, in which various techniques are used to make certain parts of the fabric “resist” dyeing. Despite the fact that “ikat” is produced traditionally in many places of the world, this malay term for the pattern has stuck in the international fashion design lexicon.

Ikat throughout history

Early in the history of human civilization, peoples around the world determined that it was possible to make incredibly intricate and beautiful garments by binding yarn together in desired patterns and dying it in bunches. It’s unclear where, exactly, ikat fabric first appeared, but it’s a central cultural artifact of many East Asian, Southeast Asian, Middle Eastern, and European civilizations.

Ikat fabric today

Ikat fabric is now much easier to make with industrial machines. While it used to be necessary to bunch fibers by hand to make this fabric, the same effect can now be achieved technologically at minimal cost.

If you’ve ever worn a dyed garment, there’s about a one-in-three probability that it was ikat. There simply aren’t that many ways to dye fabric, which is probably why so many different cultures stumbled upon the ikat dyeing method at various points in history.

Ikat vs tie-dye/batik

Both tie-dye and batik are examples of textile dyeing techniques that take place after the fabric has been woven. Ikat dyeing, however, takes place before the yarn is woven into cloth, which results in a very different appearance.

How is ikat fabric made?

Ikat fabric can be made with any textile fiber that takes well to dye. Common traditional ikat materials include silk and wool, but you can also dye rayon, polyester, and a variety of other synthetic fibers the same way.

Once the fabric yarn is acquired, it is bunched into thick ropes and dyed in a particular pattern. Then, the bindings are removed, and the yarn is laid flat for weaving. Once the fabric is woven, the pattern that was originally dyed onto the yarn bunch is visible. Like any other textiles, ikat may then be treated, dyed again, or subjected to any number of different processes before it is cut, sewn, packaged, and shipped.

How is ikat fabric used?

Ikat fabric is used in a variety of categories:

Uses in apparel

From blouses to stretch pants, ikat-method dyeing is used everywhere in the fashion industry. Ikat is more common in womens clothing than it is in mens.

Accessory uses

Scarves, shawls, and headscarves are all common applications of ikat in accessories. Of course, shoes, purses, belts, and other items may also bear ikat patterns, but these designs may simply be printed rather than authentically bunch-dyed.

Uses in decor

Pillowcases, sheets, and other bedding products often feature ikat patterns. Traditionally, ikat was frequently used in wall hangings, and ikat patterns are still commonplace on walls around the world.

Where is ikat fabric produced?

That depends on which fiber was used to make the ikat fabric:

World leader in silk production

India remains the world’s largest producer of silk. While a great deal of silk is also produced in China, India has always been the epicenter of the world’s natural silk industry.

World leader in wool production

Australia and New Zealand combined are home to hundreds of millions of sheep. Since Australia is bigger, however, it’s the world’s leading producer of wool.

World leader in cotton production

China, the United States, and India all produce large amounts of cotton. In 2019, however, India was the world’s biggest producer of this natural fiber.

World leader in artificial fiber production

China remains the world leader in artificial textile production.

How much does ikat fabric cost?

A few different factors impact the final cost of ikat fabric:

Materials used

Silk and wool are in the higher range of fabric costs with cotton in the mid-range. Artificial fibers are, by far, the least expensive options, which has led to their widespread popularity. You get what you pay for, however; all signs indicate that it’s natural fibers that will still be around in 100 years and it’s synthetic fabric that will end up relegated to the history books.

Type of weave

Some types of ikat are more intricate and beautiful than others. The more work that went into your ikat fabric, the more you’re likely to pay.

Weave quality

There are dozens of ways to weave and dye ikat. Some of these techniques follow ancestral guidelines that are still practiced today, and others involve heavy factory machinery with no inherent personality or culture whatsoever. Mass-produced ikat is usually the cheapest with handmade fabric fetching a pretty penny.

What different types of ikat fabric are there?

The differences between types of ikat generally have to do with variations in weave style:

1. Warp ikat

In warp ikat, the warp threads are dyed in ikat patterns, and the weft threads are dyed in a solid color.

2. Weft ikat

Weft ikat is the opposite of warp ikat—the patterned portion is the weft thread, and the warp thread is a single color.

3. Double ikat

As the most complicated form of ikat, double ikat features both warp and weft threads that are ikat-dyed. It is very tricky to make these two patterns overlap perfectly, so double ikat is more prized than other varieties.

4. Regional variations

In one form or another, ikat has been made by practically every culture in the world. There are too many region-specific forms of this dye technique to cover, but rest assured that you’ll find familiar ikat patterns practically everywhere you go in the world.

How does ikat fabric impact the environment?

That all depends on how it’s made:

Natural fibers

While it’s certainly possible to pollute with natural fibers, this class of textiles is generally easier on the environment than synthetic fabrics. One of the main reasons for this difference is biodegradability; every natural fiber on the face of the Earth biodegrades and returns to the biosphere within 100 years or less, but according to the best estimates available, it may take tens of thousands of years for petrochemical-based plastics to completely disappear from the environment.

Among the natural fibers, cotton is the most polluting. It’s possible to grow cotton using organic, sustainable practices, but sustainability is still not the norm around the world. Most cotton manufacturers resort to chemical pesticides and fertilizers because they’re cheaper, and the results can be catastrophic. In addition to introducing genotoxins, xenoestrogens, and other harmful compounds into the surrounding environment, unsustainable farming practices also seed the soil with toxic heavy metals that will cause neurodegenerative disease for generations to come.

Wool and silk, on the other hand, are almost impossible to mess up. Silk production requires no pesticides or fertilizers; technically, silkworms are a pest on mulberry trees, and they don’t have any competitors.

There are many types of wool, and some form taken from rare goats and rabbits, for instance, may never be truly sustainable. Run-of-the-mill merino wool, however, is easy to harvest organically, and sustainable practices help sheep and humans cooperate for the greater good better than ever before.

Artificial fibers

Perhaps because they were created in defiance of natural law, artificial fibers and the natural environment have never mixed well. Mountains of plastic garbage have amassed around the world and in its oceans, and we’re gradually poisoning ourselves and all life on our planet with petrochemical-based substances that seem entirely antithetical to organic life despite their many benefits.

Here are some of the stages at which synthetic fibers harm the environment:

  • Molecular isolation: Most petrochemicals are isolated from crude oil or petroleum. In many cases, the rest of the oil is wasted, and it is often discarded improperly.
  • Synthesis: Isolated petrochemical molecules must be fused with other substances to become fiber. This process usually involves the production of further chemical waste.
  • Fiber washing: Once the liquid textile base is formed, it is extruded and hardened into fiber form. These fibers are then washed with various chemicals that are often discarded improperly.
  • Post-production: Flame-retardants and other known toxic treatments are commonly applied to synthetic garments after production.
  • Disposal: All petrochemical-based textiles appear to take thousands of years to deteriorate in natural conditions.

Dyes used

For millennia, ikat has been made with safe, natural dyes that biodegrade easily without leaving any toxins behind. Petrochemical-based dyes, however, can be highly toxic to both human bodies and the environment.

Ikat fabric certifications available

Various ikat certifications may be available depending on the fabrics used:0’

Silk certifiers

Silk Mark is the world’s foremost certifier of silk fabric. This organization is based in India, and historically, it has certified thousands of different silk products and manufacturers.

Cotton certifiers

USDA organic certification for cotton provides some degree of peace of mind, but if you truly want to make sure cotton fabric is organic, see if it has Global Organic Textile Standard (GOTS) certification.

Wool certifiers

As you search for wool ikat fabric, see if it’s been certified by Woolmark. This legendary wool producer has also set the bar for other manufacturers in the industry, and everyone trusts the Woolmark seal of approval.

Artificial fiber certifiers

ISO is one organization that provides purity and quality certification for synthetic fibers, and if your synthetic ikat is recycled, it may also be eligible for Global Recycle Standard (GRS) certification.

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About the author:

Boris Hodakel is the founder and CEO of Sewport - an online marketplace connecting brands and manufacturers, former founder of various clothing manufacturing services. He is passionate about e-commerce, marketing and production digitisation. Connect with Boris on LinkedIn.