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Legend has it that the stunning range of colours and mesmerising overlap of patterns found in ikat fabrics were inspired by a heavenly rainbow reflected in a pond’s mirror. Struck by this wondrous beauty, a weaver carried the image back to his workshop, transposed it onto his silks and created a fabulous splash of colour.
That is the delightful tale behind these gorgeous fabrics. When and where the technique of ikat really appeared is hard to say. But one thing is certain: they originated along the mysterious Silk Road. Today, ikat (or abr as they are called in Uzbek, from the Persian for ‘cloud’) have become one of Uzbekistan’s best-known trademarks, captivating the whole world with their distinctive beauty. Many leading fashion houses both at home and abroad now turn to Uzbek abr for striking new designs, and it is hard to imagine a connoisseur’s wardrobe without at least one item of Uzbek silk.

Variations on a theme – types of ikat

Ikat is a Malay or Indonesian word, but unlike Indonesian or Japanese ikat where both warp and weft threads are coloured (double ikat), Uzbek abrbandi masters only dye the warp threads, and that is the secret of their distinctive, decorative style.

Both cotton and silk threads can be used in the weave. The more the silk, the more highly-prized the fabric. In Uzbekistan, the most delicate ikats are the shoyi (silk ikat) but the most popular are the adras. Clothes for all the family as well as accessories and household items are often made from adras fabrics while the unmistakable striped bekasam fabrics woven from both silk and cotton threads are typically used for traditional men’s khalat coats. Other, finer semi-silks include banaras, dagif, aklyk among others, but the most notable Uzbek semi-silks are the alo bakhmal with their luxurious velvety feel. Abr patterns can also be found on simpler, more everyday fabrics with a low silk content (not more than 15%).

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Decorative designs

Traditionally, each region developed its own distinctive abr designs. Weavers in Samarkand and Bukhara, for instance, preferred bolder, neater motifs. The basic design elements in abr compositions focussed on circles, squares, rhombuses, six-petaled rosettes, S-shaped motifs and so on. Today, the main silk-weaving hub is in the Ferghana Valley, and the master craftsmen here draw inspiration from nature, plants and animals. Anthropomorphic designs are rare. Leaves arranged in palmettes, flowers, almonds, pomegranates, and apples are favourite motifs. Household items also find their way into the abr fabrics;lamps, knives, vases, or coins are quite common.

Materials, tools and techniques

One of the most important instruments in silk weaving is the traditional loom, or dukon as Uzbek masters call it. They are usually made from hard or dense wood such as walnut or mulberry. An 8-remise loom uses more silk threads than a 2-remise loom, and the woven fabric is brighter and more colourful.

Considerable time and effort goes into producing a roll of abr fabric and each stage is extremely labour-intensive, requiring great dexterity from the specialised master. Firstly, silk threads must be obtained from silkworm cocoons, then wound onto special looms (charkh). The threads are subsequently separated into fine strands, and then the chizmakash artist can draw the lengthways pattern.

 

After this, sections of the threads are tightly bound or ‘reserved’ so that the dye does not penetrate these sections, leaving them free for other colour schemes. The threads are then dyed. A specialised gulabardor master sorts the threads for the fabric and prepares them for the dukon loom. At this stage, the full pattern is revealed in all its glory and the master weaver sets to work. Finally, the fabric is finished with egg white and another breath-taking abr silk is born.

Uzbek Silk – making new inroads

Uzbekistan’s recent independence has opened a new chapter for our silk weaving. Masters in the Ferghana Valley set themselves a momentous task: to revive the best traditions of Uzbek abr fabrics.

Today, we can congratulate them on their success and enjoy the forgotten colours and beauty they have brought to light again. Lost secrets, ancient recipes for natural dyes, time-honoured techniques and delightful designs have combined with the local masters’ natural talents to resurrect silk weaving traditions of old. Hand-woven silks once more flow from the workshops, with over a thousand craftsmen and women dedicated to this labour of love. Thanks to many generations of skilled masters, their fine, sophisticated taste and unbroken lineage, Uzbek silks are proudly worn on highstreets both at home and abroad.

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