Threads of Culture

Ikat textiles from South and Central Asia tell the stories of their makers.

By: Ilene Dube

More than 30 Asian textiles are on view at the Anne Reid Gallery at Princeton Day School. Above, ikat-dyed pants made from abaca, a banana-like plant with a fiber strong as hemp.

   The Plain of Jars in Laos is a historic cultural site where enormous stone urns dating from the Bronze Age fill the landscape. During and after the Vietnam War, American forces dropped more than 2 million tons of bombs on the region. More bombs were dropped here than in World War II.
   Today, the landscape is pockmarked with bomb craters. Lethal chemicals, scrap metal and war wreckage complete the picture. Casings from cluster bombs are used as fencing and stilts for houses, and recycled shells are sold as containers.
   Despite the dangers, Lawrenceville resident Isabella de la Houssaye traveled to the Plain of Jars looking for handmade treasures. "Step by step, I thought, how stupid could this be," recounts the lawyer, who works as a banker for Lehman Brothers. But Ms. de la Houssaye’s passion for collecting — she has gathered more than 1,000 textiles — overcame any need for safety and security. She sees her role as a conservator of cultural artifacts.
   Lynn Johnston, another textile enthusiast, likens the act of collecting to an addiction. "We collect all kinds of things," she says. She and her husband, Robert, have traveled the world. "When you’re a collector, you collect wherever you go. You buy what your eye tells you to, but you have to see a fair amount before you know what is really fine."

In Central Asia and the Middle East, satin-weave ikat-dyed robes of honor called abr, like this one in bright orange, were worn by the wealthy. Several coats might have been worn at the same time in cold weather.

   Ms. Johnston conceived the idea for a museum-quality exhibit, Ikat: Mystical Textiles from the collections of Lynn and Robert Johnston, Isabella de la Houssaye and David Crane, on view at the Anne Reid Gallery, Princeton Day School, through Jan. 8. Ikat is an ancient, time-consuming art created by dying patterns into threads before the weaving process begins.
   The exhibit includes ikat weavings from Cambodia, Laos, Thailand, Myanmar, the Philippines, Indonesia, Uzbekistan, Turkmenistan, Syria, India and Japan. A 60-page catalog written by Ms. de la Houssaye with color photos by curator Jody Erdman documents the history and symbolism of these textiles and is available for viewing in the gallery.
   The exhibit, with information panels on all 11 countries represented, is a lesson in world geography and civilization. The weavings, with their intricate patterns and colors, are beautiful to look at, but are especially significant because of the stories they tell about the places they come from, such as the Plain of Jars.
   Based in Hong Kong when working for White & Case in the mid-’90s, Ms. de la Houssaye traveled to the Philippines, Thailand, China and Indonesia with her husband, David Crane, who works for the Swiss firm ABB. "We’ve been married 12 years, have five children, and have never lived in the same place," she says with a laugh. To spend the Thanksgiving holiday together, the family traveled to Abu Dhabi in the United Arab Emirates.
   After collecting carpets, Ms. de la Houssaye became interested in ikat because, she says, "it is the Ph.D. of textiles."

An ikat-dyed cloth from the collection of Isabella de la Houssaye.

   "Ikat is a method of patterning a textile," she writes in the catalog. "The word itself comes from the Malay word mengikat, which means to tie or to bind. The ikat method of patterning a textile is achieved by tying fibre resists tightly around the threads of the cloth to be woven and dying them so that the threads not tied absorb the color and the areas tied do not."
   Think tie-dye.
   The tighter the design and the more colors, the more valuable the ikat.
   There are three types of ikat weaving: warp ikat, weft ikat and double ikat. With warp ikat, the ornamentation is applied to the vertical warp threads. It is most commonly used with cotton materials. In weft ikat, the horizontal weft threads are tied and decorated; these are usually silk. Double ikat is a process in which both the warp and the weft threads are tied up and dyed in patterns prior to weaving.
   If it sounds incredibly complicated, it is.
   There are only three places in the world where the double ikat patterning technique has ever been used: India, where it is known as patola; Japan, where it is called kasuri; and Bali, where it is known as geringsing. There are only about 10 people left in the world who can still create a double ikat.
   Ms. de la Houssaye has included a double ikat geringsing from the Tenganon village in Bali. The revered cloths can take up to 10 years to make and are often offered as sacrificial clothing for the divinities. They are believed to have protective, magical powers and were used during rites of passage: wrapped around a baby after birth, draped over a bed for weddings, covering a woman during childbirth or placed over a corpse when it is carried to the cremation ground. The cloths were used to protect the bearer from harm during these transitions.
   "The weaver was akin to a god in creating and would pray before getting started," says Ms. de la Houssaye. "Bells would be hung on the loom to ward off evil spirits." Women were forbidden to work on these during menstruation, and the last of the bindings on the cloth could only be tied by women past menopause.
   The 19th-century geringsing wayang kebo depicts human figures in a style resembling shadow puppets and 13th- to 14th-century Javanese temple reliefs. "Each time you look at it, different motifs come out at you," says Ms. de la Houssaye.
   In Central Asia, weaving was done by men in cooperatives. It was considered a business and the crafter was paid. Ikat robes were a sign of a person’s wealth and position. The most admired were those of pure silk-satin. In Southeast Asia, on the other hand, women did the weaving in the home with a small back-strap loom that was pumped by foot; it was portable and easy. The cloths were considered family heirlooms for use during ceremonies and it was forbidden to buy or sell them. However, a family who couldn’t weave could give the dye and raw materials for two weavings to another family in exchange for one weaving.
   Another adventurous trip Ms. de la Houssaye took was to a small island off Mindanao in the Philippines, where tourists had been killed by terrorists. Traveling in a small boat, she was able to procure T’boli warp ikat pants made of abaca, a fiber from a small banana-like plant that grows on the island. The Mindanoans couldn’t grow cotton or import silk.
   Weaving is considered a spiritual experience in Mindanao, and the T’boli women who weave revere Baitpandi, the spirit of the weavers. Similar to the geringsing cloth, the T’boli cloth covers women to ensure the safe delivery of a child and is wrapped over a dead person before the body is placed in a coffin.
   Ikat weavings are becoming increasingly rare. A volcanic explosion in Mindanao (after Ms. de la Houssaye’s visit) wiped out many weavers. The Russian revolution and subsequent Communist rule obliterated traditional ikat weaving in Central Asia. Traditional Cambodian weaving came to an abrupt end following the Khmer Rouge rise to power in the mid- ’70s. In an attempt to make the country more self-sufficient, the Kampuchean government is attempting to revive weaving.
   Whereas in the 18th and 19th centuries, international trade resulted in the spread of ikat weaving and design techniques from India throughout Southeast Asia and Japan, today, international trade has resulted in the spread of Western wear — blue jeans and T-shirts — across the globe, making traditional woven cloths undesirable and obsolete.
   In 19th-century Cambodia, women wove their dreams, hopes and aspirations into textiles: a good husband, many children, fertile fields, freedom from evil and ill fortune — these were the motifs. A prominent symbolic image in the Lao and Khmer cultures was a woman peacefully weaving at her loom. Songs, poems and folk tales refer to the harmony, beauty and refinement of a woman at her loom. The ability to weave fine cloth made a woman more attractive to a male, enabling her to distinguish herself from others. "It didn’t matter if you were beautiful, but if you could weave you could find a husband. Rulers demanded weavings as taxes, and a man needed a wife to pay his taxes."
   The sixth-graders studying the Silk Route at PDS have prepared background information for all the countries represented in the exhibit. "PDS is making a great contribution to the community by offering such an educational exhibit," says Ms. de la Houssaye. "We have tried to create an exhibit that will be educational to a broad range of people in a variety of ways: You can walk through the show and appreciate the beauty of the textiles, you can also walk through and focus on the different geographies covered or the history and cultural meaning of the textiles."
   By educating students and the public about different cultures around the world, perhaps vanishing historic sites will never again be used as a dumping ground for the detritus of war.
Ikat: Mystical Textiles from the collections of Lynn and Robert Johnston, Isabella de la Houssaye and David Crane is on view at the Anne Reid Art Gallery, Princeton Day School, 650 The Great Road, Princeton, through Jan. 8. Gallery hours: Mon.-Fri. 8 a.m.-5 p.m. while school is in session. For information, call (609) 924-6700. On the Web: