Ancient woven fabric makes modern resurgence

Kelly Wearstler for Groundworks Wallcovering: Bengal Bazaar in Graphite.
Kelly Wearstler for Groundworks Wallcovering: Bengal Bazaar in Graphite. (BALTIMORE SUN)

Rita St. Clair and her staff turned to an ancient classic when the Baltimore interior designer was asked to decorate a room upon her induction into the Washington Design Center Hall of Fame. The group wanted a fabric to accent a number of pieces in the room and make them pop. They chose ikat.

With its Central Asian origins and exotic feel, ikat — a weaving and dyeing technique that uses a range of materials — was perfect for creating a room inspired by a worldly family. The team used the colorful fabric for chair covers and pillows to offset the muted tones of the room.

The finished product, on display from May to December, received a number of compliments from the public and St. Clair's peers.

"They just thought the room was great — very inviting, and very warm," said Brian Thim, design director for St. Clair's Baltimore-based firm. "They loved our take on the traditional family room. We didn't want it to look like your typical family room. It was a more relaxed room. It was the kind of a space that you weren't afraid to use. It kind of all tied in together."

The firm has used the fabric for a variety of projects, including a home in Rehoboth Beach, Del., and a condominium in the Ritz-Carlton Residences along Baltimore's Inner Harbor.

"It's something that we chose specifically," Thim said. "We thought that it would add an interesting pattern where we needed it. Both clients were very happy. The one at the Ritz-Carlton said it exceeded expectations. The beach house owners absolutely loved it."

St. Clair has been a fan of ikat since falling in love with it during a trip to Turkey in the mid-1970s. In addition to using the fabric for projects, St. Clair owns a number of garments made from ikat and has adorned her home with various pieces.

"I think it is wonderful," St. Clair said. "It's a free-flowing geometric design. It is so adaptable to modern design. The colors are very deep and usable."

The fabric is the focus of "Colors of the Oasis: Central Asian Ikats," an exhibit at the Textile Museum in Washington that ends March 13 after a six-month run. The display features more than 60 ikat robes and hangings, and traces the fabric's origins from Central Asia to its modern use.

Although the exact origins of ikat remain murky — the fabric does not survive for long periods of time, making it almost impossible to trace — it is believed to have begun in Asia. It also might be one of the world's oldest weaving styles.

The fabric became popular in the 1980s with a number of interior designers. It made a resurgence in the fashion industry when Oscar de la Renta used it in his spring 2005 collection. National retailers such as Target, Anthropolgie, J. Crew and Chico's have also released clothing lines in ikat patterns.

Ikat continues to make a cyclical resurgence every couple of years — especially among the French and British, according to Susie Brandt, chairwoman of the fiber department at Maryland Institute College of Art.

"Part of designing fabrics is they mine history," Brandt said. "Trends come and go because the archives are being mined all the time."

Ikat's lengthy production process differs greatly from most Western fabrics, Brandt said.

"Ikat doesn't adhere to our norms," Brandt said of the process, which involves multiple dye baths of the fibers before they are weaved together to create the pattern. "It takes a long time to make it. It doesn't fit into our ideas of efficiency. But the process makes fabric with amazing color and richness."

MICA played an integral role in the exhibit at the Textile Museum. Christina Day, a faculty member in the fiber department, created a 10-minute documentary about the history of the fabric that is being used in the exhibit. In addition, Day's students created a number of pieces that are on display.

"It's hard not to be a fan," Brandt said of the exhibit. "It would win anyone over."

But for some decorators, ikat may be too striking.

"I don't like it," said Baltimore designer Mona Hajj. "It's not pretty. It's a pretty hard energy. It's the only fabric I've never used."

Despite the fabric's upswing in popularity, Hajj has continued to resist using it in projects.

"It's not necessary," she said. "There are so many beautiful things on the market. A lot of top designers love it and think it is charming. It's just not for me."


About ikat

How to use it Although experts recommend the real thing, Rita St. Clair said that ikat prints will do in a pinch. "They're not as exciting, but some of them are pretty darn good," she said.

Go big Use ikat patterns on larger pieces of furniture — especially in rooms that feature muted colors, Brian Thim recommends.

Mix it up Ikat pieces don't have to match, according to Thim. "They can be applied more randomly," he said.

Be soft Use ikat fabric as chair covers or for pillows, according to St. Clair, who also uses the fabric for cushions and shawls. She suggests lining it and using it as a throw for the bed.

Where to see it "Colors of the Oasis: Central Asian Ikats," runs until March 13 at The Textile Museum in Washington, 2320 S St., N.W. Information: 202-667-0441.