Woman's robe with red, green, blue and yellow design on a white background
Bukhara, Uzbekistan, 1825 - 1850
From the Rau collection, © The Rau Collection
The motifs and patterns that decorate ikats respond to both the long-standing traditions of Central Asian art and the particular urban tastes of the 19th-century market. The prominence of overall repeating patterns reflects the Islamic tradition, while motifs such as ram's horns and cypress trees reach back to a more ancient past. Floral decoration, dominant in Islamic art and inspired by the flora of the steppe lands, often features. The influence of the local arts of carpet making and embroidery is also strikingly present, for example in the use of large repeating circles. Designers combined, abstracted and moulded these inherited motifs to work with the technical and aesthetic demands of ikat. Some of the motifs, such as the jewellery and pendant patterns, once had amuletic, protective qualities. But they lose these special meanings when incorporated into the contemporary design vocabulary of ikat.
The magnificent range of colours is central to the appeal of Central Asian ikats. In places that produced ikats there were many dye houses where colours were painstakingly prepared and applied. Despite the skill involved, working with dyes was a low-status job associated with smell and mess.
Dyes were extracted from a variety of natural resources. Red dyes came from the cochineal insect or madder root; green from the seedpods and flowers of the pagoda tree. Yellow was made from delphinium flowers or saffron, and pinks from brazilwood. Black dyes came from the black mallow plant or pistachio trees. Indigo came from the indigo plant, but was imported as blocks of prepared dye from India. The dye trade and many of the dye houses were run by Jews. They operated the indigo cold dye houses while the Tajiks (Persian speakers of Iranian origin) tended the hot dye baths, applying yellows and reds.