As temperatures soared in London last weekend, I had the privilege of attending a masterclass in double ikat dyeing and weaving held at The Bhavan – the largest centre for Indian performing arts and culture outside India.
Master weaver Kanubhai Salvi comes from a long familial line of master textile craftsmen, and is the proud recipient of the UNESCO Seal of Excellence for his handwoven patan patola cloth, which takes its name from the town of Patan, situated on the banks of the Saraswati river in Gujarat. I had visited Kanubhai’s brother’s workshop and museum in Patan in September 2016, and so was familiar with the intricate dyeing and weaving processes involved in the double ikat technique, but this was an opportunity to really understand how it was done.
In Patan, the Salvi family (whose name literally means ‘handloom weaver’) carry out the whole process, from degumming and spinning the silk yarn, creating the designs, resist-dyeing the yarn, and finally weaving the cloth. Ikat (meaning ‘tied’) weaving is done in many parts of the world, but the patola cloth is unique in being woven on a particular harness loom made from wood and bamboo, set at a slant with the right side being higher than the left. This had been ingeniously re-created in the Bhavan using a couple of clothes stands and pieces of wood and bamboo.
Kanubhai Salvi took us through the process of transferring designs on graph paper onto silk yarn, tieing the relevant sections ready for resist-dyeing. After a first dye bath using red and yellow (turmeric) dyes, we were shown how to undo and re-tie further sections in preparation for a second indigo dip. The hot day meant that our yarn took no time at all to dry off between dye baths, and Kanubhai explained that such processes could not be undertaken during the Indian monsoon due to the heavy rains. Once finally dry, it was exciting to undo all the ties to see the patterns emerge.
Once warp and weft yarns have been dyed in their respective patterns, they can be woven together to create the solid colour motifs traditionally associated with patan patola. Having experienced only a small section of the process, we could all appreciate how it takes a year to make a sari length of cloth – with only a third of that time being spent at the loom!
(from left: Kanubhai Salvi and workshop organiser Rajeswari Sangupta with a loom-ready ikat dyed warp, finished patan patola cloth, patola loom ingeniously created for workshop demonstration, dyed warp threads alongside pattern motifs, and my ikat dyed silk skeins)
It was lovely to share the creative day with others – three of us were weavers, possibly planning to experiment with ikat techniques in our own work. Another was a designer, interested in all Indian art culture, and two sisters had signed up in order to more fully appreciate all that is involved in creating patola cloth as their mother and grandmother had each had a customised patola sari made for special occasions; they now understood what heirloom pieces these indeed were!