Suitcase and World: Ikat and the Traditional Dress of Central Asia.

Tuesday, February 17, 2015

Ikat and the Traditional Dress of Central Asia.

Tajik woman in traditional dress. (Photo from
I live in the US. We don't have any traditional dress here unless you consider jeans and a t-shirt to be worthy of the title of being national dress.  Of course, that is exactly what I am wearing today.

Nor does anyone in the US, with the exception of the native tribes, have to spend countless hours of effort making our clothes let alone having the skills to dye and weave the fabric to make the clothes with.

It's sad to say but despite all the inspiration that surrounds us everyday, our dress code in the US is, for the most part, more about comfort than maintaining national pride.

So, I'm always thrilled to be traveling to a place where national dress is treasured; where it's an integral part of each person's cultural identity.  Central Asia is just such a place - all five nations take extreme pride in their national costume and from the images I've seen on Google, it's not uncommon for people to wear their native costume daily.  I would presume this is more likely to be the case in the smaller towns and villages than in the big cities like Tashkent and Almaty where more western style dress would be the norm.

Before I describe the costumes, I want to describe the iconic fabric of Central Asia - ikat. The word *ikat* is drived from a Malay-Indonesian term meaning to tie or to bind.  Ikat also refers to the textile

Ikat.  (Photo from The Interior Collective)
Ikat is an intricate and very labor intensive resist-dye technique in which threads are patterned by repeated binding and dyeing before they are woven.  Resist dyeing is where something is used to "resist" or prevent the dye from reaching all the cloth, thereby creating a pattern and ground. The most common examples of this technique are tie-dye and batik.  

In the case of ikat, there is ikat where just the warp threads are dyed, where just the weft threads are dyed or in the most rare form called *double ikat*,  both warp and weft threads are dyed.

Ikat designs were often inspired by more traditional arts—the dowry embroideries of urban women, the carpets and textiles of the nomadic peoples of the steppe and the elaborate tile work of the medieval Islamic period. In ikat, these design elements are highly abstracted.  A quick look at Google images will give you an idea of the variety of colors and patterns of ikat.  Wow!  Not surprisingly, Western designers have adopted ikat for everything from clothing to furniture covering.

Beautiful examples of ikat.  The object in the upper left and all the other similar looking objects are coats, shown from the back.

Here's a video that I found on youtube that can better show how ikat is created.  Once you watch the video....and you'll be amazed by how difficult this is to do, imagine how painstaking the process would be if you were doing this on fine silk thread rather than the rope that this young woman is using to demonstrate  the technique.

Although ikat is an ancient technique practiced in many parts of the world, it reached its zenith in Bukhara and Samarkad in Uzbekistan and in the Ferghana Valley of Tajikistan at the start of the 19th century.  Fine examples of Central Asian ikat have even been displayed in museums including the Jewish Museum in New York City and the Textile Museum in Washington DC.  In fact, one of the world's finest collections of ikat was bequeathed to the The Arthur M. Sackler Gallery in Washington DC.

Kazakh woman wearing a khalat.
Photo from Local fashion)
Now, on to the traditional costumes of Central Asia.  I am not attempting to describe all the costumes but just to the clothing down to its most basic components.  You can imagine just how simple or elaborate any of the clothing items can be and how they are used to identify a person's regional roots, religion, status, rank, wealth, etc.

The national costume of all five Central Asian countries can be broken down into 3 basic pieces - a tunic, pants, and a variety of coats.  Of course, they vary in design, embellishment, weave of cloth and color to reflect the ethnic origin or status of the wearer or the occasion.

The tunic worn by men usually comes just below the waist while women wear a longer version that reaches to mid-calf or to the ankle.  The pants are usually of a loose type - a bit voluminous at the top and tapering down at the knees, mid-calf, or at the ankles. The upper part of the pants is usually made of a plain-woven undecorated fabric and the bottoms of a different, more expensive and decorated material because only the bottom portions are seen below the tunic. Smart design.

The coat comes in two basic types -  the chapan and the khalat. The chapan is a loose coat of padded and quilted cotton. The khalat is a lightweight robe made of cotton, silk or a mixture of the two. There are regional variations in the cut of this garment but, essentially, khalats have wide sleeves and are bordered with patterned-silk edging tape stitched onto the coat material.  The coats can have sleeves of varying lengths and be worn left open or tied with a belt. 

Traditional black and white tubeteika for men.  (Photo by Evgeni Zotov)
Last but not least, there's th headdress.  If I recall correctly, Islamic practice is that you do not appear in public with your head uncovered.  So at a minimum, if you are a woman, you would have a scarf covering your head; the most common in Central Asia is a fine silk shawl called a rumol.  It can be wrapped around the head in any number of different ways.

For both men and women, the simplest form of Central Asian headdress is a skull cap, called a tubeteika. For men, the tubeteika is generally made from black colored fabric simply embroidered with white thread whereas tubeteika for women are far more colorful.  A tubeteika can be worn on its own, beneath a larger hat or as I have seen in many a photo, as a base for wrapping turbans and arranging a rumol.

Headdress for special occasions would necessarily be far more elaborate - embellished with everything from embroidery to tassles to beads.  In the Central Asian cultures, as in many other cultures, headdress also serve as a form of regional identity.   For example, Turkmen men wear large shaggy sheepskin hats, Kazakh nomads favor fur, and the Kirghiz have their unique, cone shaped, molded felt hats. Another type of head covering worn by both men and women, is the turban.

I've pretty much spent an entire day reading up about ikat and on the various traditional costumes of the Central Asian countries and I know I've barely nicked the surface.  Now, it's time for me to see them in person.  I cannot wait!