What is ikat?
Mallorcan “cloth of tongues” fabric is created using a method of production known in its countries of origin as ikat or ikkat. The term is used both for the technique and for the product itself.
This thousand-year-old method is characterized by the resist dyeing of fibres, whereby bindings are used to stop the subsequent penetration of the dye in the required areas. Then the fibres are dyed, and when the bundle is to be woven, the pattern appears according to the positioning of the bindings and the colours used. In this way, both sides of the cloth are patterned identically.
The origin of the word ikat itself is uncertain, there being many possible theories on the matter. The most widely accepted view is that the technique probably developed independently in various places, and indeed examples have been found of cloth produced by similar methods in places as far apart as Afghanistan, Indonesia, Colombia and Mexico. By 500 BC in the south of Indonesia, there was a continually-evolving culture of woven cloth amongst the landowning classes, and by that time they were already producing ikats of silk and batik.
How did the ikat come to Mallorca?
The technique entered Mallorca via the security offered by the Silk Route: Asia and Europe were connected through China, which by then was manufacturing silk of great commercial value. This route, established by journeys made by fifth to seventh-century merchants, became one for spices and for the propagation of new manufacturing processes for many types of machinery, among them looms, in approximately the thirteenth century.
After France and Italy, countries in which they had perfected the technique and made it popular with royalty, ikat arrived in Mallorca. Owing to the perishable nature of these weavings, the oldest silk cloths of tongues that have been both found and made in Mallorca date from the eighteenth century, and suggest the influence of both countries.
Ikats continued to be manufactured in Europe until after the Second World War, but Mallorca is the only place in Europe where they are still made. The insularity of our archipelago has been fundamental in preserving this craft from the mainland, and it has survived through adaptation by local machinery, method and its particular technical characteristics. All of which gives Mallorcan ikat its particular identity, starting with its own name: here it is known as the “cloth of tongues” (roba de llengos or tela de llengües), a reference to the designs which recall flames, or, rather, tongues of flame (flammes).
Illustration: Joseph Ducreux, Portrait in pastel of the last Queen of France, the Archduchess Marie-Antoinette of Austria (1769, Château de Versailles). The sleeves show a detail of the pattern created by the process known as “chiné a la branche”, a variant of ikat which was very popular in France at that time. As a decorative style, it arrived in Mallorca and subsequently evolved into the “cloth of tongues” which we know today.
The “tongues” in Mallorca
The popularity of “cloths of tongues” in Mallorca has fluctuated according to the ups and downs of trade, processes of manufacture and other economic factors that have determined production on the part of the local textile industry ever since the arrival of this type of fabric in Mallorca.
At the beginning of the eighteenth century the majority of wealthy households in Mallorca were using tongues of silk, sometimes even for garments, be they for daily or religious wear. It was the done thing to dress the bed in canopies, curtains and bedspreads, which were made using these fabrics. In this century, before industrialization, producing them was very expensive. With the arrival of mechanical looms and a growing preference for materials other than silk (cotton, linen and hemp), the tongues could now filter down to all social strata of the island.
By the twentieth Century, the influence of tourism meant a reappraisal of the “tongues”, so that they came to represent a product that was typical of the island and a part of its cultural heritage. Their iconic character have given them tremendous popularity, which has, predictably, given rise to imitations, counterfeit products often made outside of Mallorca.
Nowadays, there are hardly any workshops on the island dedicated to the art of weaving the cloth of tongues in the old artisan manner. And so it could be claimed that authentically Mallorcan fabrics are in danger of becoming extinct. In that sense, the work of Teixits Riera is based on maintaining the existence of a product and a method of manufacture that requires patience, kill and no little historical sensibility; values which are somewhat overlooked in today´s textile manufacturing. Our central aim is to ensure the continued survival of this artisanal technique and to perpetuate the fundamental character of these quintessentially Mediterranean fabrics.Photograph: Chairs and sofa in flamme pattern in the Casa del Marqués de Campofranco (Palma de Mallorca, 1915). Fundació Institut Amatller d´Art Hispànic. Mas archive, Barcelona.
- Collaboration between Teixits Riera and the artist Miquel Barceló, for the exhibition, Flàmules: cloths of tongues in Mallorca (November 2009) Read more
- IDI: “An eye to history.” Read more