A little while back I wrote about meeting Jose, who is the lead artisan in one of the few remaining Ikat workshops Ecuador. Recently, I had a chance to go back and learn even more about the complex and highly detailed process that goes into creating one of his beautiful scarves.
First, he talked to us in depth about the completely natural dyes that he uses, mostly from plants and minerals he personally collects from his local area. He has an incredible wealth of knowledge; details such as how adding in a locally found acidic fruit called the taxo will completely change a dye mixture to create new colors.
He collects the leaves, flowers, nuts, and minerals and then creates a solution which has to ferment for several weeks in partially buried clay pots. Many of these pots are close to 100 years old. He explained that using these aged pots is a critical component in the dye concentrate developing correctly as the finish on the inner surface has absorbed the dyes for so many decades.
When the dye concentrate is ready, then you apply it to the threads, a process he actually let us try our hand at: first preparing the mix, prewashing the threads, boiling the threads with the natural dye, and finally rinsing to hang out to dry in the shade. We went through each of the steps with him and were actually able to dye a skein of cotton and a skein of wool thread.
While we were waiting for the threads to take the color, Jose took us up his hill where he showed us the agave plants he grows. This is the next step in the ikat process, wrapping the cotton or wool threads with agave fibers to create the pattern. After the plants have matured at about four years, its ready to be harvested – an incredibly time consuming process of removing the green ‘fleshy’ part of the plant, leaving only the stringy fibers.
After we finished each step he gave us the yarn we had dyed to us as a gift. If I can ever get it untangled, I’m hoping to crochet a set of ear warmers and something for him as thank you for all his kindness!
What does to take to practice the traditional craft of ikat? Special knowledge of local plants and minerals, how to extract agave fibers, dying techniques, intricate patterns, how to set up a backstrap loom and how to weave the final product. It would take a lifetime to master.
Spending the day dying with Jose left me not only incredibly impressed by the depth of his knowledge of his art, but also extremely touched by his openness and generosity.