No, you don’t need to get your eyes checked. Ikat is supposed to look that blurry.

Ikat textiles, which emerged centuries ago in Central Asia, India, Japan and South America, are characterized by a repeating pattern of hazy geometric shapes, often in bold or pastel colors. The distinctive look, a result of ikat’s unique dyeing and weaving techniques, has inspired contemporary prints that can be found on home furnishings and clothing.

Want a good look at the real deal? Ikat is the focus of two simultaneous exhibits in D.C.: “To Dye For: Ikats From Central Asia” at the Arthur M. Sackler Gallery and “Binding the Clouds: The Art of Central Asian Ikat” at The Textile Museum on the George Washington University campus.

“It’s become so integral to our visual vocabulary in design,” Massumeh Farhad, chief curator at the Sackler (as well as its sister museum, the Freer Gallery of Art), says of the ancient fabric. “It has a boldness that appeals to modern aesthetic, but the scale is such that it’s not too much in-your-face.”

Originally, the elaborate process of making ikat involved dyeing individual strands of silk or cotton thread and weaving them together.

“It’s more than just a piece of fabric,” says Susan McCauley, the owner of Mekong River Textiles, a fabric showroom in Silver Spring. “Think about all the hands that have gone into making it, like the dyer, the weaver and the person who made the loom.”

The majority of the ikats on display in the two D.C. exhibits are from 19th-century Uzbekistan. Following the fall of the Soviet Union in 1991, rare ikat fabrics once concentrated in Central Asia began spreading more rapidly to the West, Farhad says. Ikat caught the eye of contemporary fashion designers — most notably the late Oscar de la Renta and the Italian fashion house Etro — in the late 1990s, and has steadily gained popularity since. The Sackler’s “To Dye For” includes tapestries as well as richly patterned coats once worn by Uzbek men and women — along with seven robes on loan from de la Renta’s estate.

“It’s so bold and it takes people’s imaginations in different directions,” D.C.-based fashion educator Linda Lee says of ikat. “It’s very common in different cultures, and when you think about the makeup of our country, it’s not a surprise that it always pops up.”

Farhad points to the 1997 publication of “Ikat: Splendid Silks of Central Asia” as a major catalyst for the style’s popularity. The comprehensive book cataloged the ikat pieces owned by Guido Goldman, whose personal collection once reached more than 300 wall hangings and coats.

“He published this huge volume on ikat with sumptuous colors,” Farhad says. “I really do think that book had a lot to do with introducing ikat into the American consciousness.”
Goldman recently gifted his collection — including dozens of pieces in the two D.C. exhibits — to a handful of museums. The Textile Museum’s “Binding the Clouds” features 32 flat textiles that were once used as wall hangings or decorative coverings in homes in Uzbekistan.

Goldman became enchanted with the fabric in the 1970s when he had hoped to purchase Wassily Kandinsky paintings but was discouraged by the price. He instead chose to collect ikat fabrics, which reminded him of Kandinsky’s abstract color fields. Some pieces are so dear to him that he gives them nicknames, based on what their patterns resemble: One textile he calls “Chrysler Building” features an image shaped like the Manhattan skyscraper.

“Ikat is very easy to like,” Goldman says. “This trend has been out there for quite a while. I would have thought it would have faded by now, but it hasn’t.” — Holley Simmons

Sackler Gallery

Polychrome silk embroidery and silk taffeta robe
Designed by Oscar de la Renta, Balmain Haute Couture spring/summer 1997 collection
Oscar de la Renta traveled to Central Asia and worked with traditional weavers to produce pieces for his collections. For this women’s evening robe, de la Renta “takes the ikat design and sort of gives it a modern twist,” says Massumeh Farhad, the Sackler’s chief curator. The silk fabric wasn’t actually dyed and woven using the ikat technique, but was embroidered to give it an ikat-like pattern. “This one is pretty amazing. I saw pictures and I thought, ‘It’s ikat fabric,’ ” she says. “It was only when the robes arrived that I realized that it’s all embroidered.” —Vanessa H. Larson

Woman’s silk velvet robe (munisak)
Central Asia, 1850-1875
This colorful ikat robe was especially valuable because it was made of silk velvet, which was more difficult to weave than regular flat silk. “Ikat velvet robes [were] really sort of the ultimate sign of wealth and luxury,” says the Sackler Gallery’s Farhad. “These coats … were worn on special occasions, very much like the modern [couture] versions.” The wide, loose cut was deliberate: “Because the fabric was so precious, you didn’t want to cut it, so you just wanted to have as much of it as possible,” Farhad says. — V.H.L.

Textile Museum

Hanging silk ikat
(Probably from Samarkand, 1850-1875)
This vibrant textile dates to a late period in the development of Uzbek ikats, characterized by patterns with larger, stylized forms. The main motif could be “a bird’s-eye-view blossom, but we don’t know,” says Textile Museum senior curator Sumru Belger Krody. “In between, there are some kind of little leaf-branches.” The bold colors and forms predate yet seem reminiscent of the abstract art movement, she says. —  V.H.L.

Hanging silk ikat
(Bukhara, 1800-1850)
“To me [this piece] represents what is most appealing about ikat to people, with the color balance and the lines, the forms,” says The Textile Museum’s Krody. “You can spend quite a bit of time looking at it and kind of trying to figure it out,” says Krody, noting that ikats like this have a feeling of movement to them that’s similar to lenticular pictures (which appear to move when you tilt them side to side). This textile, made of five vertical strips of fabric sewn together, dates to the first half of the 19th century, a period from which fewer Uzbek ikats have survived, Krody says. —  V.H.L.