It’s two-and-a-half hours from Ahmedabad to the town of Patola in the Patan district of Gujarat. Only four ikat weavers continue to make the double it — both the warp and weft threads are knotted then dyed to form intricate patterns of birds, flowers, elephants, dancers, monkeys and trees on silk.
The double it refers to the fact that both sides of the fabric are identical. There is no reverse or back side. How do they do it?
It was my mission on this trip to make a pilgrimage to their studio workshop. Australian friend and Gujarat expert, Carole Douglas, told me to be sure to ask to go their home.
Traditional Gujarati brides will wear a Patola for their wedding. A complete silk sari will take three years to make and cost about $20,000 USD, millions of rupees. These are by special order. A small handkerchief size is a mere $200 USD, suitable for framing! None available for purchase.
As I entered the new showroom and demonstration area in the center of Patola Patan Weavers, Rahul Vinayak Salvi and his uncle Bharat Kantilal Salvi greeted me. Rahul explained that he is the youngest of three brothers. His two elder brothers are doctors and he studied architecture. He decided the art would not survive unless he learned to weave, so he left the profession and is now becoming an accomplished weaver and dyer, working alongside his cousin.
The family works in natural dyes: indigo, cochineal (which they buy from the USA at a cost of $300 USD per kilogram), pomegranate and madder. The raw silk comes from China, which they buy wholesale in Bangalore.
First, each strand of silk is spun, then eight strands are spun together to make an 8-ply thread. It’s then washed then soaked in rice water. After drying the strands are stiff enough to tie for dyeing. Rice water is used in this part of the world for ikat making. In Mexico, we use atole or corn starch to stiffen the cotton threads.
As I understand it, the Salvi family came to Patan from Maharashtra. In 1960, Gujarat split off from Maharashtra to become a separate state. This double ikat silk weaving technique is unique to Gujarat and is found no other place in the world.
At the Salvi showroom, there is a small museum that displays examples of ikat from around the world: Japan, Uzbekistan, Malaysia, Philippines, Cambodia, Thailand and Africa.
Missing is an ikat example from Tenancingo de Degollado, State of Mexico. I promised to send them a Mexican ikat shawl to add to their collection, along with a Oaxaca contact where they can source cochineal to buy directly.
I am in awe of the skill and mathematical artistry required to create these masterpieces. The family creates about three or four sari’s per year, made on what looks like a back strap loom, though wider. Yet it is operated like a seated pedal loom, with the sheds opened by a traditional wood shaft.