Ikat/Matmee of the Khmu People

On show at Fibre2Fabric from April – July 2006.

A Brief History of Ikat

ikat detail

The origin of ikat isn’t known, but it is woven as far away as south America, and in Africa and all over Asia. The word ikat is Malay for tie. Kat means tie in all Indian languages. In Lao it is called matmee which directly translates to ‘tie the row’.

Ikat is a tie dye technique that requires a weft thread to be dyed before weaving. Ikat cloths are revered in most cultures and would be woven for ceremonial purposes.

The ikat technique is practiced by many different ethnic groups in Lao, and in many provinces.

Five Steps to Making Ikat/Matmee

Step 1 – Wrapping the frame.

Weaver wrapping yarn around a wooden frame

Make a frame the same width as the comb and wrap the silk around it. Every motif is made up of rows, it’s the layering of row upon row that forms the motif. In Lao the row is called a louk. The wrapped silk must be one continuous yarn.


Step 2 – Tying the pattern

Ikat is a dye resist technique that when woven forms a pattern. The weaver takes a dye resistant material to tie in specified places in each row. In this case we have used the original material used in Lao; banana tree fibre.

Did you know?

Tying the yarn with banana string

In the old days Lao people used to use string made from the banana tree to tie an ikat pattern. In Laos we have many types of banana tree, even the type that has no banana fruit; a jungle banana tree.

To make the string, we have to cut the trunk of the jungle banana tree and leave it to dry for one day. Then we need to peel the innermost past of the trunk. We leave the peeled fibre to dry and the string is ready. The jungle banana tree it is very sticky, so perfect for making the string.


Step 3 – Dying the silk

Painting the dye onto tyed silk

After the string has been tied in, the silk must be removed from the frame and dyed. In this case we are taking mak saet (annatto) dyed silk and dying it to darker orange and red colours. These darker colours are made by boiling an inedible fruit calledmak bow. To achieve the dark red colour the silk must be dyed multiple times.

Once the silk has been dyed its left to dry in the sun.


Step 4 – Spinning the silk

Spool of silk

Now the silk is dry the banana string can be removed. The silk must be spun onto spools for weaving. We use bamboo for spools. As the yarn is one continuous thread it is imperative that the pattern is kept in order. If the order is lost it is impossible to weave the pattern. The weaver does this by threading the spools onto string.


Step 5 – Weaving the cloth

Close up of ikat weaving

Most of the hard work has been done now and the weaver can sit at the loom and weave. The weaving is slow as care must be taken to line up the rows. One way to determine if the pattern is an ikat is to look closely at the cloth and see the colour of the warp strings. In this case it’s black.
Detail of ikat Lao silk

This cloth took approximately four days to make. This ikat design was taken from one of the patterns in the Khammouane skirt below (skirt 10).

Ikat Skirt/Sin Mee Exhibit

These tubular fabrics are all Pa Sin or skirt lengths. They are a combination of silk and cotton depending on their purpose; silk for ceremonies and cotton for everyday use. Pa Sin consists of three parts the waistband hua sin, a main body purn sin and a border tiin sin.

Certain details communicate things about the wearer such as marital status, social class and aptitude as a weaver. For example in Sam Nua a red or blue waistband means the wearer is unmarried.

Ikat skirts are rare as not every weaver is proficient in this art.

Tai Deng Ikat skirt weave detail1. Tai Deng ethnic group from Houaphanh Province. The pattern represents naga heads protecting the roof of the temple. Tai Deng are sub group of Lao Lum they practice Buddhism and animism.

Tai Muay Ikat skirt weave detail2. Tai Muay ethnic group from Khammouane Province. The ikat represents crab and flower motifs. Crab motifs represent the hope for a favourable monsoon season and thus a bountiful harvest. This is a skirt for ceremonial dress. The band at the bottom is known as din sin in this case it is a discontinuous supplementary weft of crab patterns.

Lao Lum Ikat skirt weave detail3. Lao Lum, Luang Prabang Province. This skirt is the traditional Luang Prabang skirt the motif is sugar canes.

Tai Phuan Ikat skirt weave detail4. Tai Phuan ethnic group from Xieng Khouane. Both the ikat and the supplementary weft patterns are flowers.

Khamu Ikat skirt weave detail5. Khamu ethnic group from Oudomxai Province. This skirt is a cotton and silk mixture. The pattern is a flower.

Tai Muay Ikat skirt weave detail6. Tai Muay ethnic group from Houaphanh Province. In Lao this skirt is called Sin Mee Hong. In Lao Sin means skirt. In some ethnic Lao legends the lotus flower is a special flower that the Naga would protect. This skirt features the lotus flower, also naga tails and scorpians and chickens.

Tai Muay Ikat skirt weave detail7. Tai Muay ethnic group from Houaphanh Province. This is another Sin Mee Hong.

Tai Phuan Ikat skirt weave detail8. Tai Phuan ethnic group from Xieng Khouane and Vientiane Provinces. This skirt is known as Sin Mee Load and would be worn by high ranking women. We are missing the waste band and border. The motif is known asNak Pasat which means Naga of the Palace.

Tai Deng Ikat skirt weave detail9. Tai Deng ethnic group from Houaphanh Province. This is a cotton skirt combining supplementary weft and ikat techniques. The ikat pattern is bordered by the supplementary weft. It is quite difficult to get the patterns to line up well.

Tai Muay Ikat skirt weave detail10. Tai Muay ethnic group from Khammouane Province. This motif is known as Nak Si Huaor Four headed Naga. Both the ikat and the supplementary border feature Naga. In the border the Naga is protecting the Lotus Diamond.

Tai Dam Ikat skirt detail11. Tai Dam and Tai Deng ethnic group from Houaphanh Province. The ikat is a multi-headed Naga, this represents the protection of the temple. The supplementary pattern is Naga tails and flowers.

Tai Moy Ikat skirt weave detail12. Tai Moy ethnic group from Huaphanh Province. This motif is a sunflower. This pattern features regulary in their weavings.

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