In a June 2015 ceremony in Gualaceo, east of Cuenca, the art of ikat weaving was officially recognized by UNESCO as an intangible cultural heritage of Ecuador. According to anthropologists, the practice predates both the Spanish and Inca in southern Ecuador.
Ikat is a Malay-Indonesian term for a dyeing technique that is “one of the most complicated approaches to dyeing found anywhere in the world,” according to the Smithsonian Centre for Education and Museum Studies. It is a “resistance” technique where an agent resistant to the dye, traditionally cabuya cactus fibre in Ecuador, is tightly wrapped around parts of the yarn before dyeing the yarn to create a pattern that will appear later during the weaving.
It is a rare technique as the pattern needs to be held in the weavers mind to ensure that the wrapped parts will translate into the correct pattern on the loom. José Jiménez, a Gualaceo craftsman who is helping to keep the art of ikat alive, says, “The paint brushes are in my head, because the design that the fabric will have comes from the way I have dyed the yarn, and how I have distributed the yarn on the loom.”
Ikat is one of the oldest forms of textile design, and although it is common to many cultures around the world, the weavings produced in Ecuador are considered to be among the best.
In Ecuador and other parts of the world the tradition is in steady decline, however, correlating to the decline of traditional dress. In the Cuenca area, the decline is due to the falling demand for the traditional Chola Cuencana style, which dates back more than 200 years ago. The local demand has also suffered as fewer Ecuadorians wear the “macana”, a traditional cotton shawl with a knotted fringe.
The colorful macana is typically worn by “cholas”, women of mestizo (mixed-race) descent, a social class that emerged in the mid-17th century. The ikat shawl is not only a beautiful part of their dress, it is also a practical accessory. Cholas use the macana to carry goods to and from the markets or to securely carry their child on their back.
According to historian Joaquín Moreno of the University of Azuay, “The term ‘chola Cuencana’ does not have pejorative connotations, but is a sign of regional identity. However, that is also being lost to globalization.”
Emigration has played a key role in the changes. An estimated 200,000 people left the southern provinces of Azuay and Cañar in the late 1980s and 1990s, some of whom were apprenticing as ikat weavers. Although most of them have returned to Ecuador, few are interested in maintaining the craft.
In the stratified society of the mid-17th century, Spaniards wanted cholas to be easily distinguished from both indigenous and white women by their way of dress. For centuries, the macana was a key element in the outfit of the chola Cuencana. The dress also includes the Panama hat, an embroidered blouse, and two skirts, including an undergarment whose lower embroidered edge shows underneath the outer pleated skirt.
Although typical cholas Cuencanas can still be seen in Cuenca, there is a generational divide. “In this area, there are hardly any young people who wear the traditional dress,” says Jiménez.
And those that are seen in Cuenca are often wearing hoodies in place of the macana, and baseball caps instead of a Panama hat. The chola Cuencana has also traditionally worn sandals or black leather shoes — today they might wear a variety of shoes, including low heel evening shoes.
In an effort to keep the ikat tradition and their occupation alive, craftsmen have started appealing to people outside the chola tradition. Today, they make cloths that are used for things like ponchos, bags, scarves, and pillows.
To craft ikat, traditional backstrap looms are still used where the weaver sits on the floor. However, for textiles over 75 centimeters wide, a foot pedal loom is often used.
Ikat is produced in many traditional textile centers around the world, from India to Central Asia, Southeast Asia, Japan, and Africa
Globally, the popularity of the ikat tradition has also declined due to the prevalence of cheaper clothing with ikat print. A few years ago, the ikat print was a huge hit in the fashion world of countries like the United States. The demand was one for a copied print that was manufactured on everything from clothing to shower curtains.
These artificially crafted garments are often called “ikat” by the mass-produced brands. However, they do not distinguish between a piece of cloth created on an industrial machine and a piece of cloth that is crafted with an incredible degree of skill, knowledge, and tradition.