Patterns With Tongues And Bonfires

No one can say with certainty where the ikat technique originated. The word itself is Indonesian and was popularised in Europe as a result of Dutch research into textile traditions in the former East Indies. This would therefore place the origins in the Far East. However, the technique was also evident in Central and South America; Spanish conquistadors would have come across it.

Ikat is a dyeing technique, a chief characteristic of which is a blurry pattern. This apparently came about because of difficulties with lining up dyed yarns during the weaving process. Finer yarns and greater skills can reduce this blurry appearance, but there is still some, and depending on current-day preferences, the degree of blurriness (or lack of it) will be more prized and therefore more expensive.

The technique exists in Majorca. The artisan textile producers on the island that deploy it are unique in Europe. There are four of them, and they are responsible for "roba de llengües" (cloth of tongues), which refers more to the fabric than the technique.

The commonly held view is that ikat in Majorca came about because of the old Silk Road. There is an anecdote, and no more than this, that when traders stopped in Majorca, islanders saw their fabrics and began imitating them. While it is possible that the Silk Road was responsible, the claims made for it seem more romantic than wholly feasible. The Silk Road effectively died out in the fifteenth century. There was silk trading in the Mediterranean after this, but there was also a great deal of disruption because of the warring Ottomans.

The Silk Road, as it operated in the Mediterranean in the late mediaeval years, ended in Italy and France. Spain, it is understood, wasn't on the silk route. Nevertheless, it is quite possible that traders might have stopped in Majorca en route to France rather than mainland Spain. Again, however, the notion is somewhat fanciful, and that's because of when the ikat technique is thought to have taken root on the island. It would appear to be comparatively recent - from the early nineteenth century.

There's little doubt that ikat did come from the East. The conquistador connection in the Americas can surely be ruled out. If there had been one, then it is most unlikely that the technique would have become rooted in Majorca and nowhere else. The more plausible explanation lies with an association with France and with the French Revolution. Artisans from France fled the country and came to Majorca. This would seem to be the reason, yet even this isn't wholly satisfactory. What happened to ikat in France and indeed elsewhere that it was being used at the end of the eighteenth century?

Ikat was in fact still used in parts of Europe until the mid-twentieth century, so it is difficult to explain how Majorca came to be the last remaining centre. Ultimately perhaps, this may possibly just have been a matter of taste, while the adoption and subsequent popularity in the nineteenth century may have owed something to the advancement of textile skills and technologies in Majorca. Was the blurring simply due to there having been a more rudimentary industry on the island? There is also a cultural angle. Before the adoption of the term roba de llengües, the fabric effect was known as "flamulas". This referred to the flames of a bonfire, and that in itself - potentially - points to the extent to which bonfires were (and remain) central to Majorcan tradition.

Whatever the exact origins, there is certainty with regard to producers. The four are Teixits Riera, which is now in Lloseta; Teixits Bujosa (Santa Maria); José Cañamares in Establiments, Palma; and Teixits Vicens in Pollensa. The latter is the oldest. It dates from 1854 and will also be the best known, and that's because it is in Pollensa. The Vicens shop has long been popular with visitors, and it is in a prominent location next to the roundabout coming into Pollensa town. There is also the Martí Vicens Museum on the Calvari steps in Pollensa. Named after the son of another Martí Vicens, who had introduced the roba de llengües to the family textile business, it was he who experimented with colours that not only came to characterise the business's output but also greatly influenced Majorcan textile design.

The Council of Majorca has announced that it will be giving roba de llengües official protection as an asset of intangible cultural interest. This is appropriate. However ikat came to be in Majorca, the fact is that it is in Majorca and unique to the island.

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