Entering a small pink room without windows, I can hardly find a place to stand - large tables fill the whole of it and on them is an ocean of green leaves and rolling white foam. No, wait, those are silk worms surfing over the green waves, munching with such enthusiasm they are almost drunk with nutrients; some are heading to sleep to weave their dream of silk.
I'm in the Fergana Valley of Uzbekistan, starting down a long road that leads to their celebrated Ikat fabric. But first, worms munching. Next, cocoons collected, boiled; threads separated and bundled and dried.
In a wide courtyard, I watch as yarn is next wrapped, elaborately and intricately, so that certain areas resist the oncoming dyes. Then the plunge. Rich dyes saturate the naked threads and leave the bound areas pristine.
Much later - many plunges later - the thread is unfurled from its binding to reveal clean white sections that don't yet mean anything. Only when the threads are warped on a loom do the patterns begin to show themselves. Up until this point, there are centuries of practice and faith at work, secrets known only to the maker. But now, it all makes sense. The pattern blooms.
To the novice (me), it's magic. And here's the real alchemy: tiny shifts of the hand while putting those threads on the loom mean that the pattern isn't perfect - the design is blurry, so to speak. And that is why the world loves Ikat - that fuzzy line that makes us feel the hand in the handmade. The perfect in the imperfect. The maker in the making.
I tried all of this myself, years ago, by the way. It took me a week to do just half of that process and the results were unspeakably disastrous. What I'm talking about here isn't easy. Just saying.
The long road to ikat: silk worms feast on leaves, a woman in Fergana Valley oversees the silk production on her farm, cocoons, boiling the cocoons, separating the thread, counting and drying the thread, binding it to resist the dye, then dyeing, warping the loom, weaving.
Back in the bustling city of Tashkent, Muhayo and her team of women are making of that finished ikat fresh new designs in clothes. Muhayo is fearless and accomplished and an Ibu ally for years, making many of the jackets you love. I ask if she would consider being a part of our World Dress project - and before the day is over we've designed not one but three dresses that hit our runway this spring.
In China, large industrial factories snatch this stunning look and try to simply print it for the fast market.These copies don't begin to convey the magic of the hand-made, nor do they honor the long road that leads to ikat. (Pronounced ee-cot, btw. But you knew that.)
I meet the seamstresses, show them their own pictures in our Ibu Lookbook, and turn to the books with Muhayo and her sister to make it all come together.
What I love is being a part of the alchemy itself. The long road is what matters, walking it well; all of the hands along the way that make of each cloth a piece of history, gleaming with pride. It's just like everything else in life. Those who think they can get their faster, easier, bypassing the real, don't get there at all. They arrive in another place altogether, and then wonder what the fuss is all about.
I want to be there from the silk surfers on. I want to feel that much story in my dress, that much culture, that much care in every step. And if you try it, I think you may feel the same way too. We're not making fast fashion here - no throw-away dresses that go out with the season. This is long and slow style, cultivated over centuries, and in this moment made brilliantly new. That's the dress I want to wear.
Make it three, please.
All the Best,
Susan Hull Walker