Mallorca is the only place in Europe that has upheld this tradition. In the past, it was found throughout many surrounding countries and it arrived from the East via the Silk Road.
Ikat in the origins of Mallorcan “cloth of tongues”
Mallorcan “”cloth of tongues” or “Robes de llengo” is created using a technique that is known in the countries of origin as ikat. The term ikat refers to the cloth production technique, as well as the end product itself.
This ancient technique is characterised by dying fibres in tools, and consists of making knots beforehand, in order to stop the dye penetrating into certain areas of the fabric. The fabric is then dyed, and subsequently, when the piece is woven, the pattern gradually appears depending on the position where the knots were made and the colours used. As such, both sides of the cloth have an identical pattern.
The origins of ikat are vague, however it is generally agreed that the practice began in Asia. Nevertheless, another theory also accepted, maintains that it probably developed separately in several places. This view is supported by the fact that similar cloths have been found in such distant places as Afghanistan, Indonesia, Colombia and Mexico. It has been shown that, in 500 BC, silk ikats were already being produced in Indonesia.
How the practice reached Europe
We know for certain that the technique arrived in Mallorca and the rest of Europe via the Silk Road: Asia and Europe were connected through China, and at that time the country was producing silk of great commercial value. This road that has its origins in the journeys of merchants during the 5th-7th centuries. It became increasingly important during the Roman Empire, and around the 13th century, it consolidated its status as a route for bringing goods, spices, and production techniques for different products, including cloth.
Ikat reached Mallorca through France and Italy, countries where the technique had been perfected and gained great popularity among royalty. Due to the imperishable nature of the cloth, the oldest examples of Mallorcan “cloth of tongues” date back to the 18th century and show influences from both of the abovementioned campaigns.
Ikats continued to be produced in certain areas throughout Europe until midway through the 20th century, however, Mallorca is the only place in Europe where they are still produced. The archipelago’s geographic insularity played a crucial role in cutting off the technique from the rest of the peninsula. The technique survived, and was adapted for the way that local machines worked, and the characteristics of the technique. This makes Mallorcan ikat unique, with its own identity, beginning with the name, where it is known as cloth of tongues or tela de llengües in Majorcan, in references to the designs that are reminiscent of flames or tongues of fire.
The llengües in Mallorca
At the beginning of the 18th century, silk tongues were used in the majority of well-to-do houses in Mallorca, and occasionally for dress (civil or religious). It was very common to dress the bed with canopies, curtains and bedspreads that were made from these fabrics. In that century, before the advent of industrialisation, producing cloths was very expensive. With the arrival of mechanical looms, and a preference for alternative textile fibres as opposed to silk (cotton, linen and hemp cloth), the tongues were finally available to all social strata on the island.
In the second half of the 20th century, the influence of tourism led to a reassessment of the llengües and they were identified as one of the island’s unique products, thus becoming part of its cultural heritage.
Currently, the formula for the fabric is 70% cotton and 30% linen. A large amount of production is exported, mainly to Europe and the United States.
Today, the island has only three remaining workshops that are dedicated to the art of weaving handmade cloth. Therefore, it could arguably be said that the characteristic Mallorcan cloths are in danger of dying out. We compiled this photographic report at Teixits Riera in Lloseta which dates back more than 120 years, Teixits Vicens in Pollensa, a century-old artisan family operating for close to 160 years and Artesania Textil Bujosa, in Santa Maríá.
Despite their Asian origins, Mallorcan cloths are one the true icons of Mediterranean style: The brightness of our sea, natural fibres, simplicity, sustainability, the secular history. The design of strips and vertical arrows is undoubtedly a true emblem of the Mediterranean.