Beautiful handmade embroideries from Uzbekistan – Suzanis.
The ancient nomadic tribes of the Central Asian steppeland with their links to surrounding civilisations have made a significant mark on world history, and played a very important role in the development of Uzbek tradition and culture. Central Asia is regarded for decorative expressiveness and special significance of embroidered cloths at the national ceremonies and celebrations. A descendent of Jenghiz Khan, Uzbek Khan (1312-1340), converted to Islam, persuading his subjects to embrace the Muslim faith, giving rise to the textiles and motifs in Uzbekistan today. Cultural and textile development flourished and played an especially significant role in the early Islamic period until the 19C when Russian administrators reorganized textile production into mechanized State-run factories (Harvey 2009).
Central Asia was historically an area where a variety of textiles were in evidence over a long period of time because of its position on the Silk Route. Preserved textiles and artefacts found in ancient tombs show a sophisticated culture and artistic achievement. The domestication of the horse and a variety of indigenous animals provided fleece and hair for the textiles needed for protection from harsh climates including the climate in high altitudes. Excavations show the knowledge of felting fleece for tent coverings; floor mats and blankets, hats, capes and boots.”The spinning of hair, fleece and vegetable fibres was learned in Neolithic times or earlier, and provided yarn for the techniques of knitting and, crochet and weaving” (Harvey 2009:7). Many of the motives woven or
embroidered in the decoration of these items were totems for the different tribes or groups, but out of necessity have evolved as storage vessels and furnishings change with settlement, wealth and prosperity of the tribes
Since the rediscovery of the Silk Route by European explorers and travellers in the 19th century, the Silk Road has lost nothing of its fascination. It continues to evoke images of heavily laden caravans crossing endless deserts, steppes and mountain ranges to reach the markets of wealthy oasis towns. From the second century BC, this network of merchants’ routes, well over 4,000 miles long, linked China and the Roman Empire. It served the trade of luxury goods, notably silk, and stimulated the spread of ideas of religion, culture and art. The young republic of Uzbekistan, with its ancient urban cultural centres of Bukhara, Chiwa and Samarkand, is the heartland of the Silk Road. Uzbek silk handmade Suzani’s offer great insight into the old culture and tradition of this land.
Since the end of the Soviet era westerners have become more familiar with these beautiful old Uzbek textiles. A revival of this traditional craft and art form was a natural development as new markets opened up. Now gorgeous contemporary embroideries decorate not only Uzbek homes, but also grace households in many parts of the world, while talented and industrious Uzbek women have a welcomed new source of family income. The new pieces are truly spectacular, still based on traditional examples, with inspired designs, excellent materials and fine craftsmanship. Popular traditional motifs are always used such as flowers, leaves, fruits (pomegranates), birds (peacocks) and the tree of life in vibrant colours. After nearly a century of synthetic dye use in Central Asia, the best workshops in Uzbekistan have now returned to traditional natural dyes for the most glorious colours. The pieces are produced under widely varying circumstances, in both cities and villages, in workshops and in homes. Most of this craftwork is found in the Tashkent, Nurata, Samarkand, Bukhara and Shahrisabz areas.
Textiles were ubiquitous, serving as clothing, household furnishings, and portable architecture (tents). The Nomadic people brought a lot of interesting paraphernalia, like small bags, Yurt tent bands, pendants, and a lot of other handmade things for decoration of Yurts and things for daily use. Often they were made with costly materials such as silk and gold and silver wrapped thread and decorated with complex designs, textiles were luxury goods signifying wealth and social status. Islamic textiles were also widely exported to the West, where their prominence is underscored by their impact on European languages. For example, the English words ‘cotton, ‘mohair’, ‘taffeta’ and ‘seersucker’ derive, respectively, from Arabic and Persian.
For centuries Uzbek women have embroidered fabulous hangings, bed covers, table covers, wall dividers, and prayer mats for their households. Once used as coverlets for the bridal bed, these gorgeous textiles can bring colour and texture to any environ. Suzani is an embroidered piece of cloth made in the region of Central Asia. The word Suzani comes from the Persian word Suzani, which means ‘needle’, but to most collectors the word Suzani is synonymous with the glorious embroideries of Uzbekistan. They were made exclusively by women, Muslim and Jewish, from all social backgrounds, an important part of a girl’s dowry, and used for decorative purposes in households. These embroideries carry symbolic meaning relating to fertility, protection, health and household stability, are each one of a kind, and a unique expression of the women who created them. The artistic achievement of Suzani embroidery speaks to the universal and is finding much deserved appreciation in the contemporary art world.
As Uzbekistan territory is large suzanis from various regions have differences in patterns and styles.
Specifically, Suzani’s are exquisite embroidery panels made by Uzbek women since 1400 A.D for their daughters’ dowries. Traditionally made by Central Asian brides as part of their dowry, and were presented to the groom on the wedding day. These are usually the most beautifully executed embroideries: for example, a belt for her husbands coat; a beaded triangle, symbol of fertility, to be worn at the wedding ceremony; a cap for a newborn child; a funerary cover for a relative, all stitched with love and care.
From old times there is a tradition in Uzbek homes according to which young girls in the family must prepare embroidered panels for their dowry. From early age girls were taught the art of handmade embroidery by their mothers and grandmothers. Suzanis were not made for the purpose of selling in those days – they were prepared by women inside a family to impress the future husband and his family, to be given as a present, and of course to decorate the house, especially on a wedding day.
Suzani’s usually have a cotton (sometimes silk) fabric base, which is embroidered in silk or cotton thread. Chain, satin, and buttonhole stitches are the primary stitches used. There is also extensive use of couching, in which decorative thread laid on the fabric as a raised line is stitched in place with a second thread. Suzanis are often made in two or more pieces that are then stitched together. Popular design motifs include sun and moon disks, flowers (especially tulips, carnations, and irises), leaves and vines, fruits (especially pomegranates), and occasional fish and birds. The oldest surviving Suzani’s are from the late 18th and early 19th centuries, but it seems likely that they were in use long before that.
Each Suzani produced reflect the talent, wealth and prosperity of the family while the embroidery motifs carry symbolic meaning relating to fertility, protection, health and household stability. If you look carefully, you will see hidden symbols and good luck charms like birds and fish etc. hidden in many of the pieces.Embroidery has always been important in the ornamentation of the Uzbek home. In the house every part of the wall is filled with embroidered articles of different purpose and use, ranging from small
things, like pouches for combs, a mirrow (oinahalta), tea (choikhalta), to bigger items, like suzanies. Niches in the walls are covered with special embroideries (kirpech, tokchapush and choishab). Embroidered strips, zardevor, hang along the upper part of three walls – the two longitudinal and one end-wall. At the time of the nuptials one can see here skullcaps and dresses of the bride, which add to the decor of the room.
Size of the Suzani depends on the intended use. The larger made as wall hangings. Nimsuzani were half size and used as covers to fold clothing or other textiles to keep them clean. The embroiderers depicted flowers in styles, which varied from the naturalistic to the naive, and sometimes combined the flowers with birds, animals or geometric elements. Bolinpush (about 150 cm x 150 cm) embroideries, designed around a large floral or geometric motif with elements radiating to the four comers, were used to cover the bride’s head or held above her as a canopy.
Large Suzani’s were displayed at the wedding and then used to drape the walls of the bride’s new home. They were always placed on the wall opposite the entrance door, so that the guests saw the most dramatic piece (size, colour and design) as soon as they entered the house. This tradition was passed on into the twentieth century with these valuable possessions now being used to decorate the walls only during the first year of marriage, or until the first child was born. After this they are put away and used only for special occasions – high holidays, weddings and funeral shrouds
Traditionally Suzani’s are made entirely by hand and can take as long as 18 months to complete. Long cotton or silk loom-width panels are laid side-to-side and tacked together to form a larger piece of cloth. A designer then draws an ink cartoon on the piece of cloth. Colour schemes are decided upon and silk threads are spun and hand-dyed for the piece being made. The fabric panels are taken apart and given to different female family members to embroider simultaneously. The Suzani embroidery silk threads are locally produced, and two traditional stitches are used in the majority of the pieces, ‘hook’ stitch and ‘needle’ stitch. An unbelievable amount of time and care goes into the making of each piece. When each member of the family finishes their separate panel, the pieces are sewn back together again. Sometimes the embroidered motifs and colors do not line up precisely when the panels are rejoined. These variations within the piece are not viewed as flaws but rather, as part of the traditional process and evidence of the community that participated in creating the offering.
Large Suzani designs usually consist of a big central rosette, or a combination of six, eight, twelve or sixteen rosettes, framed in narrow borders, and typical of the Samarkand school. The rosette is known as lola (tulip), and arranged in symmetrical order. Another variation was palak (‘sky’) motif, where geometric shapes represent the stars, moon and sun. Suzanis of this type are characteristic of the Tashkent and Pskent areas. The central composition is usually framed in a narrow border or simply left to stand on its own. The embroiderers use surprisingly dramatic contrasts of colors such as black, white, red and yellow, for the lola and palak motifs.
Different from the lola and palak motifs, but extraordinary in their depiction of the Central Asian gardens, are the large suzanis decorated with floral motifs. These embroideries frequently have a central field with either a single motif in the middle, or an overall design arranged in rows. Often the central decoration consists of lattice compartments with single or multiple floral motifs. The composition finished with a series of elaborately decorated borders. Another important group are Large Medallion suzanis from the southwest region of Uzbekistan, distinguished by red central medallions almost the size of the cloth.
Traditionally this embroidery work began at the daughter’s birth and continued, with the help of family and friends, until the bride’s dowry was complete. From an early age girls are taught the art of fine embroidery from their female elders in order to participate in the creation of family marriage dowries. Mothers passed embroidery skills on to their daughters, but today, they more commonly pass on Suzani’s. Traditionally by the age of 8-10 a girl and her mother had already started working on Suzani’s for the girl’s dowry. As the wedding day approached, five to eight female relatives and neighbors joined them to expedite the process. Gatherings like this were called “chashar” (meaning people getting together to help each other), and were an old and important tradition of the pre-wedding preparations. It was important that each bride brought to the marriage her own set of embroidered pieces because they reflected her family’s wealth and her embroidering skills. The dowry of the daughter of a well-to-do family included about ten embroidered pieces, while children of the less wealthy might only bring four to five embroideries.
Women frequently sang and told each other stories while embroidering. During the breaks the embroiderers entertained themselves playing musical instruments, dancing, and even painting eyebrows and eyelashes with usnta (type of plant.) Special rice dishes and soups were prepared for those who joined the chashar. Winter was an especially appropriate time for young women to work on suzanis because they had fun working indoors when outdoor activities were so limited.
Even though Suzanis are categorised as folk art pieces, which were produced to fulfill a practical purpose, many of the practitioners were able to create an art form that compares favourably with other types of textiles prized by museums and private collectors. The Museum of History in Uzbekistan display excellent suzanis which date from the 19th century. Numerous expeditions were organized since 1922 by scientists ethnographers. They gathered a valuable collection of household items, and suzani embroideries.
DO A SECTION ON TODAY AND HOW THEY FIT INTO CONTEMPORARY HOMES
Textile as Art.com. http://www.textileasart.com/weaving.htm#islamic
Harvey, J. (2009). Traditional Textiles of Central Asia. Thames & Hudson, London.
There is an interesting tradition in suzanis – to leave some part of embroidery unfinished. This was made on purpose so that “the weddings go on in the family”, “the daughter would live long and happiness would not finish”