Suzanis of Uzbekistan

I recently spent a couple of weeks in Uzbekistan visiting cities of the former Silk Road, including Samarkand, Bukhara and Khiva.

The Islamic architecture was stunning. But this is a textile blog, so I am going to focus here on suzanis, which are large embroidered panels originally made by nomadic tribes in central Asia.

Traditionally, every girl had to produce 10 suzanis as part of her dowry – not an insignificant task. To make it easier, the base fabric was made up of narrow strips, which were sewn loosely together and the pattern drawn on them. Then they were taken apart again so that family and friends could each work on individual strips. When they were joined together at the end the pattern didn’t always match perfectly, as you can see in some of the photos.

The main stitches used were basma (also known as Bukhara couching) and tambour (chain stitch done with a small hook). Basma was used to cover surprisingly large areas – from a distance it can look like fabric appliqué and you only realise it’s actually stitched when up close.

According to the Museum of Applied Arts in Tashkent, there were 11 different schools of embroidery across Uzbekistan, including Bukhara, Samarkand and Tashkent. Each had their own style and motifs. Flowers and star medallions are particularly popular, along with fruit (especially pomegranates) and vines.

At the beginning of the 20th century the process of tambour stitch was mechanised, replacing a lot of hand embroidery. Sellers of modern suzani are usually happy to say whether a piece is machine embroidered.

The natural dyes of indigo, madder, cochineal, pomegranate and walnut were also replaced by synthetic dyes in the 20th century, though some workshops are now returning to natural dyes, which are considered to give more intense hues.

Suzanis were used in yurts to protect belongings, or as seating, sheets or prayer mats, so not many old ones survive. The oldest examples are from the late 18th century, but they were almost certainly in use before then.

However, there are lots of colourful modern pieces wherever you go in Uzbekistan, so there is no shortage!

Finally, to finish, just a few pics of Samarkand – a very special place.

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Flextiles uses shibori, ecoprinting and felting to create original, one-off upcycled pieces. Extending the life of a garment by an extra nine months reduces its environmental impact by 20-30%.

17 thoughts on “Suzanis of Uzbekistan”

  1. i LOVE the imperfections of the shared work, truly hand crafted. There’s something very potent about all the motifs and colours that gets my juices flowing so strongly!

  2. I visited the same area in the early 90’s. Sadly, it was before I was interested in textiles and fiber art. I would love to go back. I would like to make some Suzani’s for my yurt. It certainly needs to be livened up as it is all brown wool at the moment. Love the pomegranate motifs especially.

    1. Must have been interesting in the early 90s just after the Soviets moved out. Maybe we could have a suzani challenge next year over on F&F – everyone does one strip for you? 😊

  3. The work in these is amazing. It’s great to think of the girl’s family and friends sharing the work on her dowry – such a supportive and community-enhancing activity. 🙂

  4. Thank you Kim for bringing such interesting information to us.

    Suzanis are new to me, although I’m familiar with the idea of strip piecing. The imperfections that have perhaps become more obvious with time (different batch of dyeing?) add character & a unique-ness to these historic handcrafted works. I too love the pomegranate motifs.
    That they are (or were) prepared with all the family helping is seen is so many world communities where life was often very hard but there was a togetherness, a simplicity not being so consumed with ‘busy-ness’…. if only!
    You appear to have thoroughly enjoyed your trip & I’m sure it will provide inspiration for years to come.

    1. Thanks Antje. I think that the popularity of craft groups and classes today could be connected with the satisfaction you get from making together with other people, sharing ideas and having fun.

  5. Tashkent has always been a bit of a destination wish for me. This makes it even more tempting. Thank you so much for sharing.

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