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 But this is a textile blog, so I am going to focus here on suzanis, which are large embroidered panels originally made by nomadic tribes in central Asia.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

Several types of smocking

I’ve experimented with Canadian, or North American, smocking before, here and here. But last week I attended a couple of workshops with Eileen Wedderburn in the fashion department at Morley College.

All the other students were fairly experienced dressmakers and wanted to apply the smocking technique to clothes. By contrast, I was more interested in using smocking to create sculptural effects.

We started with traditional English smocking, where the fabric is marked with dots before gathering it into pleats using the dots as guides. The pleats are then held in place by embroidering on top before removing the gathering threads.

Some stitches allow more elasticity to the pleats than others. Here’s a sample showing several different stitches.

sample of traditional smocking

From top to bottom, the stitches are:

  • outline stitch
  • cable stitch
  • wave stitch
  • honeycomb stitch
  • vandyke stitch
  • surface honeycomb stitch (with some beading).

Some of these stitches look quite similar but are subtly different.

The two rows of honeycomb stitch didn’t work too well on the sample because the pleats were quite tight, and I think it’s seen to best effect when there are more rows.

So I tried an experiment with radial smocking, where I started with a piece of fabric shaped like a ring doughnut, with the smocking dots in concentric circles.

circular smocking

Because the distance between the pleats is greater closer to the edge, the honeycomb effect is more obvious. The elasticity of the stitch also allows the structure to be manipulated – I actually like the tubular structure on the reverse side!

circular smocking circular smocking

I also made a piece where the distance between the smocking circles was greater at the edge. This led to a flatter structure that was not so conical.

circular smocking

On the second workshop we did some North American smocking, where, rather than gathering, the stitch pattern (not necessarily in rows) is used to manipulate the fabric when it is pulled up.

The stitching is worked on a grid, so to save time by not having to mark out lots of grids, we used gingham fabric. 🙂

First we tried a lattice pattern.

Canadian lattice smocking

Again, I was very taken with the reverse side, which was like puffy diamonds and curled up nicely into a ball:

Canadian lattice smocking (reverse)

Then we stitched a flower pattern. This was interesting because, depending on where you started stitching, you ended up with black and white flowers (like me) or grey flowers, owing to the gingham pattern.

flower smock pattern

And the reverse pattern:

flower smock pattern (reverse)

I think this could be very effective stitched on thin prefelt and then felted.

Finally, I had a go at grid or Italian smocking. This differs in that, rather than creating a small stitch at every dot (or grid intersection), the stitches connect the dots (like running stitch).

The sample below was again stitched on a grid patterned fabric. I stitched two repeats vertically but only one horizontally, so the pattern is not very easy to see – it’s supposed to be chevrons. I should have started with a wider piece of fabric and stitched more horizontal repeats!

Italian smocking

Zoroastrian trouser panels

Yes, yes, I know. First Japanese baskets, now…what? Zoroastrian trouser panels?

I visited the London Antique Rug and Textile Art Fair (LARTA) on Tuesday evening, and two stalls had some very striking cloth panels composed of embroidered strips sewn together.

zoroastrian trouser panel

When I asked about them I was told that they are Zoroastrian trouser panels. The Zoroastrians lived in Persia (modern Iran), and these trousers were worn by women, as these photos from the Victoria and Albert Museum show.

zoroastrian trousers
© Victoria and Albert Museum, London
zoroastrian trousers
© Victoria and Albert Museum, London

Fine cotton fabric that can be gathered is used for the top of the trousers and for the “cuff” at the bottom of each leg, while a stronger, coarser cotton is used as a backing for the embroidered strips.

The strips may be silk or fine cotton and are embroidered with motifs from Zoroastrian myths, such as a three-legged donkey, a kar fish or cypress trees.

zoroastrian trouser panel

The seams between the strips are disguised by couching – placing a thread on top of the seam and stitching to hold it in place.

According to the V&A, strips of block-printed cotton were used on the inside of each leg, “partly because printing was cheaper than embroidery and that part of the trousers would not been seen. Also, the inner leg is subjected to much wear and tear and printed fabric would have been cheaper to replace.” Having darned my jeans recently, I can vouch for that!

So there you are. Zoroastrian trouser panels – they’re a thing. You heard it here first.

Next time back to something more mundane, like felting or dyeing. 😉

The craft of darning

I finally got round to visiting the Victoria & Albert Museum this weekend to see the exhibition of finalists in the Woman’s Hour Craft Prize.

Launched in 2017 to celebrate the 70th anniversary of Woman’s Hour, the prize seeks to “reward originality and excellence in concept, design and process and to recognise a craft practitioner or designer-maker who is an outstanding artist and who has significantly contributed to craft practice in the last five years”.

The winner of the £10,000 prize was Phoebe Cummings for her fountain made from raw clay. The fountain is turned on at noon each day for one minute, so it erodes and dissolves over time.

womans hour prize phoebe cummings

Predictably, the work that appealed most to me was by Laura Youngson Coll. Her sculptures of microscopic marine organisms, made from goat vellum, were inspired by Haeckel.

womans hour prize laura youngson coll womans hour prize laura youngson coll

Romilly Saumarez Smith is a jeweller who combines precious metals and other materials with found objects to create organic or natural forms.

womans hour prize romilly saumarez smith

Also very organic was the large scale willow sculpture by Laura Ellen Bacon.

womans hour prize laura ellen bacon

Andrea Walsh combines glass and bone china to make beautiful delicate and translucent boxes and vessels.

womans hour prize andrea walsh

Another finalist, Celia Pym, uses darning, knitting and embroidery to mend other people’s clothes, drawing out memories and meanings through the process.

womans hour prize celia pym womans hour prize celia pym

In an adjoining room there was a drop-in workshop displaying clothes that people had brought in for Celia to mend throughout the exhibition.

celia pym celia pym celia pym

Now, fond as I am of upcycling, I’ve never been a great mender of clothes (it takes me forever to get round to sewing on buttons that have come off). My mum used to have a darning mushroom in her workbox, though I have to confess I never saw her use it.

However, by coincidence, between Christmas and new year I did patch a pair of much loved jeans by sewing an extra piece of denim on the inside and then stitching over the top. Do you think it will show? 😉

darned jeans

After seeing the exhibition I was inspired to have a go at mending a very holey cashmere sweater. There are still a lot of holes to go – it will probably end up more purple than grey by the time I’ve finished. 🙂

ESP has offered me some socks if I want more darning practice but I have to draw the line somewhere!

The Woman’s Hour Craft Prize exhibition at the V&A runs until Monday 5 February.

Diana Harrison at Crafts Study Centre in Farnham

I first came across Diana Harrison’s work at Cloth and Memory {2} at Salts Mill in Bradford three years ago. Her contribution to the exhibition was a series of handkerchiefs dyed black and then discharged and laid out like flagstones on the floor in subtle quiet shades of charcoal, cream and peachy pinks.

diana harrison handkerchiefs

The handkerchiefs have returned as part of a solo exhibition at the Crafts Study Centre in Farnham, part of the University for the Creative Arts, where Diana teaches. Diana Harrison: working in cloth includes samples of her work from the 1980s up to the present.

The Textile Society organised a tour of the exhibition with Diana herself last week, and as it was the day before I was exhibiting at Thread at Farnham Maltings I went along.

Diana started off with an embroidery degree at Goldsmiths with Constance Hawker before going on to the Royal College of Art to study printed fabrics. Here she developed her technique of masking out areas of fabric before spraying them with dye – one of her dresses featured in Vogue.

She continued this at Studio 401 ½, where she made lots of upholstery fabric. After experimenting with flicking and splattering dyes she moved on to dyeing fabric black and then discharging it and stitching, which brought her fame in the quilting world – her work has been bought by museums in Japan and the US, among others.

Diana Harrison box

One of her best-known pieces was Box, made for the Victoria & Albert Museum exhibition on quilts in 2010. This exhibition includes only the “lid”, but you can see the whole piece and hear about the context in the video below.

Some of her most recent pieces, Pillowcases, use a similar technique, stitching fabric together before dyeing, discharging and then unstitching and sometimes overprinting with pigment.

Diana Harrison pillowcases

Diana’s fascination with the way things are constructed is evident from the selection of found objects on display. A self-confessed hoarder, she is forever picking up roadside rubbish or coastal debris, including bits of old tyre, tape, coffee containers and envelopes, finding points of comparison between squashed frogs and Japanese clothing.

Diana Harrison found objects Diana Harrison found objects

One of my favourite pieces was a series of six strip-like panels made for the Lost in Lace exhibition in Birmingham in 2011. Each panel represents a decade of her memories – delicate networks of thread, cloth fragments and dog hair suspended on grids of black pins.

Diana Harrison lost in lace Diana Harrison lost in laceDiana Harrison lost in lace

Other recent work includes similar panels with ghostly images of dancers behind, made for an exhibition in Poland, and balls of dates, where all the dates she has worked at Farnham are printed on a piece of fabric and then moulded into a ball.

Diana Harrison A4Diana Harrison date ball

After the talk we were also lucky enough to see a slide show of her pieces in context, as well as some of her sketch books and a sample collection that we could handle. Diana also kindly showed us her collection of commemorative hankies and Japanese boro collection.

Diana Harrison sample Diana Harrison sample Diana Harrison sampleDiana Harrison hanky collectionDiana Harrison boro collection

Diana Harrison: working in cloth runs at the Crafts Study Centre in Farnham until 8 October.

Henry’s star mantle and Gunther’s shroud

There’s been a bit of a radio silence as I’ve been on holiday followed by a week or so catching up with website work. And all of a sudden it feels like the run-up to the Christmas sales season, starting with Lambeth Open on 3-4 October, of which more later.

But first I want to tell you about a couple of amazing textile pieces I saw while on holiday. Bamberg, in Bavaria, southern Germany, is a beautiful medieval town that is a Unesco World Heritage Site.

The cathedral has some splendid sculptures, including the tomb of its founder, Emperor Henry II, and his wife Empress Cunigunde, both saints. Among the scenes from their lives carved by Tilman Riemenschneider on the tomb, there is one of Cunigunde walking on red-hot ploughshares to prove her innocence.

st cunigunde

But it was in the adjoining Cathedral Museum that I made this wonderful discovery.  The star exhibit here is Henry II’s Star Mantle, which was given to him by Duke Ismahel of Bari and dates from 973-1024.

Henry II's star mantle

According to the Worshipful Company of Broiderers, “The original 11th century mantle was made of silk twill with medallions of the life of Christ and celestial bodies worked in couched gold thread, with some details in coloured silk in stem stitch.  In the 15th century the embroidered elements were cut away and remounted on the current Italian silk damask, so the original placement of the motifs is not known.”

The condition and detail are superb – you can clearly make out signs of the zodiac and other constellations among the medallions.

henry II's star mantle

In the adjoining room was another equally compelling piece of silk, known as Gunther’s shroud. This was given to or bought by Gunther von Bamberg, Bishop of Bamberg, during his pilgrimage to the Holy Land in 1064-65, and was buried with him when he died. It was rediscovered in 1830.

Although there is some damage to the piece, the colours are exquisitely preserved, and the figures are in classic Byzantine style, reminiscent of the famous mosaics in Ravenna.

gunthertuch gunthertuch2

Clearly the best way to preserve textiles is to bury them in a cathedral for 1,000 years!

On a lighter note, here’s a photo of some lace Lederhosen I spied in a shop window – rather more delicate than the real thing. 🙂

lace lederhosen

Hard and soft

A few months ago I made a felt wall hanging using ombre-dyed indigo muslin and some pebbles I found on an Italian beach.

blue stones 1 blue stones 2

I thought I would experiment further with combining hard and soft in this way, this time in 3D form, using smaller pebbles I found on Welsh beaches.

This is a ball I made. I was quite pleased with the finished version on a technical level, but felt that it lacked something.

hard soft 5

Then I remembered a very early felt piece I made at Morley College, when I was experimenting with using marbles as a resist.

embroidered crater flask

So I decided to add some simple embroidery to jazz it up a bit.

hard soft 1 hard soft 2

That was better, but I wonder if I should have used more than one colour.

Then I tried a more abstract shape in my usual colour palette.

hard soft 4 hard soft 3

I’m not sure whether to add embroidery to this as well, and if so what colour. What do you think?

The Point of the Needle at Hall Place

It hasn’t been a very creative time for me over the past couple of weeks. Too busy with my day job, earning money towards my next felting workshop – five whole days with Maria Friese and Ariane Mariane just outside Paris in a couple of weeks’ time. ESP is going to wander the streets of Paris (and no doubt stuff himself in fine restaurants at lunchtime) while I enjoy some fibre fun with a group of like-minded enthusiasts. I’m really looking forward to it!

So it was a relief to escape for half a day with my sister Women of the Cloth, Carol and Joan, to go back to Hall Place in Bexley for an exhibition by the New Embroidery Group (their website is currently being redesigned).

hall place1

Contradicting its name, the group was actually established more than 40 years ago. Its president for many years was Constance Howard, famous- among other things-  for her green hair, for establishing the embroidery department at Goldsmiths College, and for producing The Country Wife textile mural for the Festival of Britain in 1951.

The Country Wife by Constance Howard
The Country Wife by Constance Howard

The exhibition in the Stables Gallery was small but beautifully hung, with lovely views onto the lavender in the gardens beyond.

I particularly liked the works by Buffy Fieldhouse, who used a mixture of paint, stitch, paper and fabric – and rusty nails! – in her pieces.

Be What You Are I by Buffy Fieldhouse
Be What You Are I by Buffy Fieldhouse
Nailed It by Buffy Fieldhouse
Nailed It by Buffy Fieldhouse

I also liked the rhythms and movement of Liz Holliday’s contours and earthworks against the regular outlines of fields.

Past Present: Maiden Castle by Liz Holliday
Past Present: Maiden Castle by Liz Holliday
Past Present: Cissbury Ring by Liz Holliday
Past Present: Cissbury Ring by Liz Holliday

And the delicacy of Kathie Small’s herringbone stitch on paper was appealing.

Neurons by Kathie Small
Neurons by Kathie Small

Afterwards we strolled around the beautiful gardens and greenhouses, where I couldn’t resist the sculptural symmetry of the gorgeous succulents.

hall place2 hall place3 hall place4 hall place5

I also have a bit of a current obsession with pitcher plants: one of the things that fascinates me is the way the stalk curls up from underneath – how does it keep the pitcher stable when it is full of liquid?

hall place8

Another spiralling plant that I’ve never seen before.

hall place9

And some wonderful woven hanging baskets where the furry roots of the ferns seem to form part of the structure.

hall place10

The Point of the Needle runs at Hall Place until Sunday 29 June (yes, I know, I know!). It then moves to the Oxmarket Centre for the Arts in Chichester, where it runs from 8 to 20 July.