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 But this is a textile blog, so I am going to focus here on suzanis, which are large embroidered panels originally made by nomadic tribes in central Asia.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.
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.
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.
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.
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. 😉
I was very tempted by a stunning indigo stitched and bound resist piece shown by Joss Graham. Joss said it was made in Indonesia using the tritik technique – aka nui shibori stitch resist. The stitch resist border surrounded an area of white dots on blue created by binding, with a white central elliptical area, presumably created by capping (some of the threads from the stitching were still present).
The piece was about 12 feet long, and it was the practicality of how and where we would display it (along with the price!) that made us reluctantly leave it.
However, I couldn’t resist an Chinese embroidered collar from Molly Hogg Textiles. Made for a child, the collar consists of five lobes of exquisitely precise stitching.
Some of the patterns bring to mind Japanese sashiko stitching; others are more like elaborate geometric samplers.
Molly wasn’t able to tell me much about the collar, and I’ve not been able to find any similar examples of collars with this type of embroidery on the internet.
But generally it seems that in China collars were made separately from the garment, allowing them to be worn almost like necklaces with different outfits. If anyone has any idea about how old this is or which part of China it might come from, do get in touch!
I’ve visited this exhibition twice – there’s so much to see and take in that a single visit is simply not enough. With more than 200 handmade pieces, mostly from the V&A’s own collection, it’s a feast of colour and texture.
After a fabulous opening printed summer carpet of poppies dating from 1650, the exhibition starts with the raw materials – dyes and fibres. The main species of indigo native to India, Indigofera tinctoria, contains some of the strongest concentrations of the active compound indoxyl, so the Greeks named the plant Indikon, the same word they used for the Indian subcontinent.
But there are other blue dyes available in India, including Strobilanthes cusia, found in Assam, which gives lighter blues when grown in the sun and darker blues when grown in the shade.
Red was obtained from the lac insect (related to the cochineal beetle), Indian madder and chay root, yellow from pomegranate and turmeric.
Samples of dyed pieces included some impressive bandhani, ajrakh and block printing as well as these amazing lahariya turbans.
After a brief diversion to show a bhitiya hanging of appliqué elephants and figures from Gujarat, found on a New York pavement in 1994, the exhibition moves on to fibres. Fascinating videos cover the cultivation of cotton and indigenous “wild”(tasar) silk – I love the way they casually walk around carrying branches of huge caterpillars!
There’s another engrossing video of ari embroidery in the next section on techniques, which includes block printing and weaving. Ari is a kind of chain stitch produced using something that looks like a mini crochet hook. The embroiderer pushes the hook through the cloth and winds the thread around it underneath, so he can’t see what he’s doing, yet works at incredible speed.
There were several pieces in this section that I particularly liked. They included an early 20th-century kantha coverlet. (Interestingly, kantha is a more domestic pursuit done mostly by women, whereas professional embroiderers, such as the ari workers, were men.)
And this border from a woman’s dress embroidered with green beetle wing cases and silver wire.
And this Kashmir shawl embroidered with a map of Srinagar, from about 1870.
The next section on textiles and religion features an impressive temple cloth of printed and dyed cotton showing tales from the Katamaraju epic. Cloths such as these were used in portable shrines (we tried to find someone painting one of these when we were in Ahmedabad but failed).
There was also an intriguing talismanic shirt made of starched cotton minutely inscribed with text from the Koran, which would be worn under battle dress for protection. This one was certainly worn, as you can see the sweat marks in the armpits!
The undoubted highlight of the section on court textiles is Tipu Sultan’s tent, cotton block printed with stylised floral designs, now owned by Powis Castle in Wales.
I also loved the 17th-century Mughal riding coat, densely patterned with ari embroidery of wide-ranging flora and fauna, from lions, gazelles and cranes to daffodils, poppies and irises.
In Britain we are familiar with the popularity of Indian chintz and muslin in the 18th and 19th centuries, giving poorer people who could not afford woven silk the chance to wear colourful patterned fabrics. But Indian fabric fragments from the early centuries AD have been found in China and Egypt, showing that India’s export market was established much earlier.
What is interesting is how the designs were adapted for different markets. Examples in the exhibition include tiny intricate block prints for Thailand, patola (double ikat) for Indonesia and an extraordinary Portuguese 17th-century kantha coverlet embroidered with coats of arms, hunters on horseback and fleets of sailing ships. The photo does not do it justice – it has to be seen to appreciate the detail.
It seems that Britain took a leaf out of India’s book, for after protests by British textile workers in the early 18th century about Indian textile imports, industrialisation in Britain led to the export of cheap machine-made cotton fabric to India, undercutting Indian manufacturers. Fabric samples collected in India were held up as examples of good design, and British manufacturers were encouraged to copy these to sell back to the Indian market.
This led to hybrid products such as a traditional Indian garment, a choli (woman’s bodice), made from fabric printed in England using synthetic dyes in colours like mauve and violet, which are not exactly characteristic Indian colours.
Already unhappy with British rule, Indian mill owners and businesses started calling on people to buy local handmade products and boycott foreign goods. In the 1920s, Gandhi elevated khadi, fabric woven by hand from handspun yarn, into a symbol of defiance and freedom, spinning in public. Hence the spinning wheel on the Indian flag after independence.
After independence, there was a move towards industrialisation and modernisation of the handloom. The exhibition finishes with examples of how modern designers have adapted and developed traditional techniques and materials, using the skills of local artisans.
It’s official – I am an artist! 😉 Earlier this week I applied to join South London Women Artists, and I just heard that I’ve been accepted.
There are those who high-mindedly maintain that an artist is someone who paints, draws or (occasionally) sculpts. I don’t do any of these, but Joan, my sister Woman of the Cloth, who is a weaver and already a member of SLWA, encouraged me to apply.
Fortified by this acknowledgement of my status, I hot-footed it off to Tate Britain to see the British Folk Art exhibition. Now, the Tate is not exactly overflowing with textile art – the last time I saw this many textile works in a show was at the Alghiero Boetti exhibition at Tate Modern.
This “art vs craft” distinction has been around a long time, of course. When the Royal Academy was established in 1769, it explicitly ruled that “no needlework, artificial flowers, cut paper, shell work, or any such baubles should be admitted”. I wonder how they would classify Tracey Emin’s embroideries or Grayson Perry’s pots.
The feminist in me suspects that this was another way of excluding women from the hallowed halls of the art establishment, but I learnt from this exhibition that embroidery used to be a trade that employed both men and women, and that membership of the Worshipful Company of Broderers used to be restricted to men.
And the textiles made by men in this exhibition are certainly impressive, especially two large-scale patchwork pieces.
The first is by James Williams, a tailor born in Wrexham in 1818, who spent 10 years producing an inlaid patchwork of eclectic motifs made up of 4,525 separate pieces of cloth. It includes Adam (no Eve!) surrounded by a menagerie of creatures such as a giraffe, a toucan and an elephant; Jonah being swallowed by the whale; a steam train crossing the Cefn Railway Viaduct; and a Chinese pagoda.
The second is a Crimean War quilt, made from more than 10,000 individual pieces of coloured wool serge from soldiers’ uniforms. The British government promoted quilt making as a pastime to distract soldiers from alcohol and gambling during long periods of inactivity and also as therapy in military field hospitals and convalescent homes. The intricate geometry must have required extreme military precision, as well as considerable strength, given the thickness and weight of the cloth.
A slightly more modern patchwork piece also has a military connection – the Jolly Roger for the submarine HMS Trenchant, made around 1943.
Smaller pieces include amazingly elaborate sweetheart pincushions, made by soldiers and sailors while on duty and sent home as objects of their love. This was also a tradition that started during the Crimean War; by the time of the First World War the pincushions included preprinted ribbons bearing messages such as “Think of me” and featured details such as the serviceman’s regiment or division.
Another extraordinary military piece is a circular embroidery from 1918 listing all the names of the 1st Middlesex Regiment who were awarded military honours during the First World War. In the centre are those who received the highest decoration, the Victoria Cross, while the other names are embroidered in different colours in concentric circles.
The military notwithstanding, embroidered samplers in the 18th and 19th centuries are more traditionally associated with female domesticity and piety. But, perhaps as a way of subverting the restrictions they were under, some women did not limit themselves to religious verses or records of family occasions: on show here are several samplers illustrating the counties of England and even the relation of the planets in the solar system.
Two individuals get special sections to themselves. George Smart (c 1775-1845) was a tailor in Frant, near Tunbridge Wells, who became famous for making pictures from textile scraps. His fabric collages of the local postman leading his donkey or an earth stopper (someone who blocked a fox’s earth the night before a hunt) falling off his horse were stuck onto hand-painted or lithographed backgrounds and earned him a considerable reputation and royal appointment.
And Mary Linwood (1755-1845) was once regarded as one of the leading artists of her day. Her skill was in reproducing paintings as embroideries – she called them “needle paintings” – using different lengths of stitch to emulate brush strokes. Copies of works by Sir Joshua Reynolds, Thomas Gainsborough and John Russell are on show. She had a permanent gallery in Leicester Square for 50 years and was even mentioned in Dickens’ David Copperfield.
However, after her death she fell out of favour, as art came to be associated more with originality and creativity. As the exhibition notes: “She remains largely unclassifiable, lacking the originality demanded of the fine artist, and the ‘authenticity’ of the folk artist, yet also disconnected from domestic craft traditions.”
British Folk Art runs at Tate Britain until 31 August 2014, after which it will be at Compton Verney in Warwickshier from 27 September to 14 December 2014.
Sorry for the long silence. It’s been a very busy period for markets in the run-up to Christmas, most of which have been very successful I’m happy to say. Then just as I finished those I had a couple of sales on Etsy. But now things seem to be quietening down.
In the middle of all this I managed to get to an auction preview at Rosebery’s in West Norwood. The sale included lots of Asian art, with some very interesting textile items, including an embroidered felt Sufi hat and six enormous embroidered Islamic panels, each one more than 2 metres high.
I also loved this Japanese boxwood rat catcher carved from boxwood – we left a bid on it but it went for more than we could pay.
However, we were successful with a bid for a Chinese embroidered rank badge from the Qing dynasty (late 19th century). These rank badges, sewn onto the front and back of the coats of officials in imperial China, used animals or birds to indicate the status of the wearer.
Rank badges had been around a while. They were introduced in 1391, during the Ming dynasty, when they were usually woven in silk, a technique known as kossu. This was a very labour-intensive form of weaving, where the different colours of the design are woven in blocks, resulting in slits between each colour, giving the effect of carving or engraving.
In the Qing period rank badges were mostly embroidered, and the high proportion of metallic threads used in this one (as well as other features) suggests it dates from the turn of the century.
There were two types of badges, civil and military, each one with nine ranks. The civil ranks featured birds, while the military ranks used animals, some real, some mythological. This one being a bird, it was civil, but I’m having problems determining which bird it represents. The auction catalogue described it as a phoenix, which is not in the list of the nine birds used. From highest rank to lowest, these were crane, golden pheasant, peacock, wild goose, silver pheasant, egret, mandarin duck, quail and paradise flycatcher.
The descriptions I’ve come across of how to distinguish the different birds focus on colour – for example, the crane has a red cap on its head, while the golden pheasant has a blue crest and wing covers, yellow head and neck, and two tail feathers. The bird on my panel is done entirely in couched silver and gold thread, so colours are of little help. However, this may be deliberate, as I’ve also been told that sometimes they made the type of bird ambiguous so they could be mistaken for a higher rank!
Another interesting feature is that the bird is actually a separate piece of appliqué. Apparently in the late Qing period this was quite common, as it was easier to get promotion by paying for it rather than having to pass the arduous civil service examinations. So many people used appliqué birds that they could replace as they got promoted, rather than having to pay for a whole new square!
The advantage of this for me is that you can see here from the colour of the thread beneath the appliqué how much the embroidery has faded over time. It must have been very bright originally!
In addition to the bird, the square includes the eight Buddhist symbols: the fish, conch, vase, endless knot, wheel, lotus, royal canopy and state umbrella. The first two are in the golden waves of the sea, and the others are in the sky around the bird.
There is also a border of bats and the “shou” symbol meaning longevity.
As you can see from the close-ups, the cloth it’s stitched on is a fairly loose plain weave, and the stitch is mostly couching and Florentine.
The wives of Qing officials were also required to wear ceremonial robes showing their husband’s rank, but the bird or animal faced in the opposite direction so that when they sat together in state (woman on the right, or low status side, of the man) the birds or animals faced each other. So this square belonged to a woman!
I love the results of my kantha stitching experiments, but it’s quite hard on the fingers stitching through four layers of fabric. So I thought I’d see if I could produce similar results on something softer, like felt.
I stitched a couple of circles made out of prefelt, and then felted these onto a piece of flat felt along with two plain unstitched circles of prefelt. After felting, I stitched the two plain circles. This let me compare the results of stitching before and after felting.
As you can see, the prefelt circles that were stitched before felting flattened out and distorted during the felting process, and the thread started to hang loose in places because the felt shrank. The circles that were stitched after felting were much more distinct.
So I felted some grey prefelt onto a piece of silk crinkle chiffon to make a sample nuno felt scarf. As I hope you can see, the ruched texture caused by the felt shrinking onto the silk is enhanced by the stitching afterwards. I call it my limpet scarf!
It’s a lot of stitching, but at least it’s easier on the fingers. 🙂