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 But this is a textile blog, so I am going to focus here on suzanis, which are large embroidered panels originally made by nomadic tribes in central Asia.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