“It seemed to me, when driving for the first time through the streets of Samarkand on a brilliant September morning in 1896, that Keats could not have chosen a more appropriate epithet for that city than “Silken Samarkand”; almost every other man we met was clothed in silk. A gentle breeze filled their long wide sleeves till they looked like silken pillows, and spread out the folds of their ample garments, while the silk embroidery on the boys’ caps shone in the direct rays of the midday sun.”
Many of the traditional textiles of Central Asia (formerly known as Turkestan) are visual treasures unfamiliar to most. Straddling the legendary Silk Road, this vast region stretches from Russia in the west to China in the east. Whether nomadic or sedentary, its diverse peoples created textiles for all aspects of their lives, from ceremonial pieces marking rites of passage, to everyday garments, to practical items for the home. There were exquisite suzanis for a girl’s dowry; prayer mats; patchwork quilts; cradle covers; yurt hangings; animal trappings; finely-embroidered hats; and robes of every color and pattern.
The textiles in this book differ from what is generally exhibited in museums or sought after by collectors. While many are not necessarily rare, they are for the most part unique, and what ordinary people made for their daily use and surroundings: A husband’s skullcap showed off the skilled needlework of his wife; a child’s well-worn patchwork shirt, trimmed with protective amulets, was made with a mother’s love; a colorful trapping with tassels and shiny buttons adorned the lead camel in a wedding procession.
Practically all of the 590 nineteenth century and Soviet-era textiles illustrated in this book are from the author’s collection. Shown in full color, their history, use, and cultural significance are contextualized through 220 archival photographs and exerpts from travelers’ narratives spanning the centuries. The historical overview, chapter introductions, and captions bring to life the fascinating, ever-shifting history and culture of the five countries that now make up Central Asia – Uzbekistan, Kazakhstan, Tajikistan, Kyrgyzstan, and Turkmenistan.
Many of the period photographs are by the reknowned photographer, Max Penson. Born in Belorussia in 1893, he emigrated to Uzbekistan in 1915 where he eventually became one of the most prominent photographers of Uzbekistan and its people. As a photojournalist for Pravda Vostoka (Truth of the East), Uzbekistan’s largest newspaper, he produced over 40,000 prints, many of which were distributed throughout the USSR.)
The beautiful textile photographs are by Don Tuttle (who also photographed the textiles in Russian Textiles), one of the foremost photographers of textiles working today. They capture the integrity of each piece and the attention to detail, aesthetics, and tradition shown by the people who made them.
Look Inside Silk and Cotton
Notorious for his tyranny, Muhammad Khudayar Khan was deposed several times—his fourth and last reign was from 1866 to 1875, when he was forced to flee once again. He was succeeded briefly by his son, the last Khan of Kokand. (photograph from the Library of Congress)
“Everybody wears a coat like a rainbow. The poor made them of cotton prints and the rich of silk brocades…No matter how humble or hungry a man may be, and even if he has but a single garment, that is made of the most brilliantly colored material he can find.”
Tashkent, Uzbekistan, c.1910. Russian period postcard. In pre-Soviet days, “sart” was the term Russia applied to the settled peoples of Central Asia (as opposed to nomadic ones). The woman in this studio portrait wears a long cloak-like paranja with a horsehair veil (chachvan) thrown back over her head. At this time, women and girls were expected to completely cover themselves with a paranja and chachvan whenever they ventured outside of their homes.
Uzbekistan, late 19th- early 20th c. Shohi ikat; Russian printed-cotton; applied handwoven silk trim; unlined. Under their long dresses, women and girls wore loose-fitting trousers (called lozim) - with a drawstring top that rested on the hips.The narrow cuffs were usually embellished with embroidery or applied trimming. 19th and early 20th century pants were voluminous; later styles had a slimmer cut, though they were still roomy. Trousers were generally worn from babyhood through old age. 40’ length.
“The nomads have great love for children and will play with them by the hour. Even the richest Beg is considered poor if he has no children, while the poorest servant gains much respect if he has many children playing around his yurt.”
Probably Yomut Turkmen, 2nd quarter 20th c. Handwoven and machine-made cotton and silk: imported wool-broadcloth triangles; cloth amulet (doga); black/white “snakes” trim; ladder and running stitches; printed-cotton lining; two Russian 10-kopek coins dated 1925. The kurte is imbued with protective power – the “snake” trim, dangling coins, and triangles all serve as talismans. 12” length; 18” across top
“Everybody wears little skull caps…and they are embroidered with gold and silver braid or silks of brilliant colours. The cap shops are among the most numerous and attractive in the bazaars.”
Turkmen, mid-20th c. Cotton patchwork; silk and cotton tassels; twisted black/white “snakes”; seed pods; printed cotton lining. Since children were considered especially vulnerable to evil spirits, patchwork and tassels were thought to confuse them; simulated snakes and seed pods served as amulets. 5 H. x 4.5” D.
“Auspicious symbols, each bearing various meanings – such as pomegranates (fertility), birds (happiness), water vessels (purity), teapots (hospitality), and tumars (protective amulets) – were often integrated into the patterns. The borders themselves served as protective devices to keep out jinns (evil spirits). A suzani was not only an object of beauty; it held much of a young girl’s past and would accompany her on the rest of her life’s journey.”
Samarkand, Uzbekistan, c.1950s. Silk couching outlined with chain stitch on four joined panels of factory-made plain-weave cotton; black cotton trim; unlined. By the mid-20th century, Samarkand suzanis like this one were being made in Soviet artels. Colors were reduced to a few shades of red, ochre, and black and the delicate green lotus vines of the 19th century were stylized into heavy black scrollwork, referred to as “melon vines”. 9’ x 12’6”
Tashkent, Uzbekistan, mid-20th c. Silk couching stitch (basma) outlined in chain stitch (yurma) entirely covers three joined panels of factory-made cotton; stylized striped-snake motifs (protective symbols) in center; unlined. Large circular disks called “oy” (moon) are typical of this type of suzani. 8’ x 7’7”
Bukharan suzanis often have a wide outer border with large floral medallions in two shades of red (an orange-red and a rose-red), intertwined with graceful meandering vines. This particular flower is a stylized carnation, worked in basma stitch (typical of Bukharan suzanis). 6.5” x 7”
“The most potent forms of cultural continuity exist within the woman’s sphere – as domestic ritual and, especially, in the creation of handmade textiles.”
Samarkand, Uzbekistan, dated 1974. Silk and cotton couching and chain stitch on cotton; black cotton trim; unlined. A traditional baby cradle was crafted of wood with a horizontal turned handle that ran the length of the cradle. The beshikpush was draped over it to keep out drafts, light, insects, and any jealous evil spirits. 50 x 55”
Uzbekistan, 3rd quarter, 20th c. Printed and plain cotton; embroidered fragments; machine-embroidered trim; printed-cotton lining. Patchwork (called “caroq”), not only recycled pieces of material into something functional and aesthetically pleasing, it also possessed powerful protective and auspicious properties. Cloth from a special occasion, a respected person, or from a woman with many children was often used. And the intricate patterns, usually composed with many small talismanic triangles, were thought to confuse evil spirts and drive them away. 74 x 64”
Tekes Valley (located in the region where the borders of Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, and China meet), c.1935. The task of assembling and dismantling the family’s yurt fell mostly to the women. The bentwood frame was covered with heavy wool felts and lattcework formed the interior walls. (photograph by Edward Murray)
Kyrgyz, early 20th c. Silk chain and lacing stitch on imported wool broadcloth; silk tassels with Turk’s head knots and gold-wrapped thread; Russian printed-cotton backing. Traditionally bashtyks were backed with fabric to form a pouch, or hung hammocklike from the lattice wall to use for storage. Later, they were simply used as decorative hangings. 28 x 26”
“For coloring, the saddlery bazaar ranked high. The wooden saddles, with their pommel in front …whose glorious reds shone amid the various inlaid designs…The horse trappings, sufficient to deck a horse from head to tail, were of leather, covered with metal ornaments…colored bosses, beads, feathers; nothing omitted that could make a pony as gay as a macaw.”
Tekke Turkmen, 1911. The family are sitting inside their tent dressed in their best clothes. Sunlight streams in through the spoked wooden roof wheel at the top of the tent, making a pattern on the woven wool carpet. The lattice walls are hung with camel trappings, including one similar to the piece shown in the next image. (photograph from the Library of Congress)
Probably Yomut Turkmen, early 20th c. Russian plain and printed cotton; imported wool broadcloth; silk; Russian printed-cotton lining. The camels in a wedding procession had their forelegs decorated with small trappings. Always made in pairs, they were tied just above the knees and often hung with little bells that jingled as the camels walked. 18 x 17”
Kyrgyz, early 20th c. Wool lacing and chain stitch on handwoven cotton; woven wool trim and fringe; Russian printed- and striped-cotton lining. A man’s horse was often his most prized possession. For special occasions men decked their horses with large ornamental horse covers, saddle bolsters, headdresses, and bridles. This cover is a rather modest example. 50 x 71”
“A piece of calico is at once one of the most familiar, most useful, and perhaps the most wonderful of all the products resulting from the practical application of human ingenuity to the service of man…a bit of print is now found in almost every palace, cottage, hut, and tent of every country with which commercial relations have been established.”
Yodgorlik Silk Factory, Margilan, Uzbekistan, 2004. After the warp threads have gone through many processes and the final pattern has been achieved through a complex means of resist dyeing, the warp is ready to be strung on the loom, as shown in this photograph. (photograph by Elizabeth Hewitt)
Tashkent, Uzbekistan, 1938. Probably the Tashkent Textile Combine. As early as the 1920s and ‘30s, the Soviets began building large vertical textile factories (combines) in Uzbekistan, Tajikistan, and Kyrgyzstan. The Tashkent Textile Combine was the largest cotton-textile enterprise in the USSR. (photograph by Max Penson/©Maxime Penson)
Tashkent Textile Combine, Uzbekistan, c.1980s. Cheaper still than machine-woven ikats, imitation ikats printed on silk, cotton, and synthetic materials were very popular for both women’s apparel and the home. This cotton example was used for the covering of a quilt (kurpa). 50 x 30” selvedge to selvedge as shown
“Behind the Shir-Dar [in Samarkand] we come to a bazaar – a series of arcades under a high domed roof. There is a dense crowd here, Oriental motely; veiled women in the flowing robes of the paranjas…a few unveiled women wearing velvet skullcaps on their dark hair. But mostly the crowd is male, a dense crowd of padded coats, flowered robes, turbans, velvet caps, huge round fur busbies, shaggy sheepskins…”
Samarkand, 1871-72. Long, narrow turban cloth of fine muslin was woven locally and also imported from India and England. The cloth bazaar was one of the largest in the market, with each merchant usually selling a specific type of cloth. There were stalls for locally woven stripes (alacha and bekasab); hand-loomed plain-weave cotton (karbos); block-prints (chit); ikat; Russian printed cotton (sitetz), etc. (photograph from the Library of Congress)
Russia, c.1900. Art Nouveau cotton lining of a man’s bekasab robe. By the mid-19th century, Russian textiles were widely available in the markets of Central Asia. By the 1880s, they had flooded the cloth bazaars, especially printed-cotton material. Colorful, lightweight, and inexpensive it was popular with the local people, most of whom could not afford ikat, or other handwoven silk fabrics. 18 x 14” as shown
Samarkand, 1911. Teahouses (chaikhanas) were the social centers of the city or village. They could be found on a dusty backstreet; by a roadside canal; tucked under a massive shade tree; in an urban park or grimy station house. Seating was traditionally on a raised, usually carpeted, wooden platform called a “takhta”. Men would while away the hours sipping green tea, exchanging news, and perhaps be entertained by a traveling troupe of dancing boys (batchas). (photograph from the Library of Congress)
“I see no cause for rejoicing when the sun rises in the West, and the East, losing its leisure, learns to drink its tea with one lump or two of Stalinist propaganda.”
Tashkent, Uzbekistan, c.1930s. The young woman is wearing a Tashkent-style hat popular at the time. Quilts are stacked against the wall and Stalin is peering over her shoulder. Every home had a portrait of Stalin watching over. As Ethel Mannin observed on her journey to Samarkand in 1936, “There are pictures of Stalin on the sunbaked walls of mud huts in the deserts, and on the white-washed walls of lonely farmhouses in the steppe.” (photograph by Max Penson/©Maxine Penson)
Uzbekistan, dated 1974. Silk couching on cotton. Detail from a banner commemorating International Women’s Day. Three important and widely celebrated holidays introduced by the Soviets to Central Asia were International Workers’ Day (May 1st), International Women’s Day (March 8th), and Victory Day (May 9th - the day Germany surrendered to the Soviet Union in 1945). 27 x 29” as shown
Old Tashkent, c.1930s-early ‘50s. Two unveiled women in Western-cut coats among a group of women in paranjas and horsehair veils. In their determination to convert the Central Asian people to the Soviet way of life, the Bolsheviks concentrated their efforts on women, particularly the women of Uzbekistan. Their first step was to “liberate” the women by convincing them to stop veiling themselves. In 1927 the official campaign called “hujum” (a Turkic word meaning “struggle”) began. While some women did cast off their veils and paranjas, ironically it only succeeded in driving more women to don the paranja and veil as a sign of defiance and national identity. (photograph by Max Penson/©Maxime Penson)
Uzbekistan, c.1930s-50s. This is the type of Western-style coat that Uzbek women might wear if they chose to throw off the paranja. Banoras, lined with Russian-printed cotton. Banoras, a tightly-woven silk warp/cotton weft cloth with fine black pin-stripes, was the same fabric reserved for making paranjas. This coat may well have been re-styled from a paranja. It is very similar to the coat worn by the woman in the preceeding photograph.
“The [Alai] valley itself is a stretch of flowery alpine meadow of inconceivable beauty…rare flowers of every brilliant colour bloomed in profusion…Hundreds and hundreds of black Qirghiz yurts dotted the pastures, camels and yaks grazed peacefully side by side, flocks of innumerable sheep scrambled like chamois amongst the cliffs and rocks…Here is the last stronghold of Qirghiz freedom.”