Stitches and Loops: Suzani Embroidery in Central Asia

It all started a long, long time ago. Sewing is the oldest of the textile arts, beginning in the Palaeolithic era. Before spinning yarn and weaving fabric were even imagined, Stone Age people across Europe and Asia sewed fur and skin clothing using bone, antler or ivory needles, and thread made of various animal body parts such as sinew, catgut, and veins.

Very inventive and resourceful! Here’s another example of sartorial ingenuity: in ancient Japan, traditional clothing was often sewn together with loose chain stitches that were removed so that the clothing could be taken apart and the assorted pieces laundered separately.

From being a necessity, sewing eventually evolved into an art form, in the shape of decorative embroidery for homes and garments. Over millennia, decorative embroidery came to be valued in various cultures worldwide. Stitching methods originating in different cultures are known throughout the world today. Some examples are the Cretan Open Filling stitch, Romanian Couching stitch, also referred to as Oriental Couching, and the Japanese stitch. As I look through the history and evolution of stitches, I discover that the basic techniques or stitches used by the earliest embroiderers – such as the chain stitch, buttonhole or blanket stitch, running stitch, satin stitch, cross stitch—still remain the fundamental techniques of hand embroidery. And these techniques are common across many eras, regions and peoples.

Suzanis: Embroidered masterpieces from the Silk Road

Floral Motifs dominate Uzbek Suzanis

Graceful floral motifs dominate Uzbek suzanis
Photo courtesy

From ancient times, embroidered textiles and wall hangings have been a part of almost every house across Central Asia, especially in Uzbekistan. And they still are. They adorn walls; serve as talismans, used for drapes and furnishings, personal attire and protective coverings. The embroidery skills and decorative designs from Uzbekistan are some of the most iconic found in Central Asia. The designs are often bold and dramatic, both in pattern and colour combinations.

The suzani is the perfect example of an enduring craft that has forever bound, in every stitch and motif, the hopes, aspirations, dreams and fears of its makers who lived, and still live, in one of the harshest landscapes in the world.

A suzani (from suzan, the Persian word for “needle”) is a type of embroidered dowry textile made in Tajikistan, Uzbekistan, Kazakhstan and other Central Asian countries. For centuries, nomadic women from these regions used lush silk threads to embroider these dowry pieces on a cotton base. The oldest surviving suzanis are from the late 18th and early 19th centuries, but it seems likely that they were being made long before that. In the early 15th century, Ruy Gonzáles de Clavijo, a Castilian ambassador to the court of Timur (Tamerlane), left detailed descriptions of embroideries that were probably forerunners of the suzani.

The making of a suzani

When you look at a suzani, the first impression is one of vibrant colour, warmth and energy. The design frequently includes sun and moon disks, flowers (especially tulips, carnations and irises), leaves and vines, fruits (especially pomegranates), and occasionally fish and birds. Suzanis are often made in two or more pieces that are then stitched together. They usually have a cotton (but sometimes silk) fabric base, which is embroidered with lush silk or simple cotton thread.

The predominant embroidery technique used in a suzani is the chain stitch, done with an instrument called a tambour, a hooked needle (similar to a sharp crochet hook) that pierces the fabric and draws embroidery thread from behind through to the design side. In the chain stitch, a series of looped stitches form a chain-like pattern. Chain stitch embroidery does not require the hook to pass through more than one layer of fabric. And because chain stitches can form flowing, curved lines, they are used in many surface embroidery styles that mimic drawings in thread. The chain stitch is most often used for outlining couched areas or for producing delicate lines and fine details.

The ilmok (a double buttonhole stitch) is also used work the outlines. It is made using a plain needle. To fill in the outlines, the couching stitch is often used, whereby a decorative thread is laid on the surface of the fabric as a raised line and then stitched in place with a second thread.

Chain Stitch

Chain Stitch
Photo courtesy

Couching Stitch

Couching Stitch
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There are two kinds of couching stitch: the basma or satin stitch; and the kanda khayol. For the basma, long strands of thread are first laid across the fabric’s surface. They are then secured with short couching stitches that are normally aligned diagonally. The basma stitch is widely used to fill in large areas because it is the fastest embroidering technique. This technique effectively covers sizeable areas with a glossy, three-dimensional finish, and makes large and dramatic motifs, so typical of the suzani, possible. The kanda khayol is a slanted couching stitch, where the couching stitches are almost parallel to the laid thread, thus giving the effect of a loosely twisted yarn laid in a satin stitch. This kind of stitch is most frequently found in Shakhrisabz embroideries, but not exclusively so.

Suzani varieties

Suzanis are still produced in large numbers in Uzbekistan, where they decorate homes, workplaces, teahouses and public buildings, and are still used at weddings and on festive occasions. The main centres of suzani embroidery are Samarkand, Urgut, Surkhandariya, Kashkadariya and the Bukhara regions, and in Shakhrisabz, Andijan and Tashkent. Embroidery produced in each region has its own distinguishing features.

Samarkand embroiderers apply the basma or satin stitch to fill in the contours of patterns that are outlined using the chain or yurma stitch. The embroidery of Samarkand is notable for large, simple designs typically consisting of coarse rosettes embroidered in a violet-crimson-black colour palette.

Shakhrisabz Suzani

Shakhrisabz Suzani c1850
Photo courtesy

The Bukhara school of embroidery has its own signature characteristics. The chain stitch is its most distinctive feature. A close look at a suzani made by the craftswomen of Bukhara will reveal plenty of small details, which make the whole composition come together beautifully. Modern embroidery from Bukhara often includes sprouts with flowers spread all over the surface of the fabric, round rosettes, in light colour combinations.

Embroiderers from Urgut also use the basma stitch. Suzanis from Urgut are made on white cloth, very rarely on yellow or crimson silk. The embroidered designs are usually taken from ancient magical patterns as well as items that surround the craftswomen in their daily lives.

Shakhrisabz embroidery is distinguished by a special vividness. It is made using chain stitches on a colourful background. Here the suzanis look more like carpets than embroidered textiles.

Embroidery from the Surkhandariya and Kashkadariya regions is not found in as large numbers as the embroidery from the Fergana Valley, but they have retained their ancient ornamental motifs and a distinct, high-contrast colour spectrum. The kanda khayol stitch is generally used.

Lakai Wall Bag

Lakai Cross-stitch
Photo courtesy

The Lakai style of embroidery is quite different from most other Uzbek styles. The cross stitch is very popular worldwide, but in Central Asia it is not very common. But it does exist, and forms a distinctive style most closely associated with the Lakai tribe.

Clean, sharp lines and flat surfaces of clear, saturated colour are characteristic of true Lakai embroidery. The cross stitch is always worked very densely, covering the entire ground fabric. The colour scheme is warm, and the images are often large and blocky.

At Arastan, we have a fine selection of suzanis. Just take a look and you’ll find that all the work that goes into making these veritable works of art will come alive in front of your eyes.

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