Contemporary Uzbek Suzanis

           Marla Mallett


"Suzani" means needlework, but to most collectors, the word has a more specific meaning: "suzani" is synonymous with the glorious embroideries of Uzbekistan, in Central Asia.  In recent years, we've witnessed a remarkable revival of this old traditional art form.  

In the nineteenth century, Uzbek women produced fabulous embroidered hangings,  bed covers, wrapping cloths, table covers, and prayer mats for their households and their daughters' dowries.  As the Soviet Era ended and Westerners became more familiar with the finest old Uzbek pieces, prices for antique examples escalated wildly.  A revival of the old forms and techniques was a natural development as new markets opened. Now gorgeous contemporary embroideries decorate not only Uzbek homes, but also grace European and American households, while talented and industrious Uzbek women have a welcome new source of family income.  Fortunately,  we now have access to beautiful contemporary textiles that are a natural outgrowth of the old traditions--at very reasonable prices.
As with any textile art, a range of quality appears in the new suzanis currently on the market. The pieces are produced under widely varying circumstances--both in cities and villages, both in workshops and in homes. Much of this craft work centers in the Tashkent, Nurata, Samarkand, Bukhara and Shahrisabz areas.  The best new pieces are truly lovely, with inspired designing, excellent  materials, and fine craftsmanship.  Although I deal almost entirely in antique textiles, I have been unable to resist the best of these lovely embroideries.
Hand-woven fabrics are used for the embroidery foundation cloth.  These fabrics are woven in narrow strips.  Most current-day pieces are a silk/cotton blend: a silk warp is most usual, with cotton wefts.  In some satin-weave pieces the weft is also silk. Occasional ground fabrics are all cotton, especially for pieces expected to get hard use, such as horse covers. The fabrics are often lightly dyed to produce a soft beige tint--a so-called "tea wash." Occasionally other colors are used for the ground fabrics.

For large suzanis, several of the fabric strips are first sewn loosely together and the pattern is drawn on them; then they are taken apart so that two or more family members or friends can work on the embroidery simultaneously.  Later when the panels are rejoined, the pattern parts may not match perfectly, and extra stitches may be added in the areas along the seams. It's the old, traditional approach in this hand-crafted art form.
An Uzbek woman sketching a design for a suzani.   M. Zerrnickel.  Johannes Kalter and Margareta Ravaloi, eds, Heirs to the Silk Road: Uzbekistan, London, 1997, plate 537.  

Women in a village near Nurata making a new suzani.  After Chris Martens, "Flowering Gardens of the Future," HALI: 137, November-December 2004, p. 155.
The suzani embroidery threads are silk.  Two traditional stitches are used in a majority of the pieces:  primarily basma stitch, sometimes called Bukhara couching, and less often, chain stitch.  An unbelievable amount of time and care goes into the making of each piece.
With the basma stitch, long strands are first laid across the fabric surface. Then these are secured with short couching stitches that are normally aligned diagonally. This stitch is especially effective for  covering sizeable areas. The appearance can vary in character: some of the stitching is smooth, fine, regular and flat; on other examples, the stitched areas assume an almost three-dimensional character and texture, which shows off the lustrous silks to their full advantage.  In any case, this technique makes large, generous, dramatic motifs possible.  Sensitive artisans match the scale of the stitching perfectly to the designs in their luxurious pieces.  

Basma stitch, or Bukhara couching,  worked in silk on an Uzbek suzani 
Chain stitch is normally done with a fine tambour hook that's much like a tiny crochet hook.  A suzani may be worked entirely with chain stitch, or the technique may be combined with basma couching.  Chain stitch is most often used for outlining couched areas or for producing delicate linear elements and fine details.  
A village woman in the Nurata area uses a tambour hook to produce chain-stitch outlines and linear details on a new suzani. The large solid-color areas were first worked in basma stitch.  After Chris Martens, "Flowering Gardens of the Future, " HALI: 137, p. 159.

Detail of an Uzbek suzani which is all chain stitch done with a tambour hook
After nearly a century of synthetic dye use in Central Asia, the best workshops in Uzbekistan have now returned to traditional natural dyes for the most glorious colors. The dye materials used include madder, cochineal, indigo, walnut, pomegranate, and sumak, along with assorted others. On lustrous silks, the results are deep, rich, mellow, and glowing.  Unfortunately, JPEG photos cannot do them justice. But the difference between contemporary suzanis with natural dyes and those with synthetic dyed materials is significant.  In some synthetic-dye pieces the colors are not stable and thus cannot be cleaned. 

Graceful floral motifs dominate in Uzbek suzanis--both in nineteenth century pieces and in modern work. In a bleak desert landscape, oasis and courtyard gardens are especially cherished, and so plants, blossoms and vines of all types appear in the needlework, as well as occasional fish and birds. Old traditional abstracted forms also appear:  palmettes, rosettes, and pomegranates.  Medallions are nearly always  flower forms, although there is speculation that some large roundels may have represented the sun or moon in past times.  Ottoman brocades and embroidery designs have always been highly regarded  in Central Asia, and so dramatic Ottoman tulip designs have been appearing as well in the contemporary embroideries.  

To see Uzbek suzanis in our gallery collection, go to:

Afghan, Pakistan and Uzbek Textiles

How to Order

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Atlanta, Georgia  30306   USA

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