The splendid embroidery of Uzbek suzanis

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Suzani comes from the Persian word for “needle,” used in reference to embroidered hangings and fabric coverings. Collectors also identify the term with the finest old embroideries of Uzbekistan. When it comes to Uzbek suzanis, there is a big difference between an antique piece, such as the one above left, and newer ones, albeit works of high quality, like the one on the right.

My first day in Tashkent landed me and my travel companions in the excellent Museum of Applied Arts.There, a crash course in Uzbek textiles helped us appreciate the distinction.

Suzanis originated along the trade routes connecting Europe, Turkey and China with the Muslim world. The domestic art was applied to hangings, table and bed covers, wrapping cloths, and prayer mats for households and dowries.

As early as the 15th century, Ruy Gonzáles de Clavijo, Castilian ambassador to the court of Timur (Tamerlane), described densely worked hangings and embroidery that probably foreshadowed the suzani. The older pieces now exhibited in museums date from the 18th and 19th century.

 

I first saw a suzani in Jaisalmer, in Rajasthan, India, a piece that looked much like this one. It was old, and came from Uzbekistan, I was told. I had no idea how many of its cousins I would see just a few months later in Central Asia. In Uzbekistan, suzanis still decorate homes, workplaces, teahouses and public buildings, and are used on festive occasions.

“Tree of life design” from Persia

Popular motifs include various symbols of hospitality, prosperity and joy—sun and moon disks, flowers, leaves and vines, fruits and occasionally fish and birds. Pomegranates are especially popular.

Suzani embroidery is usually done over a cotton, or sometimes silk base, using silk or cotton thread, and very occasionally, wool. Stitches are simple. Natural dyes used for older pieces include indigo for blue, cochineal and madder for red, saffron from the wild crocus for yellow, and pomegranate skins or pistachio galls with iron for black.

Suzanis are now commercially produced, rather than a purely domestic art, to meet the demands of both a surging tourist trade and a local market. They are for sale literally everywhere; and they come in colors that range from bright and bold to delicate and subdued.

Here is a sampling from the Museum of Applied Arts (and the last, a suzani I brought home, from the ladies of the Oblakoulov family near Urgut, using motifs from the region):

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For more information, take a look at “Splendid Suzani”, Caroline Stone’s excellent magazine article from 2003. And for a delightfully personal overview of the details of suzani stitchery, check out another blogger’s post, “S is for Suzani”.

Want to see more of this beautiful country?

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13 COMMENTS

    • Thanks Kate. There is so much to see in Uzbekistan, it’s hard to know where to begin! Suzanis are fabulous, but just the tip of the iceberg.

    • So glad you enjoyed the post and pics. Suzanis are indeed stunning! Your online shop is great, besides the Suzanis, I like the Tamerlane tea cosies.

  1. I am a big fan of Suzanis and purchased one during a trip to Istanbul. I’m wondering if you have any advice for how to remove wrinkles in it- is ironing or steaming safe? Or should I just bring it the dry cleaners? Thanks!

    • With textile art, I always worry about the dyes running. Suzanis and other such works are not traditionally dry-cleaned in Uzbekistan, but to be safe, I’d probably do that.

  2. Anita– great post and explanation of suzani textiles! Thank you for posting it and your pics are super.

    My late husband collected them and other Uzbek textiles (especially loved velvet ikats) and the very early authentic pieces are achingly beautiful, don’t you agree?

    As to care of suzani textiles, I would not suggest dry cleaning as the chemicals are harsh and they may snag or tear the embroidery at the cleaners.

  3. My late husband Scott Morgan collected Central Asian Uzbek antique textiles before they became all the rage a couple of years ago. The colors of the suzanis of old are so beautiful. Thank you for sharing your experience in Uzbekistan with us. We spent the last year of Scott’s life in India and it was amazing, too.
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