The term suzani is from the Persian and essentially means needlework. Initially suzanis were made for one’s own private use, to decorate walls and beds, or serve as a curtain, tablecloth or prayer rug. Suzanis were also standard items in the trousseau of every city and countrywoman. Here, women could show the whole range of their skills. After the wedding, suzanis were first used as bed covers and subsequently as wall hangings.
However, from the mid 19th century suzanis progressively became a commercial article. Even at the beginning of the 20th century there was already a special market for suzanis. In his book Turkestan: The Heart of Asia published in 1911, the American journalist William Eleroy Curtis described how much more pleasant and cheaper it was to buy suzanis in Istanbul or Chicago rather than Turkestan.
Overall, suzanis were already a popular commodity by the end of the 19th century, their quality and originality suffering as a result. By carrying out the embroidery with a tambour hook (which somewhat resembles a crochet hook) on fabric stretched across a hoop, this rather laborious craft could be carried out with much more ease and speed. By adapting the designs to the taste of foreign buyers primarily from Russia and England, suzanis produced at that time had already forfeited any real originality.
The advent of the sewing machine around 1870, which was almost concurrent with the introduction of synthetic aniline dyes, led to a further impoverishment of original techniques, patterns and richness of colours used. During Soviet rule, the production of suzanis became increasingly mechanised and the embroidered covers were produced on a large scale in kolkhozes specialising in this skill. Favourite themes were special holidays and non-religious motifs. During this time, suzanis almost stopped being popular export items.
The collapse of the Soviet Union saw a surge in tourism and an increased interest in Uzbek crafts from the West. Even today, the renaissance of this traditional craft is still being strongly promoted by the dictatorial regime of Ismail Karimov. A new suzani industry has emerged that is guided by old patterns, techniques, fabrics and motifs. Unfortunately these new works – despite the fact that they are masterfully crafted and rooted in old traditions – lack a certain charm and esprit: they are frequently too uniform, too perfect, too standardised.
Today the main centres of suzani manufacturing, whether they are produced in workshops, manufactories or home-based, are in Tashkent, Nurata, Samarkand, Bukhara and Sharisabz (Shakhrisabz). Each centre has its own style, although the same embroidery techniques are used. Today’s suzanis are made with hand-woven fabrics that frequently have a silk warp and weft (adras), which are lightly dyed with tea to produce a delicate beige tint – known as a “tea wash”. Then as now, the narrow panels of woven fabric are stitched together loosely into the embroidery foundation cloth, after which the pattern is sketched out on the fabric by kalamkasch (professional draughtswomen). Subsequently, the panels are taken apart again and embroidered individually and synchronously by a number of women, since otherwise the sheer volume of embroidery could never be completed. Occasionally you can clearly distinguish the embroiderers’ individual “signatures” quite clearly, once all the strips have been reassembled into a whole again. Often errors are incorporated on purpose, or a section is left unembroidered intentionally, as in the Muslim faith it is wrong to want to be better than Allah, and there is also the local belief in evil spirits, whom one doesn’t want to antagonise by being or creating something too perfect.
The two traditional stitches primarily used are: the basma stitch (also known as Bukhara couching) and the chain stitch. The basma stitch is still used to this day to cover larger areas. The chain stitch, usually carried out with a tambour frame and hook, is used for delicate details, or outlining couched areas and creating borders. Today, in general, natural dyes are being used again: pomegranate, indigo, sumac, walnut and an array of other plants and herbs generally produce much more lasting and richer colours than the inferior, synthetic colorants applied during the Soviet era.
The motifs are derived from nature, whether they are very figurative or more abstract, such as the large red and round circles, the “suns” of the Samarkand suzanis, which represent pomegranates and symbolise fertility.
Of course all motifs and ornaments have additional symbolic and positively charged associations, such as luck, health and fertility – from fish, vines, birds, flowers and rosettes to all kinds of medallions. And of course the embroidery serves to keep the evil spirits at bay, as exemplified by the chilli peppers, whose sharpness is supposed to scare these spirits off with their spiciness. We also mustn’t forget the motifs influenced by neighbouring cultures, such as tulips and other Ottoman elements, which are noticeable in Central Asian needlework.
Today suzanis are categorised according to provenance, allowing museum pieces that have a clear regional style to be attributed correctly. However, there are numerous examples that have no clear style, which can only be categorised by weighing up every aspect and characteristic and following one’s instincts. Suzanis from Bukhara are particularly rich in variety: the stitching is delicate, the colour palette rich, and there is a remarkable depth of detail. Nurata suzanis are for the most part beige-coloured with a slew of colourful plants and flowers. Samarkand suzanis tend to be more symmetrical in design, frequently have large motifs exhibiting a reduced colour palette of black, beige and red. The Tashkent style is defined by expansively embroidered shapes, usually characterised by red, circular, fully filled-out designs, believed by experts to originate from old astral, pre-Islamic concepts. Generally older suzanis from the late 18th and 19th century, similar to Oriental carpets, have a strong central design with an ornamental border. Contemporary suzanis do not adhere to this design scheme so rigidly.
Pictures, from top to bottom:
1. Woman doing embroiderys. Seen on a wall painting at the museum of applied art in Tashkent.
2. Antique Suzani from Bukhara, seen at the museum of applied art in Tashkent.
3. Suzani from Tashkent with sybols of the sun covering the whole textile. End 19. Century. Seen at the Akbar House Gallery in Bukhara.
4. Antique Suzani Samarkand, seen at the Akhba House Gallery in Bukhara.
5. Wall decoration in an old merchand house in Bukhara.
6. Suzani for sale at the tourist streets in Chiva.
7. Antique Suzani probable from Shafirkan, seen at the museum of applied art in Tashkent.
8. The wall decoartion in the houses of the rich familys and her allover of geometric, small, miniature patterns and motivs are showing the connection between textile and wall art in Uzbekistan. Here at the museum of applied art in Tashkent.
9. Museum in Chiva. The Suzani is from there.
10. Inside a hostel in Samarkand. Old needlework fits perfect to old TV´s.
11. You can use a Suzanis for many reasons.
12. Suzanis from Nurata. Aus: O.A. Sukhareva, Suzanis, Tashkent 2013