Sunday, February 8, 2009

S is for Suzani

S SuzaniS is for suzani, but also for silk road and ’stans (as in Uzbekistan, Kyrgyzstan, Turkmenistan, Kazakhstan). An essential form of embroidery in Central Asia, the suzani has grown out of a rich textile tradition that dates to the time of the medieval silk road trade, and continues today to represent essential concepts of home, hearth, and female kinship.

Susanne’s suzani
I first learned the word suzani when my parents came back from a Central Asian adventure in 1994. At the time, they were the only people I had known to have encountered the ’stans firsthand. My mother’s big acquisition on the trip was a suzani, which she found in Uzbekistan, and which inevitably became known as “Susanne’s suzani.” So I have always tied the suzani very closely to my mother, not only because her name seems to have drawn her to it, but because as a textile cognoscente(a?), she loves it, and so do I. As I’ve learned more about its traditions, I’ve grown to appreciate how very much the suzani represents the love that mothers and daughters share.

Suzani from Shakhrisabz, near Samarkand
As a central component of a textile-rich culture, the suzani fundamentally represents the silk road. To me, the very word conjures up images of Central Asia in all its historical glory. A specialty of Uzbekistan (particulary Bukhara and Shakhrisabz), but produced throughout Central Asia, the suzani combines the best of the silk road’s trade history with spectacular artisanship. One particularly important suzani center is the Uzbek city, Bukhara. Textiles of Bukhara also include spectacular, distinctive rugs and ikat fabrics, but suzanis are most important of all. A UNESCO world heritage site, Bukhara has a very long and literally colorful history that dates back at least fifteen hundred years, and its strategic position along historic trade routes has brought it under the control of the Persian Empire, Alexander the Great, the Samanids, and more recently, the Soviet Union, to name a few. In 1220, the city fell victim to Genghis Khan, but regained much of its former glory during the time of Timur (Tamerlane), whose empire emanated from nearby Samarkand (also a center of suzani production).

Detail of a silk-embroidered suzani on brown cotton twill, from Shakhrisabz. Detail shows the three-dimensional effect of the chain-stitching.
The suzani generally has a cotton or silk cloth base for its cotton or silk thread embroidery. The name comes from the Persian word, suzan, or needle, and its predominant embroidery technique is chain stitch, done with an instrument called a tambour, which is a hooked needle (something along the lines of a sharp crochet hook) that pierces fabric and draws embroidery thread from behind through to the design side. Like the tambourine, the tambour also describes the embroidery hoop that keeps fabric stretched and taut, as for a drum. Suzani embroiderers also use a regular needle to produce a lovely chain stitch, and over the past century, machines have been used more and more for this purpose.

Detail of a suzani from Samarkand
Design motifs draw from an ancient iconography, including sun and moon disks (possibly delving into deep historical roots in a Zoroastrian past). Flowers (especially tulips, carnations, and irises) and vegetation also dominate suzani design. Organic leaves frequently border central motifs, sometimes emerging from a tiny watering can in one corner and spreading around the edges of the entire design.

suzani detail
Detail of Susanne’s suzani
In Uzbek homes, every surface is covered with textiles in a kind of dazzling horror vacui that warms the space visually and physically. Amid all this riot of color, the suzani dominates. Suzanis are large—either wall hangings or bed coverings—and are the major component of a bride’s dowry. Relying on materials (cotton fabric and silk threads) produced in towns and cities, they are far removed from the wool-based textiles produced by nomads of the Asian steppes. In towns or cities such as Bukhara, a “kalamkash” (suzani designer; wouldn’t that look great on a business card?) sketches an elaborate design on the base fabric, then often divides it into several strips. She then hands over the fabric and directions to a family to distribute the pieces among mother, sisters, aunts, and cousins to embroider separately for the bride to be, much as American friends and family might have divided labor in a quilting bee. After all the embroidery is complete, they piece together strips to form a whole. Hand-embroidered suzanis are labor-intensive projects, so it’s not surprising that needlework begins shortly after a daughter’s birth. Generally, at least four pieces are required for a dowry, including at least one suzani. The suzani, then, becomes a cherished symbol of young woman’s first home and family in her new home.

Short video about chain stitch appliqué technique. Music is Uzbek: “Kosh-Chenar” by Turgun Alimatov.
About this “letter”
I wanted to create something in wool as an hommage to the suzani, but knew that the only real way I could do that was to explore motifs and look for similarities in process. This is a small, knitted experiment. At some point, when my embroidery skills have improved significantly, I’d like to let it grow, and perhaps create a sun disk using some of the same techniques, but this is only a first stab. I used a Danish yarn I’ve only recently discovered: Isager Strik. I knit the small piece at a gauge of about eight and a half stitches to the inch, using a kind of modified intarsia. The central carnation motif I modeled directly on a suzani from Tashkent (Uzbekistan). I applied blanket stitch to outline the carnation, and which seems to me to give it a cartoon-like aspect (which I like!).
My inspiration: a carnation suzani from Tashkent, detail.
The rest of the applied surface design (on the stem and leaves) is chain-stitch embroidery. Trying to mimic the tambour’s piercing and hooking action, I acquired a crochet hook to pull yarn from the under side to the surface. I’ve actually never tried to apply a design on anything I’ve knit (aside from the odd foray into duplicate stitch). Although I’ve learned a few crochet stitches, I’m not very skillful with a hook. Like most knitting purists, I usually focus my efforts on producing the designed material, rather than decorating it afterward. I was, however, surprised to actually enjoy the crochet work and even appreciate its enhancements to the design and free-flowing curves. I will definitely try it again!

Mother & daughter
Mothers & daughters
Although it is a small swatch—really just a token—my abecedarium’s S is a core piece. I have a long way to go before I can produce anything remotely evocative of the storied suzani. And yet, this particular excursion is another of many demonstrations of the love for textiles my mother has given me, and of greater loves she and I share, as do mothers and daughters all over this planet. So S is really for Susanne and suzani.

Sun-disc bolim posh, a suzani-like embroidery held over bride & groom during the wedding ceremony
Suzani Madness
Notable museum collections:
Suzani Bib

Plethora of suzanis captured by Flickr photographers

DSC06814For Suzani Collectors
Suzanis in the Interior Design Market
Venetian Red’s blog entry

DSC06820Knitting & Suzanis
  • Kaffe Fassett designed a beaded “Suzani wrap” in Rowan Summer Tweed. Rowan’s Knitting and Crochet number 41, published in Spring of 2007. His design focuses on the sun-disc motif.
  • Jade Starmore designed a Suzani vest (also available as a wrap on the Starmores’ Virtual Yarns site), inspired by the wonderful collection of suzanis in the Burrell Collection, Glasgow.
  • Marina’s blog entry about her sleeved version of the Suzani vest
DSC06827Historic & contemporary photos of Central Asia