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


Rachel Biel said...

As usual, beautifully written! I really appreciate all the time you take in writing your articles and the links you provide with each one. I know how much work goes into these! I've added you on my blog roll and would love to have you come on as a guest artist. Let me know if that would interest you! All the best, Rachel

Anonymous said...

Thanks for bringing me something new. I had not known about suzanis before. The story of the creation of the pieces for dowries is especially enchanting.

craftivore said...

Of course S is for Suzani! I've lusted after my own Suzani for a long time. My mother has a lovely one on her wall. I love the dowry story.

I got my lovely letterpress a couple of days ago and I've been meaning to thank you. I have it propped against my computer and I look at it all day. The type is so alive. Thank you!

Anonymous said...

Thank you for your latest letter! These are always a visual and intellectual treat and S is no different. I do love the maternal connection too.

teresa said...

Nice and interesting to read that you are so interested in Bohus knitting! I love this tradition and find it very special. I also loved the Blue shimmer wristlets that you had knitted.

LFN Textiles said...

Thanks so much for the link to my suzani ribbons -- I too adore suzanis and designing the ribbons was one way to own many of them. Nice historical basis too.

Morna Crites-Moore said...

Drop Dead Gorgeous Blog you have here! I found you thanks to Rachel putting a link on Facebook.

Unknown said...

My sister and I were thinking of you and hoping all is well in your world. We miss you!

Pam & Allison

. said...

Your work is stunning and your blog a delight to read.

Vivian said...

Speechless, almost breathless I am.
I first stumbled on your "P is for Peru," as the roads were all leading to the around-the-neck/purling technique a few weeks ago, and visiting your site again today, wishing to see more of your writing and photos, I came on this!
My husband is from Eastern Turkey. I share many of the feelings you expressed, and am ever awed by the creativity, ingenuity and ruthlessly impeccable technique that comes from Turkey. This can probably be said for other ethnic work as well, but I have only seen work from Turkey close up, so to speak.
I look forward to visiting this page - it could keep one busy and inspired for a long while. Regarding your approaching Turkish socks: I suppose you know of the woman at "Knitting from the Swamp?" She has as few pricelss, wonderful videos on youtube, and on her blog, with techniques for stranding and trapping the various colors for socks. She contributes to the demonstrations on what she nicely refers to as the Central Asian/Mediterranean/(Portugese)/(Andean) knitting technique.
Thank you, thank you, thank you. Vivian

india flint said...

what a wonderfully erudite and visually delightful site
thank you

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handmade Suzani rugs for sale
is derived from the Persian word suzan meaning needle. These glorious textiles are painstakingly crafted with flowing curvilinear motifs representing sun and moon disks, flowers, vines, fruits (especially pomegranates) and occasionally birds and fish.

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