Delving into the Silk Road
Updated: Mar 12
Textiles, arts, and crafts tell an enduring tale of one of humankind's most important arteries of culture and trade.
Uzbekistan's position at the centre of the Silk Road and its rulers’ patronage of the arts gave rise to one of humankind’s most important arteries of trade and culture. Since the Middle Ages, many generations of applied artistry have resulted in today’s splendid ikat textiles, weaving, embroidery, pottery and paper-making. On our Textiles/Arts & Crafts tour, here is some of what we expect to see (and buy!) against the backdrop of awe-inspiring azure-tiled architecture.
Ikats are some of the most distinct fabrics produced in Central Asia. Nothing signalled a person’s rank as conspicuously as a boldly patterned ikat coat. Men and women would don several layers of ikat to signal their affluence. The earliest surviving ikat textiles come from crafts persons residing in the ancient city of Bukhara in Uzbekistan. These textiles were created during peacetime between 1785 up until Soviet invasion in 1920 for both rural and urban consumption. It was an expensive textile due to the high cost of silk and a time-consuming process that required highly skilled designers, binders, dyers, and weavers. Earlier versions favoured intricate speckled patterns. Later on, ikat artists preferred bold, graphic patterns.
Ikat—meaning to tie—is a dyer’s art. Strands of yarn are resist tied and dyed through several dips to achieve a variegated effect. From the outset, the dyer must be able to visualise the completed fabric. The more colours an ikat fabric has, the higher the cost.
The traditional term for the ikat technique in Uzbekistan is abrbandi or “binding clouds”. Artists binding the slippery, unruly silk yarns might have felt they were trying to capture the clouds. They have always been more interested in conveying the spirit of nature rather than its actual appearance. Natural forms of birds, scorpions, flowers, and trees inspired ikat designs.
It was only a matter of time before the fashion houses in the West noticed this sumptuous fabric. Oscar de La Renta famously began experimenting with Central Asian ikat motifs in 1997 and designers around the world followed his lead.
While in Fergana Valley, we will visit the studio of UNESCO award-winning ikat weaver Rasuljon Mirzaahmedov. He is credited with introducing the fabric to Oscar de la Renta.
Some 800 years ago, potters in Rishtan, Fergana Valley, perfected throwing a red clay found in this region and a distinctive glaze of natural mineral pigments and ash mountain plants. The unique blue-green glaze, ishkor, produced a colour of unmatched luminosity
The tale of Rishtan ceramics is a repeated rise and fall in popularity and production. The industry began with the relocation of Bukhara and Samarkand masters to Rishtan between 9th to 12th century. Proximity of the Great Silk Road to Fergana Valley generated a constant demand for glazed dishes and tiles influenced by the work of Chinese masters of the Ming period. While the grace of the forms that descended from the potter’s wheel are typical of the whole of Central Asia, Uzbek artisans added a layer of their own understanding of beauty. Their variety of floral motifs and colour spectrum, as manifested by shades of azure with impregnations of turquoise under a barely perceptible layer of glaze, were distinctive of Rishtan ceramics.
At the end of the 19th century a railway line from Tashkent to Fergana allowed Russian manufacturers to import factory crockery. This delivered a blow to Rishtan ceramics. Cooperative associations called artels in pre-Soviet invasion years tried to regroup and revive the craft. However, during Soviet occupation, there were practically no artisans who worked individually. During the war, dozens of young potters went to the war and did not return. In those days the artels eschewed creativity for production of low-grade utensils. The decline of ultramarine ceramics in the 30s mirrored the decline of masters of the older generation, and along with them vanished many secrets of production.
Only with independence, enthusiasts of pottery art in Rishtan took up lost traditions to creatively apply them in modern conditions. Today Rishtan ceramics are on the rise again.
While in Fergana Valley, we will visit Rishtan master potters and ceramists who work in the style of yore.
A suzani is a large, hand-embroidered textile panel. The word suzan comes from Persian for needle. This unique and traditional embroidery is practiced by women living in Tajikistan, Uzbekistan, Kazakhstan, and believed to have originated in the Fergana Valley.
Originally suzani were used within the yurt (a Central Asian nomadic dwelling) as a wrapping for textiles and belongings, as prayer mats, bedding, and for seating. Since nomadic life was not conducive to the preservation of textiles, the oldest suzani found today are from the late 18th century – although they were certainly in use since the time of Tamerlane in the 15th century.
Suzanis were embroidered on cotton and sometimes silk on narrow portable looms. Since they would be produced in two or more pieces, they could be worked on by more than one person and subsequently stitched together.
In all Central Asian cultures, beautiful embroidery work was highly esteemed, and could earn women great respect. Suzanis morphed from being purely functional to possessing a symbolic significance. A mother taught her daughter embroidery skills as soon as the girl could wield a needle. As she grew older, the daughter and mother would embroider suzanis as part of a dowry to be presented to the groom on his wedding day. The textiles represented the binding together of two families, and were adorned with symbols of luck, health, long life and fertility. Dowry pieces also carried specific talismanic, protective, and well-wishing messages since it was believed that newly-weds needed extra protection from the evil eye.
Only four stitches – tambour, basma, chain and kanda-khayol – form the basis of a plethora of motifs. Nature provides prolific inspiration in the form of the sun and moon, flowers and creepers of the Asian steppes, leaves and vines, fruits (especially pomegranates), and occasionally fish and birds, as well as the ancient Persian concept of the Garden of Eden with its Tree of Life. In every piece of suzani, a tiny motif or corner might be left unfinished or a deliberate mistake be embroidered in. After all, only the divine power could attain perfection.
Suzani yarn was coloured with vegetal dyes, although some more recent pieces use synthetic dyes, which are not considered to give the same intensity of hue. You can spot a vegetal-dyed antique by its intensity of hue which the recent ones cannot achieve with synthetic dyed thread.
During the Industrial Revolution, machine-made knock-offs were common. The Soviet occupation didn’t help; suzanis were expected to reflect Soviet symbols instead of the centuries-old ethnic patterns. Since Uzbekistan’s Independence, the craft is enjoying a strong revival. Suzanis have become highly collectable and valued for their beautiful decoration and fine craftsmanship.
On our tour, we will have several opportunities to see the making of suzani; in government- workshops as well as being worked on as part of daily life when a woman might take a break from her chores.
Registration now open for October 2021 tour. Details.
Watch a preview of our 2021 tour.
My information above is a compilation taken from sources I have found on the internet and in available books on this topic.
Photo credits: Dana Davies, Shila Desai, Cathy Horyn @theCut.com; wikicommons; Nasim Mansurov Photography Life.