The largest and brightest of Uzbek wall-hangings are called suzani, but these are just one of a whole range of embroidered items that were essential to everyday life both in town and out in the steppe. Bedspreads, decorative wall friezes, long narrow embroideries for niches, tablecloths, prayer mats, cradle covers – the list goes on. Nomads stitched potent images and motifs onto small household items such as pouches for precious commodities like tea or salt, little bags for mirrors, or combs, and sheaths for knives. Horsecloths were decorated with bright, protective symbols, and needlework was used to create a cosier atmosphere inside the yurts. Embroidery is an integral part of national Uzbek dress, too.
But in houses, it was the large suzani wall hangings which took pride of place. Once the centrepiece of a young woman’s dowry, these bold fabrics were hung in the newly-weds’ bed chamber to ensure the new couple’s happiness, since, according to local beliefs, the embroidered patterns had the power to ward off the evil eye. It’s no surprise, then, that great care went into choosing the colours and design for each individual suzani.
Styles and schools
Each region developed its own local needlecraft traditions, and this adds another fascinating dimension for collectors of suzani wall-hangings. The “Yak Mokhu – Chor Shokh” pattern (‘four branches and one moon’) is particularly popular in Bukhara, Nurata, Samarkand, Shahrisabz, and Ferghana. It typically features a bold image in the centre representing a solar or star motif, with flowering shrubs or bouquets embroidered in the corners.
Nurata craftswomen are renowned for their vivid imaginations, often introducing stylized images of birds, animals, humans or household items into inconspicuous places of their compositions. This creates a whimsical fairytale world open to interpretation as a never-ending array of patterns and combinations unfurls.
Another typical feature of the Nurata school is geometric ‘mesh compositions’. These intricate rhombuses or diamond shapes filled with floral motifs lend themselves well to the local technique of sewing suzani from narrow strips of fabric already embroidered with a pattern of repeating plant motifs such as vines, shrubs etc. and then stitched together into a single composition.
But perhaps the signature design for Uzbek suzani is the characteristic rhythmic pattern of colourful rosettes, striking symbols of the sun, moon and other heavenly bodies. This stunning type of suzani typical of the Tashkent school is known as ‘oi-palak’ (lunar skies) and represents crea-tion. Variations on this design include stylised stars embroidered within the main rosettes adding a spangled effect to the wall hanging. A third type of rosette suzani from Tashkent features a bold circle in the centre of the piece. These are said to represent the large round basin – togora – which gives its name to this type of suzani and is a common utensil in the everyday life of Uzbek women.
Serpentine motifs are often found winding through the designs, and this reflects the needlewoman’s idea to bring the element water into her embroidery. One of the most striking features of both Tashkent and Pskent suzani is the densely-stitched base material covered in a myriad of shimmering threads. It’s a time-consuming technique but the effect created is truly stunning!
Rosettes are typical of the Samarkand and Djiszak schools, too, but here the base fabric is left unstitched, and the palette is quite distinctive. Samarkand suzani are noted for their intense colours and the craftswomen follow strict rules when combining them. In Djizak, rosettes spill over into the borders, in the form of decorative wreaths, but perhaps the most distinctive feature here is the ‘tumorcha’ or amulet found in the corners of the pieces and included in the hangings and bedspreads as a magic, protective element.
Spirals and rosettes are also popular in Surkhandarya suzani with their unmistakeable bright red or yellow backgrounds and striking colour combinations.
Needlework from Bukhara deserves a special mention. Abundant floral, leafy patterns cascade over the neat filigree shaded tones of a single colour to create a particularly sophisticated floral pattern. Shahrisabz embroiderers are also fond of rich, vivid motifs such as almonds or a plump dove, set against a burgundy or ochre background to create an unforgettable effect. Embroidery from the Ferghana Valley tends to be more spacious and simpler. Typically, shrub motifs are spread over a yellow background with no fussy details in the ornamentation.
Materials, techniques and tools
Uzbek needlewomen make a point of selecting the finest materials for their embroidery. The threads are usually silken, sometimes woollen or cotton, while cotton, silk or semi-silks are used for the base fabrics. The designs are usually prepared in advance by skilled craftswomen and then stitched by group of young girls. It can take up to eight or nine months to finish a single large wall hanging. Once the work is completed, you will notice a small section of the pattern or some detail of it is left unfinished. This time-honoured tradition symbolises the continuity of generations, the needlewoman’s wish that her craft will be taken up by her daughters and granddaughters.
An ancient handicraft in modern times
Today, master embroiderers are reviving traditional, classic designs using handmade fabrics and age-old methods for dyeing threads with vegetable dyes. Embroidered accessories are becoming increasingly popular, and traditional Uzbek needlework is adding oriental charm to the interior décor of modern homes throughout the world.