My Own Piece of Paradise: Uzbeki Suzanis

Suzani (detail), silk embroidery on indigo linen panels, approximately 70″ square (courtesy of the author)

When the de Young Museum reopened in its new building in October 2005, a stunning 19th century suzani greeted visitors from a prominent hanging spot in the textile galleries. It was beguiling, and since then I have returned to that suzani time and again, alternately smiling as the electric oranges and reds of its poppy design wash over me and marveling at the intricate and extensive needle work. 

Inspired to learn more about this tribal art form, a whole new world opened up to me, one with a rich marker in history Alexander’s armies, Silk Route caravan camel drivers, Sufi dervishes, Khans, Russian Generals and nomadic warring tribes—the Uzbeks, the Turkomans, the Khazahks, the Kyrgyz—all vying for control of what amounts to a few choice oases in a vast desert. 

Suzani is the common term for embroidered dowry pieces (coverlets for the bridal bed, but also for made to decorate horses, tables, walls) that have been produced for hundreds of years by women in the central Asian countries, the various “-stans,” formerly known as Soviet Republics, but Uzbekistan is generally considered to be the birthplace of the suzani. 

The word derives from ancient Persian word for needle, no doubt a story in itself about the influence of ancient Persian culture in this area. According to tribal custom, a suzani was started when a girl was born. Panels of cloth were hand-woven (most often left uncolored, but sometimes hand-dyed). Each female family member took up embroidery of a separate panel, traditionally using hand-spun silk thread stitched in chain, satin & buttonhole styles. As soon as the bride-to-be was old enough (which turned out to be pretty young), she too took up the work. Each suzani has its own distinctive pattern, because patterns are the bride-to-be’s unique communication to the world. A tree of life, a fanciful garden, the designs are liberally sprinkled with stylized pomegranates, tulips (native to Turkey), and carnations, suggesting a little bit of paradise in the desert.  Often the various motifs carry secret messages, sentiments like “my mother-in-law is a witch” or “my groom’s a wealthy man.” Once the panels were complete, they were sewn together to make the larger bedcover.  Conventional wisdom has it that the quality of the work was a predictor of a girl’s potential value as a wife. However, in all good suzanis you will always find a intentional “mistake” or two. Since only God is perfect, no bride-to-be would tempt the Fates with perfect work.  If you look carefully at the detail below, you will find the error in my indigo suzani.

Suzani (detail), silk embroidery on indigo linen panels, approximately 70″ square (courtesy of the author)

In our world of machine-made, this hand-made form survives for now in Central Asia. I feel lucky to own a few suzanis of my own. Although the cloth is no longer hand-woven, authentic suzanis are still hand-stitched. Uzbekistan is still a fairly desolate and rural country, but in the last decade there has been pressure to modernize. I wouldn’t begrudge any country the opportunity to improve its standard of living, but in the face of the relentless pace of globalization, I am already mourning what seems likely to be the inevitable disappearance of this sweet and honest folk art.

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