Archive for Central Asian textiles

What’s in a Vowel? Why We Should Care about Huns and Hans in Western China

Posted in Central Asia, Liz Hager, People & Places, Textiles with tags , , , , , , , , , , , on August 14, 2008 by Liz Hager

Uighur silk textile fragment, Xinjiang, 10th-11th century (photo courtesy One Central Asia)

In hosting the Olympic Games, China has once again opened the proverbial kimono for inspection by the outside world, offering us a rare opportunity to gain insight into a country in the process of becoming a dominant world power. Harmony is an ancient component of the Chinese identity. Paradoxically, separatist conflict percolates throughout present-day China.

The Chinese “occupation” of Tibet has been well publicized for years, in part because the Dali Lama is able to travel and educate the world. Another, less publicized, ethnic conflict pits the minority Uighurs (pr: WEE-ger) against the majority Han Chinese in the far western province of Xinjiang Uygur Autonomous Region, the Uighur’s historic homeland. The conflict has simmered for centuries. It became an international news item in the beginning of August, when 16 Chinese paramilitary police officers were killed in Kashgar, alledgely by Uighur “terrorists” under the supervision of the East Turkistan Islamic Movement (ETIM).  A string of “incidents” have been reported since then; many say the Chinese government is inflating the group’s importance, as an excuse to tighten control over the beleaguered peoples. 

Why should those of us who live half a world away care about the Uighurs, a poor and historically nomadic people? Their beautiful textile tradition is reason enough for me, the artist. The map below suggests a more compelling reason for the rest of us.

Xinjiang sits in already volatile region, which includes the sovereign nations of Russia, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, and Tajikistan; Afghanistan, Pakistan, India, and Mongolia. The well-documented conflict over Kashmir rages still after 50 years, the danger to the world heightened by Indian and Pakistani nuclear capabilities.  In Afghanistan, each superpower in turn has painfully relearned the difficulties of containment in a land of porous borders.  As part of the ancient Turkic (i.e. Hun) tribes that migrated over centuries from Mongolia to Central Asia, the Uighurs spill over Xinjiang into Kazakhstan and Kyrgyzstan. We should know from history that tribal loyalties and animosities do not necessarily respect artificially-drawn national borders, so a conflict in Xinjiang eventually ripples outward.

Further, the march to modernization in this area necessitates that all these countries meld numerous tribal identities (not to mention Russians and Chinese) into singular national identities. Tricky business in places where tribal loyalties die slowly. Forcing “harmony,” while disenfranchising the native population, is certainly flirting with danger.

Xinjiang is an energy paradise—lots of sun, wind and, yes, oil. Something on the order of 60% of the province’s GNP is derived from oil and natural gas production. And this of course is the reason the rest of the world should really care about the Huns and the Hans in Western China.   

Need more?

Textiles in Oil Rich Countries

Analysis: August Incidents in Xinjiang

Der Spiegel on events in Xinjiang

Tarim Mummies

Fantastic grassland in Xinjiang province

Short history of the Huns

Uighurs—A Dying Race

High Noon in China’s Far West

A Yastik for My Divan

Posted in Liz Hager, Textiles with tags , , , , , , , , on August 7, 2008 by Liz Hager

Silk Velvet Yastik, probably 17th c., though identified as 7thc (typo?), (photo courtesy Sadberk Hanim Museum, Istanbul)

The great migration of Turkic tribes from north-east Siberia into Central Asia began in the 6th c. AD and continued for centuries. The Seljuk tribe dominated beginning in the 11th century; at the peak of its influence, the Seljuk empire stretched from the Western shores of Turkey to the Punjab. Among other things, the Turkic peoples brought weaving and embroidery traditions with them into the conquered lands. Though only a few of Seljuk textiles have survived, their weaving traditions have lived on in the textiles of their successors. 

The Seljuk Empire was eventually subsumed by the Oshmans (Ottomans), an upstart tribe with ambitions.     In 1326 after a seige of nearly seven years, Orhan I, the second Beg (chief) of the Ottomans, captured the Byzantium city of Bursa and made it the capital of his expanding empire.  Given Bursa’s strategic location on the southern coast of the Sea of Marmar, this victory ultimately paved the way to the greatest prize, Constantinople. That fell to the Ottomans in 1453.  Under Suleiman the Magnificent, the Ottomans advanced rapidly over additional territories, until they controlled a vast swath of land, which stretched west into Europe, east to China and south to Morocco and Yemen.  The Ottoman Empire remained intact for nearly 600 years, until the Versailles Treaty of 1919 distroyed it.

Beyond its role in the march of empires, Bursa is important for another reason—silk. The Chinese were able to kept the method of silk production secret for centuries, but the vast trade network that was the Silk Route facilitated the smuggling of the secret west to the Byzantine Empire.  By the time of its conquest by the Ottomans, Bursa had long been a Byzantium center of sericulture, due to a climate favorable to the cultivation of mulberry trees (the leaves of which the silkworm must feed).  By the 14th century, it had become a principal market for world silk and its workshops handled not only the manufacture of silk for domestic Ottoman use, but also added value to silk products flowing from Persia to Europe, by way of the Italian cities of Genoa, Florence and Venice. By 1502 records reveal that Bursa had over 1,000 looms.The period between 1550-1650 was the heyday of Bursa’s economic activity; Sulieman was responsible for expansion of the fine and decorative arts at court and Bursa provided most of the textiles. Contemporary inventories list 91 types of fabric made there, although the city’s artisans were predominantly known for their lampas (woven cloths with ornamental designs) twill, seraser and velvet. Which brings me to the piece above. 

Combing silk threads from cocoons at rug factory near Ephesus, Turkey (photo ©2008 Liz Hager)

There was no attribution, but a good guess would be that it was made in Bursa.  

Depending on whom you consult, velvet weaving originated in Egypt, China, Kashmir or Italy.  Velvet derives its sumptuous sheen from a special weaving technique, in which a second weft (the horizontal thread) is looped over a rod and then cut with special tool, causing the fibers to stand horizontal to the cloth. Until the Industrial Revolution created economical production, velvet was the exclusive domain of the court and aristocracy. Further, due to its high natural sheen, silk was the material of choice in making velvet until after the Renaissance. It’s not hard to imagine how silk velvet would be an essential item in every sultan’s palace, for its opulence splendidly conveys the wealth of the court.  For seating, Turks have always favored the long low mattress-like seat called a divan (which derives from the Turkish word for government council, itself borrowed from the Persian for “book of accounts”).  Yastiks are the front side of the cushions used to bolster one’s back while sitting on a divan.

The yastik above sports an ogival pattern of stylized carnations. In comparison with other Ottoman and Italian velvets, this particular example of the diamond shape ogee (ogive) pattern is quite simple, and it strikes me that the weaver knew those big carnations could stand on their own without embellishment. Their stylized form evokes hand-held fans, a subtle reference to the leisures of court, perhaps?  In the cells at the top and bottom of the yastik is the stylized tulip motif, a perennial favorite of the Ottomans (probably because tulips originated in Turkey). Though I enjoy the intricacies of the more elaborate yastik designs—there’s palpable joy in tracing the interlocking lines of the patterns—I find the flat, regimented and bold character of this design quite majestic.

I’d like a yastik just like it for my divan, please. 

Want more?


“The Silk Road”: overview on silk making process

Christie’s—Ottoman Velvet


Paris 1919: Six Months That Changed the World

My Own Piece of Paradise: Uzbeki Suzanis

Posted in Embroidery, Folk & Tribal Art, Liz Hager, Textiles with tags , , , on June 16, 2008 by Liz Hager

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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