The Art of Embroidery in Central Asia and Kazakhstan

The embroidery of Central Asia is well represented in the collections of the Russian Museum of Ethnography. The present exhibition consists primarily of the brightest and largely unknown pieces from these collections, which not only depict cultural life, but also display a variety of artistic forms and techniques found in the local embroidery traditions of Tajik, Uzbek, Kirghiz, Turkmen, Kazakh and Karakalpak peoples, as well as the larger cultural groups of the region: the Uigurs, Dungans and Arabs. The Museum houses over 2,000 pieces of embroidery. The rarest of these pieces date back to the 18th century, but the majority was created during the golden age of this folk art, the middle of the 19th and early 20th centuries.

Central Asia has been known for its fabrics and embroidery work since ancient times. References to the superb silk, woolen and cotton materials manufactured in Merv, Bukhara, and Samarkand and exported in large quantities to other countries, can be found in the accounts of historians describing the campaign of Alexander the Great; the works of Roman authors; the Avesta; medieval Arabian and Persian manuscripts and in ancient Chinese historical records.

Central Asian embroidery reached the peak of its expression in Samarkand, the capital of the states governed by the Timur and his followers in the XIV and XV centuries.

The Central Asian wattle and daub home faces the street not with its windows, but with a blind wall. The house is entered from an inner courtyard. Inside, it is decorated with recesses, where pitchers and trays with arabesque engravings are placed. Patterned kilims (napless woven woolen carpets) or red pile carpets are placed on the floors. On the wall is hung the costly embroidered robe (khalat) and embroidered skullcap (tubeteika) of the master of the house. Opposite the entrance, on chests or in deep wall recesses (takhmon), blankets and pillows are piled. The takhmon is covered with an embroidered hanging. Occasionally, two narrow embroidered strips are hung on both sides. Above them, over a clothes rack, runs a narrow cross-strip, also decorated with embroidery. It extends into a narrow embroidered frieze extending around three walls of the room. A large fully embroidered panel hangs on the wall facing the window. Large embroidered cloths are used to cover the bed of a newly married couple. Their name, suzani, literally means “needled’; that is “embroidered with a needle”. The largest suzani are three meters long and two meters wide.

Large decorative embroideries were connected with the most important life events of an individual. They were made by the bride’s family for her wedding day, and comprised the bulk of her dowry. Each piece of embroidery was distinguished by the particular design of its ornamental pattern, which held magical powers to protect the young couple from evil spirits. In funeral rites for girls or young women, an embroidered shroud was used to cover the litter carrying the body. Another interesting custom was to leave an unfinished detail in embroidered pieces, “so that the weddings and circumcisions won’t end, so that the daughter will remain safe, and so that there will be no end to the happiness in the house”.

The golden age of the art of Central Asian embroidery was reached in the second half of the XIX century in six great historical art centersNurata, Bukhara, Samarkand, ShakhrisyabzTashkent and Fergana.

Nurata embroidery developed in the 19th century in a large settlement of the Bukharan Emirate (Nurat). Its distinctive ornamental designs were composed of bouquets of flowers loosely spread across a white ground, figures of birds, or highly stylized figures of people and animals, depicted in light, delicate colors.

Bukhara embroidery is among the most beautiful of all Central Asian needlework. It is especially distinguished for its delicate colors and for the quality of its chain stitching: this technique was more highly developed in Bukhara than anywhere else in Central Asia. No other central Asian suzanibolinpush or ruidzho can match those made in this historical art center.

Samarkand, one of the most ancient cities of Central Asia, was already well known by the 4th century B.C. For centuries it was a center of silk weaving, ceramics and other artistic crafts. In the embroideries of Samarkand, one can find archaic traces of the art of ancient Sogdiana. It is also distinctive for its pattern of ornamentation, which is large and more laconic than that of Bukhara. The main ornamental motif is a large, crimson rosette, surrounded by a circle of leaves.

Shakhrisyabz, is located in the center of a fertile valley flourishing with vegetation. Named Kosh in ancient times, it was the homeland of Tamerlane. In the 19th century Shakhrisyabz was a center of the Bukhara Emirate, with its craftsmen and craftswomen working for the Emir and bey courts. The embroideres made small items for themselves while for the Emir or the Beys, they manufactured suzani and robes, called dastarkhany, which were also used to wrap gifts for Russian tsars.

Tashkent, another of the ancient cities of Central Asia, was named Binkent in the 10th century, and was famous as a great center of commerce and handicrafts as well as a leading trade center with nomads. Two types of large embroideries, similar to the suzani of other regions, were produced in Tashkent: the palyak, whose pattern was composed of dark-red circles filling the ground, and the gul’kurpa, usually decorated with plant motifs and most of the ground left free of ornamentation. The needlework technique used in Tashkent embroidery was the bosma stitch.

The Fergana Valley, famous for its fertility, was a center of cotton and silk production. Its embroidery is remarkable for its jeweler’s precision; its embroidered headdresses (tubeteika) are known everywhere. Large, decorative suzani-sized Fergana embroideries were crafted with just as precise and delicate a technique as was used for the famous tubeteika. The principal motif found in Fergana embroidery is a round rosette, which is laid out in concentric circles.


Number of objects - about 350.

Space required- approximately 150 square meters.