"Suzani" means needlework, but to most collectors, the word has a more specific meaning: "suzani" is synonymous with the glorious embroideries of Uzbekistan, in Central Asia. In recent years, we've witnessed a remarkable revival of this old traditional art form.
In the nineteenth century, Uzbek women produced fabulous embroidered hangings, bed covers, wrapping cloths, table covers, and prayer mats for their households and their daughters' dowries. As the Soviet Era ended and Westerners became more familiar with the finest old Uzbek pieces, prices for antique examples escalated wildly. A revival of the old forms and techniques was a natural development as new markets opened. Now gorgeous contemporary embroideries decorate not only Uzbek homes, but also grace European and American households, while talented and industrious Uzbek women have a welcome new source of family income. Fortunately, we now have access to beautiful contemporary textiles that are a natural outgrowth of the old traditions--at very reasonable prices.
As with any textile art, a range of quality appears in the new suzanis currently on the market. The pieces are produced under widely varying circumstances -- both in cities and villages, both in workshops and in homes. Much of this craft work centers in the Tashkent, Nurata, Samarkand, Bukhara and Shahrisabz areas. The best new pieces are truly lovely, with inspired designing, excellent materials, and fine craftsmanship. Although I deal almost entirely in antique textiles, I have been unable to resist the best of these lovely embroideries. Hand-woven fabrics are used for the embroidery foundation cloth. These fabrics are woven in narrow strips. Most current-day pieces are a silk/cotton blend: a silk warp is most usual, with cotton wefts. In some satin-weave pieces the weft is also silk. Occasional ground fabrics are all cotton, especially for pieces expected to get hard use, such as horse covers. The fabrics are often lightly dyed to produce a soft beige tint. Occasionally other colors are used for the ground fabrics.
For large suzanis, several of the fabric strips are first sewn loosely together and the pattern is drawn on them; then they are taken apart so that two or more family members or friends can work on the embroidery simultaneously. Later when the panels are rejoined, the pattern parts may not match perfectly, and extra stitches may be added in the areas along the seams. It's the old, traditional approach in this hand-crafted art form.
The embroidery threads are silk. Two traditional stitches are used in a majority of the suzanis: primarily basma stitch, sometimes called Bukhara couching, and less often, chain stitch. An unbelievable amount of time and care goes into the making of each piece.
After nearly a century of synthetic dye use in Central Asia, the best workshops in Uzbekistan have now returned to traditional natural dyes for the most glorious colors. The dye materials used include madder, cochineal, indigo, walnut, pomegranate, and sumak, along with assorted others. On lustrous silks, the results are deep, rich, mellow, and glowing. Unfortunately, JPEG photos cannot do them justice. But the difference between contemporary suzanis with natural dyes and those with synthetic dyed materials is significant.