Suzani comes from the Persian word for “needle,” and the word refers to embroidered hangings or fabric coverings. The birthplace of suzani is in what is now Uzbekistan, the area along the Silk Roads that interconnected the cultures of Europe, Turkey and China with the Muslim world.
Central Asia has always been a land of textiles. The lives of nomads and settled peoples alike have always been hard, and the landscape is often bleak, but women have long decorated every object they could-prayer rugs, saddlecloths, cradle covers, mirror cases, yurt bands, tent flaps, salt bags and gift wraps-with weaving, embroidery and applique in wool, silk, cotton or felt.
Throughout Central Asia, individual regions developed their distinctive designs, for this part of the world is a human as well as a topographical patchwork: Khazakhs, Kyrgyz, Uzbeks, Turkomans, Lakai and Arabs live there and, within those groups, each tribe had its gol, or crest, with colors and motifs that were recognizable at a marketplace or on pilgrimage. Client tribes placed the gol of their protector more prominently than their own and, as with western heraldry, in these crests could be read the past history and the present “pecking order” of the steppe.
Suzani are characteristically worked on four to six narrow strips of cotton, linen or silk, which before 1900 were generally home-woven. After the design is drawn, the strips are divided up to be worked by different members of the family. As a result, the patterns of the suzani can appear slightly misaligned or asymmetrical, and it is not uncommon for the shades of color to vary from one strip to the next, for no two batches of natural dye come out exactly the same.
A surprising number of suzani are still produced in independent Uzbekistan today, where they decorate homes, workplaces, teahouses and public buildings, and are still used at weddings and on festive occasions. They are for sale everywhere, bought by locals as well as visitors. Scraps of old ones may serve as a saddlecloth for one of the few remaining donkeys or as a tablecloth for a workman’s lunch. Some are hand-embroidered, but others are machine-made. The colors may be influenced by imported textiles, and the current fashion in designs may not be as bold as in the past, but in this very recent form, the tradition of the suzani lives on.