TAFA: The Textile and Fiber Art List

Sunday, March 30, 2008

Suzani Fever

I still remember the first time I saw a Suzani. I was managing an artisan co-op in Chicago (Fourth World 1988-1992) and this guy from Afghanistan walks in with a bag full of textiles and dresses. I think I got dizzy, then warm, then flooded with happiness. That's what a suzani means to me, the translation of happiness into embroidery.

Suzani actually means needle and refers to larger tapestries made by Uzbeki women. Many are wedding canopies or decorative textiles traditionally used to decorate yurts and nomad dwellings. Girls are taught embroidery at a young age, and as in many other cultures where embroidery thrives as a cultural expression, a woman who excels in the art achieves status in the eyes of her peers. Urban Uzbeks have also appreciated the art and helped spur the art into a cottage industry that continues to thrive to this day.

The photos I have in this article are of suzanis I have for sale in my Etsy shop. Most are from the 1970's and 1980's, but I have older ones in my own collection where the stitches are tighter and denser. The Uzbek palette gives preference to a burgundy red with white, gold and other colorful flowers, but suzanis can be found in almost any color. Older ones traditionally used silk threads on silk fabric. Most of the affordable suzanis we find easily today use silk, cotton threads on cotton fabric. I have seen some using acrylic threads used as well. The common denominator are the large floral mandelas that dominate a piece. The backs are embroidered almost as heavily as the front.

Larger suzani are often made by several different women. They will draw out the design and then each work on a strip, joining them together when finished. Thus, one piece might show different skill levels and materials. Sometimes the pieces don't match exactly. Every now and then you see one where someone decided to go off on their own with wild colors or an erratic change in the design. This individuality and apparent lack of concern for the overall design of the piece gives it an organic quality, almost like a garden that is alive and fertile. There is a tradition in some Chinese embroideries where a mistake is purposefully incorporated into the tapestry so that the artist will not get too inflated with pride. The women of Uzbekistan do not have to worry about that! They are too busy growing their wild flowers to philosophize about imperfection.

I think that the main reason I felt feverish when I saw those first Suzanis was that I know how to embroider and I understood the time, effort and life that went into those pieces. I grew up in Brazil (1962-1980) and have always had a desire to make things. My parents were very supportive and nurtured those talents. We each got an allowance which I spent on my stamp collection and art supplies. Those were the days when Brazilian girls also prepared things for their dowry chest. The middle and upper classes sent their girls to private lessons in piano, embroidery, oil painting, and so on. I was sent, too. I had lots of different teachers in private homes who taught the crafts of the day. My most valuable ones were with my embroidery teacher. But, I was scared of her. She was a Spiritist, which spooked me. Small, boney, with a brittle personality, a bit on the mean side, our classes were fear-filled sessions for me. Still, she taught me the art of the needle. We worked on traditional Portuguese embroidery, the fine pale, pastel, silky, small floral work that is beautiful in its own right, but not what I am drawn to. When I saw those Suzani, I saw my spirit let loose. I saw how the needle can come alive. I saw sunshine and flowers. I saw a safe place. I was hit with Suzani fever.


1 comment:

“Sing like no one's listening, love like you've never been hurt, dance like nobody's watching, and live like it's heaven on earth.”

“Whatever you say, say it with conviction.”

(Both by the master, Mark Twain)

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