TAFA: The Textile and Fiber Art List

Friday, April 11, 2008

Book Review: Traditional Textiles of Central Asia by Janet Harvey

As a companion to yesterday's article on Afghan Tribal Arts, I thought this book review would be a good complement. Traditional Textiles of Central Asia is my favorite book on these textiles and has a great deal of information on the history and use of items both Abdul and I carry.

My book actually has a different cover, a weaving with tassels and beads. Published in 1996 by Thames and Hudson, it has 262 gorgeous illustrations, 212 of them in color and 2 maps. There are plenty of people photos, showing the textiles in their cultural context, which I always enjoy, and the rest are excellent product photos with descriptions of their use.

The book is divided into four sections:
  1. History and Motifs (nomads and settled peoples, trade routes, jenghis khan, foreign influences, etc,)
  2. Materials and Dye (wool, silk and sericulture, cotton, dye sources and dyeing)
  3. Felts, Weaving and Dress (nomad felts, woven fabrics, nomad and village weavings, looms, flat weaves, knotted pile, covers, hangings, ikat, etc)
  4. Applied Decoration (embroidery, nomad, village and urban traditions, block printing and fabric painting
These topics cover a vast amount of information, any of which have books written specifically addressing particular traditions or crafts. Harvey's book serves as an introduction to the region and its traditions, an overview which brings it all together. Specialists can then zoom in on their particular interests.

Harvey describes her journey in the preface:

"I travelled widely, using local transport, along the bumpy tracks which are the ancient 'ways' of nomadic tribes. Occasionally, a family would be on the move, the animals laden with woven bags and the women magnificent in their dresses. In nomad encampments the activity of producing the essential fabrics and furnishings was apparent at once in the warp pegged out on the ground, and piles of shorn fleece waiting to be made into felt or spun. ...

Although the pace of social change has accelerated in the past decades, warps are still being pegged out on the desert ground, and women continue to gain status with their exquisite embroidery. I have no doubt that when I next return I shall again find a man from Hazarajat standing on a street corner selling from his barrow piled high with gloves, socks, pullovers and hats knitted by the people of his village."
(page 6)

Harvey's book covers textile traditions of Afghanistan, Turkmenistan, Uzbekistan, Kazakhstan, Kirghizistan, Tajikistan, Kohistan, and Eastern Turkestan, areas known traditionally as the silk road of Asia. Much of this terrain is austere with either mountains or desert environments demanding hardiness from its inhabitants. War and social turmoil have also created chaos in the past decades leading to a further dwindling of resources. Deforestation under the Russian occupation in the 1970's, as an example, has made wood a precious commodity. Wool and silk continue to provide warmth and functional materials for clothing, blankets, bags, carpets, and wall hangings.

Following are some examples of items that I carry that with text that Janet Harvey uses to describe similar work in her book:

Textiles are woven primarily for utilitarian functions, but also important in the nomad culture is tribal identity, manifest particularly in the decorative appearance of the textiles. Despite the common factors of a simple loom-type, wool yarn and dyes, the weavings of the Turkmen tribes, the Uzbek, Kifghiz, Khazakh, Karakalpak, Balouch and other tent-dwellers of Central Asia, are astonishingly diverse in their structures, colourings and decorative patterns, even when fulfilling similar functions. (page 72)

Lacking vegetable fibres to make baskets and wood for furniture, nomads turn to woven bags (known generally as kep throughout Central Asia) to store and transport their possessions. The wealth and status of a family is judged by the number and quality of the bags that hang from the lattice of the tent to store clothing, bedding, domestic items and hunting equipment, or are slung from sides of camels, horses and donkeys when the tribe moves camp. The gol and decorative patterns woven on the bag-face are the badges of tribal identity. (page 89)

The skill of weaving is not only a respected but also valuable asset among the Central Asian tribes. As well as being a necessity of nomadic existence, the woven rugs are an insurance against hard times. During periods of drought or other hardship the men of the family will clear the home of surplus rugs and weavings and sell them in the bazaar. (page 71)
Sun-disc motif, rooted in ancient beliefs, decorate a bolim posh, the canopy held over the bride and groom during the wedding ceremony. (The one pictured is a Suzani from the 1970's or 1980's. Harvey's photo is much older.)

Embroidery is considered a protective element in its own right. Worked round garment-openings like sleeves and pockets, it guards the wearer from harmful forces. ... Hooked disc motifs to guard the hem and side-slits of a Turkmen robe, worked in lacing stitch (kesdi) and chain stitch. (pages 37, 38)

Religious and social edicts frobidding the wearing of pure silk resulted in the use of silk warps with cotton weft. Turkmenistan women's gowns made in rich red adras (plain-weave) silk-and-cotton. (page 111)

Gul-i-peron, 'dress flowers', small embroidered felt discs designed to be stitched to clothing, bags, and animal trappings. Emblems of good fortune such as beads, cowrie-shells and metal discs are all incorporated, and metal thread is often used to work the pattern. The discs are widely used and have a long history. Examples have been found in burials dated before 400 BC. (page 40) (Abdul has several of these listed in his Etsy store.)

Rug woven in slit-tapestry or kelim technique, a method producing clearly defined geometric shapes. Each region has distinctive patterns and colours. This example is from the Maimana area in northern Afghanistan. (page 79)

Turkman bag for storing clothes, with knotted-pile face displaying the tribal gol. (page 82)

This is just a small sampling of the fascinating textile traditions Harvey covers in her book. She has extensive information on felting and ikat, neither of which I have samples at the moment. This book is a must have for anyone interested in this region, its culture and the weaving, dyeing, embroidery, and other techniques used in Central Asia.

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