A new favourite with several textile designers with a very old history, gorgeous, wonderful, imitated in the most unfortunate ways: Suzani. I first heard of the term while working for a designer. I was told to look at this wondrous tradition and make patterns digitally based on that style. It was heartbreaking because I knew that a CMYK print could never do justice to something as honest and wonderful. An embroidery technique, practiced across Tajikistan, Uzbekistan, Kazakhstan, the northern regions of India and other central Asian countries, Suzani literally means ‘needle’.
Apart from buttonhole, silk and chain stitching, Suzani makes use of a technique called couching, where a second thread is used to place bigger pieces of yarn onto the fabric. Sometimes the colour is the same as first piece of yarn and sometimes it contrasts it, to create a dramatic effect! It may look something like this:
Though we do not know where Suzani came from, the earliest pieces have been found in Egypt. It is understood, that initially this tradition started with just simple processes of repairing fabric, but then developed into something lovelier and very decorative. Since embroidery was a mark of wealth and status, the craft of embroidery and textiles flourished, and so did Suzani.
Suzanis vary in style, from very large covering to tiny pieces, only a few feet across. I have to mention, that the places that Suzani is found is, is also home to very bleak landscapes and a lot of desert land. Still, the nomads and tribes that live and travel across this area, wear on them the most colourful fabrics, adorned with mirrors and gorgeous applique. Apart from having a practical function, these embroidered pieces were also used by women to gain control over their immediate environment and were objects that could be traded for money or bartered or even used as dowry.
Some motifs are seen more often than others and are clues to the ways in which tribes were exposed to other cultures. The entry and exit of a certain motif is indicative of the life of the people, their ruler and the influence of trade. Lotus, hyacinth, carnations, tulips and the botah pattern (similar to the paisley) are seen very often, sitting within circles, or being sprayed from vessel like shapes. A popular image is one called ‘ Palak’, a heavenly orb and often represented with big red flowers. Some say, it may also be related to the Pomegranate fruit.
It is rarely the woman herself who creates the pattern for the Suzani, and like in present day towns of India still, the pattern is crafted by a local designer which the girl then embroiders over. Often in older pieces of Suzani, the master draft is visible.
Nowadays, the Suzani has gone from being a traditional craft to a trend, used worldwide for products manufactured in the thousands. With such demand, the quality of embroidery has suffered and often, the novice viewer is unaware that the digital print they are looking at is an attempt to imitate a very complex and gorgeous embroidery technique. Education for women has ensured that practitioners of Suzani have more options than just that and so now, not as many women practice it. However, and thankfully, though not at the scale it once was, the tradition lives on in the homes of many people.