Silks and Quilts in Central Asian Cultures

Silks and Quilts in Central Asian Cultures

Dale Gluckman (left), Lotus Stack and Christine Martens respond to questions about the contemporary textile craft in Central Asia. Gluckman presented a paper by her colleague Mary Dusenbury.

Possibly the best-dressed scholarly meeting of the season, "Textiles as Treasures" looked at the place of fabrics in the lives and the industry of nomadic and urban Central Asian cultures over centuries. The March 5 conference was organized by the Asia Institute's Program on Central Asia; a day-long program on the music of the region is planned for April 1.

Most of the "ikat" clothes and accessories sold today by Uzbek vendors, or globally on the Internet, are prints, not weavings that start with silk thread tied off in patterns. That's because Central Asians of the former Soviet republics now make fabrics above all for markets, a contrast with centuries during which textiles served first of all as houses, furniture, saddles and the symbolic upholstery of ceremony, in addition to clothes and coveted items traded along the Silk Road.

Margaret Kivelson, UCLA professor emeriti of space physics, describes items from her personal collection of Central Asian textiles to the audience.

Margaret Kivelson, UCLA professor emerita of space physics, describes items from her personal collection of Central Asian textiles to the audience.

At "Textiles as Treasures: Cultures of Consumption in Central Asia and Beyond," held Saturday, March 5, in UCLA's Royce Hall, historians, ethnographers and collectors considered how the role of textiles varies across the region and over time, in permanent and temporary settlements. They and an audience of more than 100 people participated in two panel discussions, four presentations of items from Los Angeles private collections, and an open reception with food. The UCLA Asia Institute's Program on Central Asia organized the free, public gathering with support from the Textile Museum Associates of Southern California.  The UCLA Center for India and South Asia cosponsored.

"What this event actually points out is how much of Central Asia there is in L.A. There is not a large Uzbek community, for example, but vicariously there is all of this Central Asian presence," said Professor of History Nile Green, chair of the program. He added, "We're exploring Central Asia as a mobile culture and examining the material things moving through it, even to as far away as Los Angeles." A dialogue about the region's music, with afternoon performances, is planned for April 1 in Schoenberg Hall.

Faux or printed ikat may be a recent global fashion development, but the copying of patterns and even mass production were important parts of the old weaving cultures. Andrew Hale, director of the Anahita Gallery in Santa Fe, New Mexico, observed that patterns previously thought to be unique or idiosyncratic, such as those with asymmetrical or off-balance designs, were copied in the 19th century by entire schools of manufacture that enrolled up to 600 students at a time.

With archival photos, Hale illustrated the wide range of 19th-century manufacturing techniques and social organizations of production.  Among nomads, for example, women were the predominant manufacturers of textiles, whereas in urban areas textiles were generally made by men.  Specialists carried out tasks such as dyeing, the loom set-up, and embroidery.

Cheri Hunter of the Textile Museum Associates of Southern California, a conference cosponsor, addresses the audience.

Cheri Hunter of the Textile Museum Associates of Southern California, a conference cosponsor, addresses the audience.

Some textile designs in Central Asia remained in continuous production for hundreds of years, said Jon Thompson, a retired curator of Oxford University's Ashmolean Museum. Thompson explained how such complicated textile patterns could be learned and repeated over generations, through an apprenticeship process in which craftspeople – like musicians, dancers or speakers of a language – acquire a repertoire of skills.

Thompson described a dramatic transformation in the textile culture of the Turkmen in the 1870s, when the Russian takeover of parts of Central Asia by military means and punitive taxation forced nomadic Turkmen to sell off their home furnishings.  These textiles flooded the European and American markets and touched off a wave of acquisition that continues until today, he said.  While creating a new home-decor aesthetic in the West, the phenomenon also directed Turkmen production away from home furnishings destined for family and ceremonial use and towards international market demands.

Going back to the 16th century, Indian merchants were especially active in the textile trade, moving far into Central Asia, said Professor Claude Markovits of the Ecole des Hautes Etudes en Science Sociales in Paris. The map of trade routes from then until the 19th century connected many towns and cities of the subcontinent with Central Asian counterparts, and included water routes across the Caspian Sea and along the Persian Gulf.

In spite of its name, Markovits pointed out, the famed Silk Road brought in large quantities of cotton and other textiles from the subcontinent to Central Asia, and the trade consisted of many ordinary goods as well as textiles intended for luxury consumption.

New Opportunities

In today's Ferghana Valley, the heart of Central Asia's cotton, silk and textile industries, several fourth- and fifth-generation ikat weavers are reviving some of the pre-Soviet splendor of the vocation, according to a conference paper by University of Kansas curator Mary Dusenbury. The paper, read by Dusenbury's colleague Dale Gluckman, described contemporary production processes with high degrees of specialization. Some center on factories, and others consist of a network of specialist families, so that an ikat garment may move between as many as 30 household workshops before going to market.

A number of conference attendees sported Central Asian garments.

A number of conference attendees sported ikat garments, including this Indonesian exmple and others from Central Asia.

It all starts with silk worms munching loudly, twice daily, on mulberry leaves, Gluckman explained: "The quality of a silk cocoon can make or break an enterprise." Specialties include the boiling of cocoons and unraveling of thread; the day-long process of untangling warps for weaving; the tying off of bundles of thread into patterns; the process, not for nomads, of applying dye in vats; and manual and machine-assisted weaving. Textiles may go through finishing processes abroad, especially in Turkey and Italy, according to Dusenbury.

To get textiles ready for market, Central Asian producers now have to closely consider opportunities in places such as Moscow, Paris, New York and San Francisco, said Lotus Stack, curator emeritus of the Minneapolis Institute of Arts. That means not only suiting fabrics and publicity campaigns to the tastes of the modern fashion industry, but also discovering niche markets for such things as replicas of traditional tribal items. Stack spoke of a vendor who has given up frequent trips to Turkey in favor of marketing his products on the Internet, and of households that, responding to demand, have focused on felt production, natural dyeing, or a sophisticated kind of finger-looping used for patterned trim on garments.

Dusenbury and Stack's observation of a global market for Central Asian designs could be easily confirmed at the conference: a number of speakers and audience members were wearing the evidence. Suzi Click, a Los Angeles–based designer, said that the colorful silk garment she had on "came from Uzbekistan; I bought it on eBay, though." It took about two weeks to arrive from Tashkent, she said.

In the final presentation of the day, independent researcher Chris Martens considered the uses and meanings of quilts and patchwork in Central Asia. Like other patterned textiles, the quilts sometimes serve as amulets that protect their owners from the evil eye or take on other powers. The patchwork on pillow covers faces the door of the home to protect it, for example. Hems on the garments of children are left raw, without finishing, in order not to stunt their growth. Many items are given and used at milestones in people's lives: cradle covers, dowry articles and wedding curtains providing privacy for newlyweds. Martens described a wide variety of patterns and functions, across the region from the 19th century to the present.

UCLA Associate Professor of Anthropology Monica L. Smith and UCLA Fowler Museum Senior Curator Roy Hamilton served as discussants for the panels on textiles in history and in contemporary life. Smith provided the summaries of presentations by Hale, Markovits and Thompson used in this article.

Published: Wednesday, March 09, 2011