Silk and Cotton by Susan Meller

Silk and Cotton by Susan MelleIt seemed to me, when driving for the first time through the streets of Samarkand on a brilliant September morning in 1896, that Keats could not have chosen a more appropriate epithet for that city than “Silken Samarkand”; almost every other man we met was clothed in silk. A gentle breeze filled their long wide sleeves till they looked like silken pillows, and spread out the folds of their ample garments, while the silk embroidery on the boys’ caps shone in the direct rays of the midday sun.

−Annette M. B. Meakin, In Russian Turkestan, 1903

Many of the traditional textiles of Central Asia (formerly known as Turkestan) are visual treasures unfamiliar to most. Straddling the legendary Silk Road, this vast region stretches from Russia in the west to China in the east. Whether nomadic or sedentary, its diverse peoples created textiles for all aspects of their lives, from ceremonial pieces marking rites of passage, to everyday garments, to practical items for the home. There were exquisite suzanis for a girl’s dowry; prayer mats; patchwork quilts; cradle covers; yurt hangings; animal trappings; finely-embroidered hats; and robes of every color and pattern.

The textiles in this book differ from what is generally exhibited in museums or sought after by collectors. While many are not necessarily rare, they are for the most part unique, and what ordinary people made for their daily use and surroundings: A husband’s skullcap showed off the skilled needlework of his wife; a child’s well-worn patchwork shirt, trimmed with protective amulets, was made with a mother’s love; a colorful trapping with tassels and shiny buttons adorned the lead camel in a wedding procession.

Practically all of the 590 nineteenth century and Soviet-era textiles illustrated in this book are from the author’s collection. Shown in full color, their history, use, and cultural significance are contextualized through 220 archival photographs and exerpts from travelers’ narratives spanning the centuries. The historical overview, chapter introductions, and captions bring to life the fascinating, ever-shifting history and culture of the five countries that now make up Central Asia – Uzbekistan, Kazakhstan, Tajikistan, Kyrgyzstan, and Turkmenistan.

Many of the period photographs are by the reknowned photographer, Max Penson. Born in Belorussia in 1893, he emigrated to Uzbekistan in 1915 where he eventually became one of the most prominent photographers of Uzbekistan and its people. As a photojournalist for Pravda Vostoka (Truth of the East), Uzbekistan’s largest newspaper, he produced over 40,000 prints, many of which were distributed throughout the USSR.)

The beautiful textile photographs are by Don Tuttle (who also photographed the textiles in Russian Textiles), one of the foremost photographers of textiles working today. They capture the integrity of each piece and the attention to detail, aesthetics, and tradition shown by the people who made them.

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