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The following section focuses on the key elements of Central Asian textile arts.

Motifs are the distinctive figures featured in many art forms. The motifs in Central Asian textiles are often abstract. Abstracting motifs was essential because of the technological limitations and constraints of flat weaving, ikat and felts. Knotted pile carpets and embroidery allow greater design freedom. Another reason for the wide use of abstract motifs was that Islamic religion forbids the use of realistic images, hence the images became highly stylised motifs.

The ram's horn is a common and very ancient motif. Note the ram's horns in Fig. 4. Floral motifs and patterns occur in both nomadic and urban textiles, both naturalistic (suzani) and stylised (rugs and ikats). Animal motifs are common in nomadic rugs, as the nomads are still influenced by shamanistic beliefs and not as heavily influenced by Islam.

Detail of Tekke Turkmen carpet
Fig. 4 Detail of Tekke Turkmen carpet.
Wool warp, wool and cotton weft float brocade, made by Tekke Turkmen women in western Turkestan, late 1800s. 3120 x 1850 mm. 85/1900. Powerhouse Museum Collection.

Repeating motifs
Central Asian textiles, such as nomadic rugs and carpets and urban ikats, are characterised by the use of repeating motifs. The reasons for this are:

  • repeating motifs are easier to memorise
  • ikats entail repeats.

The patterns formed by the repetition of motifs were memorised by women and passed down from generation to generation. It was easier to memorise a discrete motif and repeating pattern than a free-flowing design. Rugs can usually be attributed to a particular cultural group by the motifs used.

Young girls learn the skills of textile production from an early age, under the supervision of an older woman, and the designs used by their particular tribal group are committed to memory over many years of training and practice. By their early twenties, most young Turkmen women are skilled weavers and those who have not yet had children may expect to spend up to 12 hours a day weaving. (Sumner, 1999:28).

Compare the motifs in the following two rugs. (Figures 5 and 6)

Baluchi prayer rug
Fig. 5 Baluchi prayer rug
The weaver, a nomadic Baluchi woman, has used brilliantly coloured silks for the 'trunks' of the tree motifs in the central mihrab (prayer niche) and corner spandrels of this rug. The influence of Turkmen design is evident in the guls of the wide border surrounding the mihrab.
Wool warp and weft, wool and silk, asymmetrical knots, made in north-western Afghanistan, about 1900. 1520 x 1030 mm. 96/39/1, Powerhouse Museum Collection, purchased with the assistance of the Oriental Rug Society of NSW, 1996.

Mushwani Baluchi rug
Fig. 6 Mushwani Baluchi rug
Wool, symmetrical knots, made by Mushwani Baluchi women in western Afghanistan, about 1900. 1880 x 1020. Powerhouse Museum Collection. A8358.

The colours used in nomadic textiles — browns, rich dark red and blues — were darker and earthier than those used by the oasis dwellers. Silk was available in the towns and cities and lighter colours were often chosen. Silk was a highly valued fibre.

Look at the detail in Fig. 5 Baluchi prayer rug. Note the coloured silks used in the trunk of the tree of life.

Three types of rugs are produced in Central Asia:

  • knotted pile
  • flat-weave
  • felt.

Rugs and carpets are made in a nomadic context and also in villages and towns. Village rugs are made by women who were once nomadic, using the same or similar patterns. These rugs are often larger and made for the market place. Urban rugs were made by men in workshops on fixed looms. The use of cartoons was necessary for more complex patterns. Cartoons are drawings of the same size as a planned pattern for a rug. It is used as a model so the pattern can be transferred or copied. See Fig. 7.

In addition to making textiles for their family's own needs, nomadic women produced rugs for sale to town and village people, many of whom were once nomadic themselves and wanted nomadic rugs for their permanent homes.

The shape, method of weaving, dyes, patterns, knot density, and designs of a weaving all tell something about the life of the weaver as well as its use. It tells if she was nomadic or settled, which tribe she was from, and the weaving's intended use. (O'Bannon, 1998: 11)

Rug design from Iran
Fig. 7 Rug design from Iran
Paper, pencil and watercolour, painted in Iran, about 1920.
540 x 373 mm.
Powerhouse Museum collection 86/1715

Rugs can be attributed to particular cultural groups and even tribes within a culture by analysing the following characteristics:

  • Type of knot
  • Type of motif, in particular, type of gul
  • Colours
  • Warp colour
  • Weft colour and fibre
  • Edge finish, for example, selvedge or overcast
  • Knots per square unit
  • Fringe. (O'Bannon, 1998: 25)

Felt rugs
Central Asian felts are made by:

  • placing wool fibres in layers on a reed mat
  • applying heat and water
  • compressing the fibres by rolling up the mat then continuing to roll the mat back and forth.

The natural properties of wool allow it to felt quite easily.

Except for yurt coverings, which are mostly white, felts are generally patterned by several different methods:

This method can result in a felt with the pattern on one or both faces of the felt. For one face, wool of a single colour is laid on a reed mat in the size desired. Wools of other colours are placed on top of the foundation wool in the pattern desired. The resulting felt shows only the foundation wool on one side and the pattern on the other. For two faces, the variously coloured wools are placed directly on the reed mat in the pattern desired. The resulting felt shows the pattern on both sides. A variation is to lay a coarse rope of wet, dyed wool on top of the patterned area to create a secondary pattern. When rolled in the felting process, the dye in the rope transfers to the felt. After felting, this rope is removed, leaving the pattern.

In this method, felts of different colours are cut into pieces and sewn together to create simple or intricate patterns. For some of the most complex patterns, two or more large felts are made in different primary colours. These felts are then stacked on top of one another and cut into pieces, cookie-cutter style. If three colours are used, the coloured pieces are reassembled and sewn together, jigsaw fashion, into three felts of three colours.

In this method, pieces of felt or other fabrics are sewn onto a finished felt to create a pattern.

In this method a felt in any technique will have an additional pattern applied by embroidery. (O'Bannon, 1998: 16)

Lakai Uzbek felt rug
Fig. 8 Lakai Uzbek felt rug
Pieced and embroidered felt rug made by nomadic Lakai Uzbek women in Southern Uzbekistan in the 1920s. Powerhouse Museum Collection.

Lakai Uzbek felt rug detail
Fig. 9 Lakai Uzbek felt rug detail
Detail: the embroidery stitches used to decorate the Lakai Uzbek felt rug are similar to those used by urban Uzbek women to embroider their suzanis. The filling stitch is called basma, and is a form of couching.
Lakai Uzbek felt rug detail
Fig. 10 Lakai Uzbek felt rug detail
Detail: the back of the Lakai Uzbek felt rug, showing how shaped pieces of red and blue felt are joined together to form the whole.

Find out how to make felt. Make a 20 cm x 20 cm sample of a felt rug. You may like to dye the fibres using natural dyes. Look carefully at the detailed photos of the Lakai Uzbek felt rug, Figures 9 and 10. Design a pattern for your sample reflecting Central Asian culture. Select and apply suitable fabric decoration, perhaps embroidery, to enhance the design.

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