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The textiles of nomadic and settled people of Central Asia Textile arts of Central Asia - main page

Although the distinction between the nomadic and settled people of Central Asia and their ways of life is blurred, it nevertheless serves as a useful framework in any consideration of the material culture of the region. Both nomadic and urban groups produced beautiful textiles, and other goods, with which they dressed and ornamented themselves, and their very different domestic and ritual environments.
(Sumner, 1999:23)

The differences between the textiles made by nomadic and settled people are based on:

  • need or function
  • techniques
  • available materials
  • motifs and patterns.

Major factors affecting design
Other major factors affecting design and form were the many different cultures within Central Asia and the influence of major cultural centres via the trade route, The Silk Road. The Turkmen, Uzbeks, Kazakhs, Kyrgyz and Baluchi all have a strong nomadic inheritance. Some of these groups have settled, some are still nomadic. Some Uzbeks for example, are currently living as nomads and others were urbanised long ago.

Compare the following seven different cultural groups of Central Asia presented in Table 1: Contrasting cultures. Note the contrast in their textile arts, the fibres and techniques they use and the manner in which skills are passed from one generation to another.

Table 1: Contrasting cultures

People Type of textile Pattern, motifs, colour Materials and techniques

Traditionally nomads. Several subgroups: Tekke, Salor, Chodor, Yomud, Ersari. Major and highly skilled rug weavers. Over time many Turkmen blended with the settled population of Turkestan, becoming skilled in agriculture and metalwork.

Turkic speaking.

Woven and felted carpets, wide range of storage bags and trappings for tents, animal trappings.

Embroidered dress, women's chyrpys, children's dress and woven shawls.

Gul, an angular, often octagonal, motif repeated across the field of Turkmen rugs, bag faces and trappings. Each tribe had its own typical gul.

Ram's horn motif.

Mainly reds, range of shades and tones, with blues and browns.

Wool; silk and cotton for special pieces from local bazaar.

Knotted pile, flat weaves with supplementary weft patterning. Mosaic felts. Embroidery, kesdi stitch on clothing.

Women wove and stitched patterns from memory, hence the use of small repeating motifs.

Originally nomadic, now mostly settled. Nomadic Lakai Uzbeks highly skilled in fine embroidery.

Turkic speaking.

Woven, felted and embroidered carpets. Wide range of embroidered bags, purses, belts, tent ornaments and animal trappings.

Pattern variety resulting from disparate historical and cultural influences. Islam also major influence on urban design, suzanis mainly floral.

Geometric and curvilinear patterns in nomadic embroideries. Ram's horn, hooked sun disc motifs common.

More yellow used than in other groups.

Silk, cotton; wool from trade in towns, or own wool in nomadic groups.

Ikat silks made by men in urban workshops; dowry embroideries (suzanis) made by women at home.

Pile weave, flat weave, felted and embroidered carpets; range of counted thread and freestyle embroidery stitches.

Largest group of nomads who still live in yurts.

Russian incursions and influence disrupted traditional tribal structure. Kazakhs became more dependent on trade goods and produced fewer traditional textiles.

Turkic speaking.

Woven rugs, saddle bags and tent trappings. Felted carpets.

Chii (wool-wrapped reed screens) for tent.

Embroidered tent trappings, especially tuskiiz (decorative hangings) and costume.

Curvilinear and floral motifs. Ancient ram's horn motif from nomadic heritage dating back to at least 500 BC, when Pazyryk carpet was woven.

New bright colours when aniline dyes introduced.

Wool; silk and cotton obtained via trade, bought.

Pile weave and flat weave carpets. Felting in mosaic and overlay techniques.

Range of embroidery stitches, especially chain and satin stitch.

Once predominantly nomadic, many now settled or semi-settled.

Turkic speaking

Woven and felted carpets.

Chii (wool-wrapped reed screens) for tent.

Embroidered tent trappings, especially tuskiiz (decorative hangings) and costume.

Designs similar to Kazakh style. Curling ram's horn motif common. Chinese and Russian influences also evident.

Bichromate palette, equal balance of two colours, often red and blue, or blue and brown, in felts.

Wool; silk and cotton obtained via trade, bought.

Pile weave and flat weave carpets. Felting in mosaic and overlay techniques. Flat weave strips, joined for larger pieces. Embroidered felted hats are worn by the men.

click to view larger example

Range of embroidery stitches, especially chain and satin stitch.

Oldest settled population in Central Asia. Blended with urban Uzbeks over time, city dwellers called Sarts.

Persian speaking.

Wall hangings and clothes for men, women and children of ikat patterned silks.

Embroidered wall hangings, bed coverings, suzanis.

Blending of cultural influences in towns and villages. Relationship to nomadic heritage, rug patterns in ikats.

Floral and cosmological motifs in suzanis.

Major Islamic influence on design; winding leafy stems, absence of humans and animals, never-ending patterns.

Silk, cotton grown locally; wool by trade with nomads.

Silk, silk and cotton ikats, made by master dyers and weavers in urban workshops.

Dowry embroideries (suzanis) made by women at home; chain stitch and basma (couching).

Mainly nomadic, Iran, Afghanistan and Pakistan.

Now divided into subgroups.

Utilitarian pile and flat weave carpets, small rugs, mats and donkey bags.

Embroidered dress in northern Pakistan.

Fine patterns, sometimes taken from neighbouring tribes, tree of life in prayer rugs. Often ornamented with shells, bone and glass beads.

Predominantly blue and rust red, brown. White and polychrome accents.

Wool, silk from town bazaar for accents. Silk embroidery on dress.

Knotted pile and flat weaves.

Settled people, sheep and farming. Nomadic when the need arose.

Brought Islam in the early 8th century.

Large flat-weave rugs.

Julkhirs, long-pile carpets resembling animal pelts.

Large geometric blocks of colour. Calligraphy added as ornament to geometric, abstract and floral motifs.

Blue, red, orange, brown, ivory.

Mainly wool, some cotton.

Kilims using both slit and dovetail tapestry.


The strongest religious influences in Central Asia were Buddhism and Islam. Buddhism came to Central Asia from India via the Silk Road and then travelled to China and Japan. The significance of Buddhism decreased in Central Asia when the Arabs brought Islam to the region in the early 700s. This was reinforced by Ghengis Khan and Timur in the 13th and 14th centuries. Islamic influence is evident in the beautiful tile work on madrasehs and mosques. Much of this decoration is also reflected in the textile arts of both nomadic peoples and oasis dwellers.

Islamic design
Islamic pattern is characterised by an abstract, floral and leafy ornament, repetition and unending pattern. This relates to the idea that Allah is in everything and is everywhere and the only one who could create life. Also Islamic artists were prohibited from representing living beings, in case people regarded them as objects of worship. Where people and animals were represented, for example in nomadic rugs and animal trappings, they were often highly abstracted. This resulted in very geometric flowers, people or animals.

Photo: Christina Sumner

Shamanistic beliefs
As well as these two religions the nomadic people were influenced by their shamanistic beliefs (belief in the supernatural). This included rituals designed to ensure a good season or good luck. This was achieved, they believed, by appealing to the dead, natural forces or the tribe's totemic animal.

Men and women – varying roles

Traditionally, women in the nomad tribes were allowed much greater freedom and communal responsibility than women in the Islamic oasis cities. Yurts and their furnishings are not only made by the women, but are also owned and transported by them. Men are often responsible for shearing and dyeing the wool and other yarns, but the women are the felt makers and weavers. The family as a whole benefits from the sale of surplus textiles, and the Turkmen women were and are renowned for the beauty of their carpets. However, in the Islamic cities, women were not permitted any life outside their homes (and even in their homes were often restricted to the women's courts). Felts and carpets were made by men in small-scale workshops in both villages and cities, while women's great art was that of embroidery for both costume, and wall and bedding textiles. (Sumner, 1999:13)

Among settled peoples,

Women were responsible for the rearing of the silkworms and they wove the cotton fabrics that were widely distributed for both home use and export, while men were responsible for producing silk fabrics. (Sumner, 1999:29)

Compare the roles of men and women in the production of textiles in nomadic and urban lifestyles. Some examples are provided.

  • felt making
  • weaving
  • shearing
  • dyeing

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