The rigours of a nomadic lifestyle — daily use in a yurt and exposure to the elements during migration — were not conducive to the preservation of textiles. This means it is rather unusual to find ‘old’ suzanis, and the oldest surviving examples are from the late 18th and early 19th centuries.
However, it’s likely they were in use long before that. In the early 15th century, Ruy Gonzáles de Clavijo, the Castilian ambassador to the court of Timur (Tamerlane), wrote detailed descriptions of embroidered textiles that were probably forerunners of the suzani.
The primary use of a suzani was within the yurt (a Central Asian nomadic tent), as a protective wrapping panel for textiles and belongings. They were also used as prayer mats, as bed sheets and for seating — pieces of furniture are seldom found in yurts, because they are cumbersome to move.
Suzanis had a symbolic significance, too. They were traditionally made by brides and their mothers as part of a dowry, and presented to the groom on his wedding day. They represented the binding together of two families, and were adorned with symbols of luck, health, long life and fertility.
Suzanis are made from cotton, sometimes silk. The pattern is first drawn onto the cotton, before being embroidered on narrow portable looms. They are usually produced in two or more pieces, meaning that they can be worked on by more than one person, before being stitched together.
Just four stitches — tambour, basma, chain and kanda-khayol — are used to realise a large variety of patterns, which traditionally include the sun and moon, flowers and creepers of the Asian steppes, leaves and vines, fruits (especially pomegranates), and occasionally fish and birds. These motifs were believed to imbue the suzanis with spiritual powers, offering protection or strength to their owners.
Suzanis are coloured with vegetal dyes, although some more recent pieces may use synthetic dyes, which are not considered to give the same intensity of hue.
The natural dyes use imported indigo for blue, cochineal and imported madder for reds, saffron for yellow, a mix of indigo and a yellow tree fungus for green, and iron oxide and pistachio nuts for black. The dyeing process takes place in an outdoor vat, similar to those that can still be seen across the Maghreb.
It is difficult to determine the geographical origins of particular suzanis, precisely because the cultures in which they were produced were nomadic. Uzbekistan, however, is considered a relatively certain centre of suzani production, and some motifs seem to be attached to certain regions in Central Asia.
Suzanis feature a wide range of motifs. Bukhara textiles depict vines of serrated leaves and lattices of red-hued flowers. Fergana suzanis feature highly stylised floral patterns. Those from Pushkent are defined by crimson star medallions, while suzanis from Nurata feature naturalistic flowers. Ura-tepe textiles feature millefiori bound by serrated leaves and star-like medallions, while suzanis from Shakhrisabz are covered with flowers and vegetables in a broad range of colours. Finally there are suzanis from Tashkent, with large medallions arranged in rows with serrated borders.