«Sometimes it only takes to see familiar colour
combinations to almost unmistakably identify
the ethnicy of a material culture item.»


Colour Traditions in Creative Textile of Uzbekistan

Nothing characterizes art culture of Uzbekistan so fully and accurately as the passion of its creators for open, bright and luscious colours which adequately communicate people’s attitude to life, their optimism, and a special energy charge of the local nature glorified in colourful designs of textiles, embroideries and carpets. In these items scarlet flowers or crimson disks of celestial luminaries live together with the greenery of orchards, golden flashes of the sun and the blue colour of heaven. As early as in the 19th century German researcher and traveller von Schwarz noted that, «As for the spectacular selection of colours and expensive fabrics, people of Central Asia surpass all European painters who are accustomed to the lead-colour sky» (1, p. 174).

Colour combinations were based on common principles: localized, pure colours were selected by contrast, or often one comes across a selection of numerous shades of the same colour; each region or each trade was known to have its own understanding of colouring. Using up to fifteen basic colours, craftsmen achieved diversity, harmony, and special emotional charge by means of properly structured colour proportions. Inborn sense of colour cultivated for millennia helped the masters to avoid accidental colour chaos or senseless colours contrasts.

Favourite colours and their combinations that have become classics of traditional textile evolved from ancient times. Just as ancient was the tradition of including colour into the system of sacral knowledge and assigning certain characteristics and qualities to it. Every culture has its own understanding of the essence of colour, sometimes bringing this knowledge to the pinnacle of cult notions. Each colour was given certain well-wishing properties, and even black did not have exclusively negative meaning. In empirical folk art, understanding of the meaning of colour was conditioned by its association with common natural phenomena rather than by speculative religious experience. This attitude to colour remained unchanged for centuries, as did colours of Mother Nature.

Colour Traditions in Creative Textile of Uzbekistan

Primarily, one should mention the predominance of red in the palette of experiential folk art. Its importance can be explained by the fact that in people’s minds it was associated with blood (life or death), fire (homely hearth), protection and security. According to ancient belief the life-giving power of red was also manifested in its potential to scare away evil spirits and embody the energy and warmth of the Sun.

Since olden times, among many nations white has meant purity of thoughts, faith, wellbeing and accord. Peoples of Central Asia had many still current expressions and words of well-wishing related to this colour; one of the most common ones is «Oq yul!» or «Fare well!»

Black colour that is nowadays associated with mourning, used to be related to the fruit-bearing origin as it is the colour of soil, the Earth. In people’s consciousness its negative meaning was not absolute, but was considered as an essential ingredient of life circumstances, without which a transition to another condition, white and pure, would be impossible. Combination of black and white, which is rather common in traditional art, can be regarded as an embodiment of good and evil which always walk hand in hand.

Among the archetypical ones is also the combination of red, black and white. According to V. Turner, British ethnographer, sociologist and folklore expert, the colour triad White-Red-Black is of great significance, and experience represented by these colours is universal for all mankind (2, p. 101).

Red, black and white combination is particularly characteristic of archaic kinds of traditional craft, including kurak — patchwork mosaic; a classical kurak is performed exclusively in this colour combination that is appealing in its balance of colour and pattern, intense rhythm of geometric construction and emotional charge. Kurak designs and their colour solution — black-and-white patterns against predominant red background — express a kind of philosophical attitude to reality: there is always room for good and evil in life, but we are all protected by the caring power of the Sun. The same colours were used by the masters of printed cloth when they created their humble masterpieces.

Colour Traditions in Creative Textile of Uzbekistan

Uzbek carpets also gravitated to a deep red-brown combination with insertions of white, blue and yellow. Their finest specimens stand out by the depth and saturation of colour together with laconic design.

Judging by colour combinations, archaic aesthetic canons have been preserved in embroideries created by women-masters from Tashkent: these feature an active red colour «charge». Here the colouring reaches its ultimate expressivity due to solid stitching of the background with bright hues of red (red, vinous, crimson, etc.). The choice is not accidental: the patterns are based on the idea of representing luminaries in the sky. That is why the embroideries are called palak or firmament; yulduz-palak — stellar sky, oy- palak — the Moon sky, and so on.

Embroidery from other craft centres of Uzbekistan shows greater diversity in colour range that is no longer connected to any cult ideas; it offers an opportunity to assess people’s tastes in each region and their understanding of the nature’s character. Bukhara and Nurata embroidery is impressive owing to its filigree designs and colouring, which represent springtime blossoming: red flower rosettes with green leaves against white background. Embroideries from these centres create an atmosphere of nature awakening. In Shakhrisabz embroidery the combinations of crimson with light- and deep-blue, or yellow with bright-red were also popular.

Samarqand embroidery gravitates towards more intense colouring and expressive design, the basis of which is large, expressive flower bushes or medallions framed in supple ringlets that stand out from a light background. Its earlier specimens were based on a combination of red and green, with details in yellow, light-blue, greyish-green, violet-black, etc. Later on, on the verge of the 19th and 20th centuries, the colour range changes to vinous-black combination against white background. This change in colouring was probably caused by practical considerations, such as difficulty in dyeing threads green. As known, to obtain green colour, filaments are first dyed yellow and then kept in indigo solution. Apparently, towards the end of the 20th century indigo became less available in Samarqand, which resulted in green being replaced by black. Old women-masters protested against this innovation: «Don’t you feel ashamed? Is it not possible to make the pattern green?!» (3, p. 109). Yet, unexpectedly, this very constraint brought a remarkable result: contrasting combination of deep-pink and black against white background became a kind of signature of Samarqand suzane, which immediately identified them in the wide and diverse range of Uzbekistan embroidery.

Colour Traditions in Creative Textile of Uzbekistan

Predominance of different shades of red, caused by an entrenched belief in its protective, energy-filling and beneficial effect, was typical for the folk culture, whereas elite court culture had a tendency to use more sophisticated and noble colour combinations. Classical «palace» art had become a combination of deep- or light-blue with golden and white, bringing to memory Russian expression «Blue Blood» used in reference to one’s noble origin. The most remarkable example of these combinations are the sapphire-turquoise ceramic facing combined with kundal painting on the walls of outstanding masterpieces of medieval architecture such as mausoleums, mosques and madrasahs in Samarqand, Bukhara and Khiva, ornamental paintings on manuscripts, as well as «palace» carpets known from miniature painting. Commonality of these kinds of art is not accidental, as the designs of architectural d?cor, book pages and carpets were the domain of creative activity of the same ornamental artists who worked in the palace workshops. Many luxurious carpets with scattered red and white palmettes on the finest golden stems-spirals against deep-blue background of the central field, and with golden-yellow or red rim with as detailed d?cor we find in miniatures from Bukhara, Samarqand and Shakhrukha. It is hard to argue confidently whether the carpets were made locally or imported from Iran; in any case, these are not known in Central Asia of a later period.

Colour harmony in Uzbekistan’s textiles was linked mostly to the use of natural pigments of vegetable or animal origin. Vegetable dyes were the most common ones, with all plat parts utilized: flowers, roots, stalks and leaves. Red and various shades of red-brown were obtained from the roots of madder (ruyan) — the plant widely cultivated in Central Asia up until the 19th century and even exported to contiguous countries; in the provinces masters used wild variety of madder. Skin and flowers of pomegranate yielded golden-yellow, pink and violet pigments. Yellow and brown-yellow colours were extracted from a wild-growing mountain plant called isparak (delphinium or yellow larkspur) and green pericarp; dark-brown — from apricot roots; black — from pistachio leaves, mallow flowers or tree fungus. Green required a complex process of dyeing first with blue, then with yellow pigment.

Colour Traditions in Creative Textile of Uzbekistan

The king of all colours was the precious — literally and figuratively — indigo that had received its name from the place where it grew — India. Being imported, it was among the most expensive dyes. Carpets of wool dyed indigo were woven exclusively in court workshops. «Folk» carpet of the 19th and early 20th centuries seldom featured deep-blue colour, except only in additional details perceived as precious jewellery incrustation. Dyeing with indigo was also a labour-intensive process, and craftsmen, rather than doing it themselves, gave wool or silk yarn to special dyeing shops. These shops were traditionally run by Bukhara Jews. Different shades of blue were obtained depending on the concentration of indigo. Among the imported pigments was also cochineal, a pigment made of dried scale insects, that gave saturated red colour; it was brought from Russia, India or Iran.

Some dyes had their own «secrets»: for example, wool dyed with tree fungus was «eaten-up» and the fleece got gradually rubbed out and eventually disappeared, giving the impression of a relief carpet surface. Merchants used to raise prices for this «decorative effect».

Since the time when the Europeans invented the first synthetic (aniline) dye in mid 19th century, vegetable pigments became the second choice and eventually their use was discontinued, except in remote provinces. In Central Asia synthetic dyes came into use since 1870s; they appealed to women-masters by their cheap price and possibility to obtain lighter shades of colours. As a result, the traditional textile colouring changed significantly. Although a substantial variety of colours was introduced into the folk art palette — crimson, pink, violet, turquoise and light-green — carpets and embroideries lost their intrinsic soft and harmonious combinations of deep natural colours and shades. Besides, poor quality of early aniline dyes played a nasty trick on the craftsmen: colours faded or the products became discoloured, bringing to naught painstaking work. In 1920s local markets saw the first generation of indanthrene dyes that provided greater stability and brightness of colours. Yet the notion that synthetic dyes run when washed still lives among people.

Colour Traditions in Creative Textile of Uzbekistan

Throughout the 20th century one of the few examples of preserving traditional colour vision was khan-atlas (satin). All the power of juicy, enchanting colour was embodied in the textiles that women in Uzbekistan were so fond of, regardless of ongoing social transformations. Key to the unusual colour solution that involved different combinations of vinous-red, golden-yellow, deep- and light-blue, green, violet, black and white colours fused in a peculiar molten haze was in a special technology: during staged dyeing of the fabric-to-be the adjacent colours ran onto one another and mixed, resulting in additional peculiar effect.

The end of the 20th century was marked by renaissance of craft traditions. Nowadays traditional embroidery and textiles and hand-made carpets have become popular again. However, over the long period of oblivion the specificities of traditional colouring were largely lost in crafts. Even in the provinces people gradually moved away from classical colour combinations in favour of a lighter or brighter d?cor. For instance, a research into the crafts of Baysun, one of the districts in Surkhandarya Province, has shown that most women do not use vegetable pigments and even do not remember their recipes (except for the residents of remote mountain villages). Baysun carpets feature predominantly orange, bright-green, vinous, violet, crimson and deep-pink shades that are completely alien to traditional carpet-weaving. These give venomous-bright, «acid» colouring intensified by means of contrasted colour combinations. This colour design reduces aesthetic merits of a carpet, deprives it of its nobleness, and changes traditional colour range that is based on the combination of few basic (red and blue) and additional (yellow, green, and white in details) colours. The replacement of the main red tone by pink one alone completely alters aesthetic parameters, and even if traditional decor is preserved, such carpet becomes «disadvantaged».

Women living in Baysun sometimes deliberately choose to adhere to quiet and reserved colour combinations, as, according to them, foreign buyers prefer this kind of items. Colour range in these carpets consists of deep-blue, brown and olive; or deep-vinous, green and grey, which give quiet and reserved colour gamut. Another approach to colour solution has been noted in Machay village where pastel colouring, also non-traditional, dominates (black — grey — white — pink, or grey — beige — light-blue — white). On the one hand, this colouring reflects personal taste and preference, beyond any tradition, of the women-masters, and, on the other — it is a positive experience of moving away from loud and tasteless combinations, which is demonstrated by peculiar innovative design consistent with contemporary spirit. Samarqand-based enterprise «Samarqand — Bukhara Silk Carpet» demonstrates an original approach to traditional carpet. When creating classical catalogue items, the weavers completely change their colour range, thus responding to the customer’s wishes. The same composition, say of the Turkmen ensi, can be performed either in traditional red-brown, or in beige, or in deep-blue colour range. On the one hand, these experiments may appear as cultural barbarism, yet on the other they may be regarded as an opportunity for a traditional carpet to fit into any interior.

Colour Traditions in Creative Textile of Uzbekistan

Examples of the opposite can be given, when the main objectives is to restore authentic colour range. This is what happened to Nurata embroidery. Once a well-known centre, it lost its positions in the 20th century, and embroidery it produced was performed in non-typical lilac-green shades against white cotton background. However, as a result of training programmes (grant provided by Swiss Agency for Development and Cooperation) women-masters were introduced to museum collections of classical Nurata embroidery and over a short time they restored the glory of the centre.

Whereas special grant programmes aim to restore authentic image and natural dyeing, and marketing solutions dictate colour change depending on the customer’s requirements, there is also a spontaneous people’s market that displays plain kitsch. Here one can find embroidery in utterly unthinkable colour combinations, or kurak made of pieces of khan-atlas or metal-threaded fabric, which deprives the item of its intrinsic peculiarity of kaleidoscopically scattered patches.

The return of natural pigments is one of the positive trends observed in recent years (Crafts Centre in Baysun, UNESCO Carpet Workshop Centre in Bukhara). At the same time, new generation synthetic dyes also have a future, as they comply with the most stringent environmental and hygienic requirements and could facilitate the export of Uzbek products to the European Union and America. These dyes are known for their stability, they guarantee that colours would not run when washed, they enable the attainment of that particular colouring that distinguished old-time textiles, and they do not contain detrimental components; with the help of these dyes the items wrought by traditional craftsmen would retain their colours for many years. However, along with the requirement for quality of the currently used dyes, it is essential to raise the issue of restoring harmony in colouring and cultivating good taste and sense of colour. No matter what experiments are run over traditional colour range, one has to remember that classics stay relevant at all times, and it is no accident that world leading designers have appreciated classical Uzbek textile, such as carpets and suzane wall rugs, and use them intensively when creating exclusive modern interiors.

1. Наследники Шелкового пути. Узбекистан — Штутгарт, 1997.
2. Тернер В. Символ и ритуал. М., 1983.
4. Сухарева О. Декоративная вышивка Самарканда. Рукопись. Библиотека НИИ искусствознания.

The article has been prepared with support from the representative office of the Swiss branch of Huntsman Textile Effects in Uzbekistan.

Elmira Gyul