15 February 2021
In Uzbekistan, artistic embroidery is more than just a craft, but a whole form of decorative and applied arts. As part of a joint project of the European Union and UNESCO on the Silk Road, Manshuq is highlighting traditional crafts of Central Asia. We spoke to embroidery master Nilyufar Musajonova about the art of embroidery, her personal journey and the traditions of the Uzbek people.I was the first person in our family to start doing traditional Uzbek embroidery. And I really want my daughter to take up the secrets of the craft from me, keep them alive and pass them down to her own daughters.
I was born in 1983 in Tashkent into a working-class family. My mother worked in a kindergarten and my father made shoes, and now both of them are retired. I’m married with three kids, two sons and a daughter.
At school, I went to clubs for knitting and sewing. Once I saw a show on TV in which they talked about our ancestors and their skill for embroidery, and then I really wanted to try embroidery too. But for then it was just a dream. I started attending a Turkish school where I learned Turkish. Then when I was sixteen, a friend of mine invited me to apply for a job at a new workshop that had just opened. I really hoped that knowing Turkish would help me get the job, because there were rumors that the workshop was opened by Turks. It turned out that the owner lived in Turkey, but he himself was from Samarkand.
At the workshop, girls did embroidery - the same kind that I learned about on TV. I tried it, liked it, and overall I was pretty good at it. As a result, I got a job at the workshop and started making money from embroidery. After working there for three years, I decided that I wanted to do embroidery on my own, to run my own business and work for myself. My parents supported me, buying me the material and threads that I needed. At the beginning, I would look at a book with pictures of products from the 18th century products and copy some of the works myself. Then I began to notice that I actually draw and embroider pretty well. So I began to come up with my own designs, and now I’ve been doing embroidery for 20 years.
The secrets of the craft have always been passed down from generation to generation. In every family, girls had to be able to embroider.
The word suzani means "needle-sewn," from the Tajik word suzan - “needle.” Suzani are embroidered with silk using different stitches, like kandakhiel (a form of satin stitch), basma (couching stitch), and yurma (chain stitch).
Note: The main centers of suzani in Uzbekistan are Shakhrisabz, Bukhara, Samarkand, Nurata, Urgut, Gijduvan, and the Fergana Valley. The patterns and ornamental designs from each region differ in detail and color.
My teachers German Abramov and Ilkhom Dovlatov taught me many secrets and subtle aspects of the craft . Thanks to them, I know how to determine the quality of the thread, how to dye it correctly, how to achieve this or that color. When you’re embroidering certain flowers, for example, it’s important to pay attention to the weather — yellow threads should be dried in the sun, otherwise the color won’t come out bright enough.
Note: In Uzbek embroidery, color plays the main role. In one suzani you can find up to fifteen shades, but they will always be in harmony.
The patterns in a suzani are created for a reason, with each one symbolizing something else. Firebirds, for example, represent happiness, and pepper pods are protection from evil spells. Men in suzani are represented by cornflowers, and young girls by poppies.
I teach these details to my students, but not to everybody. A lot depends on them - if the girls try hard, try to grow and learn new things, I’ll tell them. If a girl comes to me and just wants to embroider a flower on her sweater, then I’ll only explain the basic technique.
Over the years, I have had a lot of students, and some of them started their own businesses and became great designers. That makes me very happy.
During the pandemic, I began to teach my craft for free
Before, our craft was passed down from generation to generation - in every family, every girl had to be able to embroider. Daughters were taught the secrets of the craft starting at the age of seven or eight. Traditionally, in Samarkand, girls would embroider a scarf to cover their faces during the unveiling ceremony, kelin salom (“greeting the bride”), at their weddings. There’s also a custom where the bride would put together her own dowry, sewing several suzani for the wedding.
Unfortunately, these traditions haven’t been preserved everywhere. You can’t find them in Tashkent anymore, for example, but sometimes they can be found in Samarkand, Bukhara, and Shakhrisabz.
When I’m embroidering, I forget about everything else. Time flies and I stop thinking about my worries or my problems. I sit down wanting to just embroider one flower, and then I end up finishing three flowers without even noticing the time.
I really like that I can balance my work and my household chores. I wake up at seven in the morning, make breakfast, do some work around the house. At ten, my students come and we sit and do our embroidery. I teach them things, we chat, and the girls also say that you don’t notice the time pass when you’re doing embroidery. Then it’s lunchtime, I take a break and then go back to embroidering. Later my husband comes home, we have dinner, and I embroider some more. At home, I’ve made a little corner where no one will bother me.
Before, it was sometimes hard when I didn’t have enough time to do something or I couldn’t do everything myself, and I had to ask others for help. Now I’m able to do everything myself, and if I don’t have time for something I can ask one of my students.
The most valuable thing about our craft is that everything is made by hand - centuries may pass, but the work doesn’t lose its luster. I meet tourists from all over the world, and a lot of people don't believe that my work is handmade. I even had a disagreement with this foreigner, a woman, and I asked her to come back the next day so that I had my tools with me and I could show her my work. The woman came back, and I explained all the elements to her and sewed a couple of them with my crochet. I remember that then she praised my work and said that you couldn’t distinguish it from something made by a machine. That made me very happy. In fact, people who are unfamiliar with the craft are often suspicious, so now, when I go to exhibitions, I always take a tool with me so that people can make sure that everything is handmade.
I took part in exhibitions and festivals in countries around the world - America, Turkey, Oman, Azerbaijan, India and Kazakhstan. And my products have always won prizes, usually first place.
If I embroider every day, it takes me a month and a half to make one suzani. But still, I’ve gotten faster over the years - when I embroidered my first pillowcase, for example, it took me five days, and now I can do that kind of work in three.
My best sales are made at exhibitions and festivals. I also have my own art shop at the Broadway Center. I tried to offer a wide variety of products, because large suzani are quite expensive, and not everyone can afford one, so for the store I embroider small suzani, tapestries, bags and headbands. For smaller items I sometimes use cotton threads instead of silk, to keep the cost down. It’s important to me that people never leave my store empty-handed.
This material was prepared within the framework of the project "Silk Road Heritage Corridors in Afghanistan, Central Asia and Iran - International Dimension of the European Year of Cultural Heritage", implemented by UNESCO with financial support from the European Union