Steve Price on Silk in Central Asian Textiles

On December 10, 2011, Steve Price

gave a Rug and Textile Appreciation Morning program here at The Textile Museum in Washington, D.C. on the topic “Silk in Central Asian Textiles.”

Tom Goehner, the TM’s Education Curator, introduced Steve,

saying that Steve was a long-time figure in the rug world.  He is most visible, nowadays, as the leading owner-manager of, and technical resource for,, a textile discussion board, now in its 14th year of operation.  Steve has also written for Hali, Oriental Rug Review, and has designed and conducted courses introducing college students to the world of rugs and textiles.  He has presented several “rug mornings” here at the TM.  In real life, Steve Price is a physiologist and professor at  Virginia Commonwealth University in Richmond, Virginia.

Steve said that the published title of his session here had been truncated a bit and that he meant to talk more generally, at least at the beginning, about the use of silk in textiles and some of the reasons why silk is attractive to textile makers.

First, he said, silk signals that its wearer has high social status.  He said that someone wearing this bright, graphic African textile,

was likely a person of some importance, even, perhaps, a member of African royalty.

A quality that reinforces silk’s ability to signal high status is the fact that it is often expensive to produce.

Third, Steve said, silk takes dye better than does either wool or cotton, and does so with a distinctive, often arresting, palette.

Silk has some physical aspects that make it attractive to textile makers.  It has a much higher tensile strength than does wool, for example. 

On the other hand, silk abrades easily, and so is not well-suited to use in textiles that would have heavy floor use.  But this deficiency in silk is used deliberately, sometimes, to enrich pile rugs that are mostly wool.  Initially, silk provides eye-attracting highlights among the wool pile fibers.  But even its more rapid wear through abrasion, can, after a time, be advantageous, since it provides attractive “sculpturing” effects in such a rug. 

The Ottoman rulers signaled their very high status, in seeming defiance of silk’s tendency to abrade, by using sumptuous and delicate silk materials not only for their clothing and pillow coverings, like this velvet yastik

but even for some flat-woven floor coverings.

So, silk has historically gotten the attention of textile makers in many parts of the world.  Steve had brought a few examples that moved beyond Central Asia.

The first of these is one you have already seen a bit above.  Let’s do it properly.


Steve said that this dramatic piece, is Kente cloth, made in Ghana before 1930.

It has been woven in a mixture of silk and cotton.

The person wearing this cloth would get attention in nearly any setting.  Steve said that is was probably worn by a member of African royalty.  Wrapped in it, he would look something like this.

Steve’ next pieces took us to southeast Asia.


This is a Laotian woman’s skirt.  It is woven of silk and cotton and was bought in the market-place.  Pieces bought in the market are frequently accompanied by stories to make them distinctive to prospective buyers.  Steve said that the story given with this one is that it was to be worn by a married Laotian woman on the occasion of her mother-in-law’s funeral.  That’s both a little more elaborate and specific than the stories I’ve heard in such situations.

Here are some detail images of S2.

The third piece was another Laotian skirt.

Like S2, S3 is a silk brocade.  The upper and lower panels of each are plainwoven cotton.

Here are two detail images of S3.

Steve’s next piece took us to Cambodia.


Steve said that this piece of silk ikat was a hip wrapper

and its quality indicative of a wealthy owner.

The next piece was another Cambodian hip wrapper.


Again a long garment in ikat silk.

Steve explained how such garments are put on and worn.

It is taken around the waist from behind, then the long remaining pieces in front are twisted together.  Next, this twisted piece is passed down between the legs and up behind and then tucked into the waist at the back.

When on, a Cambodian hip wrapper looks like this from the front.

A little closer look from the front.

And below is how it looks from the back.

Cambodian hip wrappers are worn by both sexes.  Steve said that in case you ever wondered, the “pantaloon-type”  garment that Yul Brinner wore in the movie “The King and I”

was such a hip wrapper (his vigor while dancing with Deborah Kerr wearing one, provides real evidence of how secure a hiphugger is while worn).

Here is one more detail image of S5.

Steve said that one of the interesting things about the use of silk in Central Asian textiles is that sometimes it is prominent, “in your face,” but in other instances it is extremely subtle, so subtle that sometimes you have to look again for a few silk knots in a Central Asian piece that you know (from having seen them before) has some.  Often we can only conjecture about why a weaver very deliberately placed eight silk knots in a piece that was otherwise mostly wool pile.  She certainly wasn’t showing off with silk.

Steve said that he’d treat the Central Asian pieces with silk that he had brought, starting with those in which the use of silk was prominent and then move to some where the use of silk was on the subtle side.

His first Central Asian piece with silk was a  gold-ground,Turkman chyrpy.


This piece is heavily and dramatically embroidered silk on silk.

Steve explained and demonstrated that chyrpys are worn over the head

with their false sleeved hanging down their back, held together by a short rectangular piece.

Chyrpy ground colors are age-status-specific.  Gold, as I recall, is worn by married women.  Dark-ground chyrpys are worn by single girls and women.  Green-ground ones are worn by older women.  White-ground chyrpkys are honorific, awarded to those, over 60, whom the community designates as  “good mothers.”

Here are some additional detail images of S6.

Steven held it open to show its lining of printed Russian commercial cotton cloth.

In this context, I cannot resist inserting a related piece I didn’t bring to this session, but only because I forgot I had it.

This is an item that I bought a few years ago at one of the best rug community parties I have ever attended.  It was hosted by Paul Ramsey at his Denver shop on the occasion of an ACOR in his town.  I can still taste the lamb.

I bought it on impulse because it was small (it’s “bookmark” size”) and because I liked it.  I didn’t know what it was, showed it around and found that lots of experienced collectors didn’t know either.  But Saul Barodofsky knew instantly that it was a connecting piece that held the false sleeves together on a Turkman chyrpy.

I acknowledge from time to time that I collect “on a budget” and that that impacts the sorts of pieces I can consider.  Steve collects entire chyrpy coats.  This item of mine shows with uncomfortable concreteness what “collecting on a budget” can come to.  🙂

Now we moved to Uzbekistan.


The Uzbeks were clothing dandies.  Such ikat coats (usually silk patterning warps and cotton wefts) were valued.  Steve said that one tale about them is that Uzbek rulers gave them as prizes for a certain number of enemy heads. They usually feature bright colors and strong graphics, as this one does.

Here are some detail images of S7.

A couple of peeks inside.

Notice a different ikat used as facing on the inside edges.

A second Uzbek ikat coat was this one.


The palette is more cheerful, but the graphic dramatics continue.

Again, a little look at the lining and edging.

Still in Uzbekistan, Steve now brought out an embroidered horse cover.


He said that given its fragile character, he suspected that this piece was placed on the horse decoratively when it was not being ridden.

Here are some detail images of S9

There might be a temptation to raise the Lakai – Kungrat distinction but it didn’t come up…yet.

Steve said that the next piece, was one that he and his wife especially value in their collection.


It is a Tajik wedding veil with strong colors and graphics.  It was placed over the bride’s head so that the meshed area

was in front of her eyes.  It is a piece that exemplifies the distinctive palette of dyed silk

Here are some details of this piece.

The large element below that occurs in the border design is interpreted variously and may not be representational.

The next piece was a Turkmen pile bag.


It is one-half of a saddle bag set.  Steve said it has wool, camel hair and silk represented in its pile.

The closure system, of braided interlocking loops,

is typically Turkmen.

Here are some detail images of S11.

The next piece was another Turkmen bag, this time a large, Tekke, mixed technique “ak juval.”


The “ak” indicates that the elem has a “white” ground.  There are also “kizil chuvals” that have red ground elems.

This piece is noteworthy in part because it appeared on the cover of the Oriental Rug Review in a 1993 issue. 

I have scanned this cover because it shows a feature of this piece that Steve treated then and in this TM session. 

He made an argument that he felt that the character and nature of the damage to the closure system on this bag, the closure rope abraded off about a foot short of the right hand side, indicated that it was most likely used to hel something like grain, which could be accessed through an opening about a foot wide.  An opening that size is too narrow for holding clothing or bedding.  The character of the open end is about what would be needed to put in a hand to scoop grain our or to pour from the opening.

The back of this chuval looks like this.

There is a tear on one side, but the plain ivory back is largely unstained, suggesting that it was used to hold dry matter of some sort.

Another sign that this very decorative piece was actually used is that it also has handles on its sides.

When I first saw this piece on the ORR cover, I thought it was one of the most attractive Turkmen pieces I had ever seen, and it looks very good to me still.

It has eight pile strips that alternate with sections of plain weave, plus a pile elem.  The pile areas often have very high knot counts.

The next piece was a similar, smaller one.


Again, pile strips and areas of flat weave alternate.

Here are some detail images of S13.

There are silk hightlights in the elem of this bag.

Next Steve examined the piece pinned on the right side of the front board.


Here is an unencumbered image of it.

This is a Tekke chuval with six “Salor” turreted guls.  Steve noted that early pieces with this gul device tend to have three larger guls of this sort.  The six gul usage suggests an age of about 1850.

Although it is severely worn, now, through abrasion, these guls are heavily done in silk.  Steve said that these guls would have projected a strong, shining opulence.

Here are some detail images of S14.

I can testify to the opulence that the heavy use of silk projects in Turkmen pieces.  I was once invited to attend the close examination of the famous Textile Museum Salor Turkmen trapping (Plate 14 in the Mackie-Thompson catalong Turkmen, 1980).  Here, below, is a detail of this cover piece (I have turned it to provide a larger image).

Here is a single gul on this piece turned back to the horizontal.

The pinkish areas of the gul are of brilliant silk that has not abraded.  This is to my mind the most opulent Turkmen piece I have ever seen.  Even Jon Thompson seemed a bit wowed in his catalog description.  He said in part “…In spite of the plethora of ornament and almost overpowering richness and brilliance of color, the effect of this piece is dramatic and astonishing…”

This is the sort of richness that Steve’s piece once also projected.

On the left side of the board, Steve had pinned this piece.


This is a classic Chodor chuval with “Ertman” guls in its field and an attractive elem.

Here are some detail images of S15.

Steve said that this is a piece in which the silk is hard to see.  There are some silk knots on the lower narrow horizontal borders.

Next were a couple of Baluch pieces, mostly of closely contrasting colors.  The first of these was the khorjin face below.


Steve said that this piece has some widely scattered silk knots in it.

Here are some details of S16.

Sometimes it’s easier to see silk knots on the back of a piece. This is a back corner of S16.

Steve tries to help us see the silk by pointing to another location on its back.

The other of these two Baluch bag faces was this one.


This is a published piece, formerly in the Marvin Amstey collection.  Steve said that one of the interesting things about it is that the “bird” devices in its field all contain exactly the same design components: the only difference is the use of color.  Color uses have contrasts so close that it’s often not possible in these images to make out the details of a particular “bird.”

Steve told the story of how he acquired this piece.  It came up in a auction and he bid for it successfully.  But then looking at it and researching a bit, he saw that it seemed very similar to a piece that appears on page 88 of George O’Bannon’s Vanishing Jewels, 1990  and is indicated there as owned by Marvin AmsteyThis is page 88 below.

Steve contacted Marvin who said no, the piece was not stolen, he had consigned it for auction.  Steve breathed some relief.  He says that it remains one of his favorite pieces in his collection.

Notice the technical description on page 88 indicates that the silk knots in this piece are yellow.

Here are some detail images of S17.

Steve said that there are seven silk knot widely scattered in this piece.  It’s not clear why the weaver used this little bit of silk.  Certainly, not for attention-getting purposes.  This is the sort of piece in which the use of silk is so unobtrusive that you have to go about looking for where it actually is despite having found and examined it before.

My notes say that there are two silk knots on the neck of the bird in the upper left corner.  I can’t see that, but think I do see two yellow bits in the neck of the “bird” outlined in white.

The next piece was a small, square item of Central Asian embroidery.


I think this was described as Uzbek without any attempt to go further with distinctions like Lakai or Kungrat. 

Steve did mention that the Lakai – Kungrat distinction seems to be one about which the indicators have been nearly reversed in recent years (ed. although there is still visible debate among experts about how properly to make it).  There used to be frequent praising of Lakai embroideries for their “wild, nomadic tribal” character and Kungrat embroderies were seemingly a bit denigrated, with descriptions that emphasized their regularities and “urban” character. 

Jeff Spurr, who has studied these embroideries closely and extensively, spoke about them recently at The Textile Museum, saying, in part, that there were “urban” Lakai’s who embroidered.  He also seemed to emphasize the great “precision and “control” demonstrated in Lakai embroideries.  But he also acknowledged that his findings are sometimes in conflict with those of other scholars, such as Kate Fitz Gibbon and Andy Hale.

Here are some details of S18.

The next piece was a small, embroidered Turkmen bag.


Here is its flap side.

Here is its other side.

Central Asian embroideries are sometimes made originally as constructed pieces.  That is, they are composed of pieces sewn together from their inception and are not, necessarily, “cut-down” from larger formats.  This bag may be one such.

Here are an additional detail of S19.

This was described as likely used as a Koran bag.

The next item was another embroidered square, this time attributed to the Kyrgyz.

Notice that the designs used are similar to those in the detail below of the huge Pazaryk felts.

Here are some additional detail images of S20.

The next piece was used to decorate the front edge of a stack of textiles.


The ends at the wide part of this piece were tucked into the stack of textiles at or near the top of a stack and hung down “chevron-like” in the position illustrated above.

Here are some detail images of S21.

A Kungrat attribution was offered.

The next piece was part of an Uzbek suzani that was originally about 5 feet by 8 feet.  Silk embroidery on cotton is most usual.


Suzanis are “urban” pieces and are usually attributed by city of likely manufacture.

Here are some details of S22.

Quality suzanis are still be made in Central Asia today.  Here, below, is an image of just one taken anonymously from a dealer’s site.

This contemporary piece is silk on a silk/cotton ground, and has a Samarkand design.

I have a ten meter length of this kind of contemporary Uzbek embroidery in the rug stack behind me.  I bought it in Istanbul in 2007.  My wife asks me what I’m going to do with it and I think I’ll do the  Uzbeks one better:  some day I’ll have an opulent coat made for myself…not of ikat, but of suzani embroidery.

The next piece is a lovely, small pile weaving attributed to the Karakalpaks.


This is a published piece.  It appears as Plate 29 in Jon Thompson’s volume, Timbuktu to Tibet, published in 2008 on the occasion of the NYC Hajji Baba Club’s 75th anniversary.

A Karakalpak term used to describe similar textiles is esik kas.  This term suggests a use related to the threshold of a felt, trellis tent. 

Thompson’s discussion suggests that this piece could have been place over the door on the inside in a decorative way.  More, fancifully, it might have been hung near the door in a kind of loop on which hats could be placed (it seems way too short for this use).

But Thompson seems to think that its most likely function is like that of the Kyrgyz “chavadan” format.  These were placed, long-side parallel with the floor, to decorate the lower front face of the family’s pile of textiles (the “juk” that faced the door on the far side of the tent).  Chavadans are bags.  Various valuable items were actually stored in them, so a back would be needed. 

This textile is woven complete without a back, so if it was to be used as a bag, a separate piece of fabric would have to be attached, an unusual Central Asian usage.  Bags that have a front and back woven on continuous warps is the nearly unvarying Turkman practice. 

Another feature that presses away from usual Turkman bag characteristics is that the warps are on the long side of this piece.  Most Turkman bags open on the long side with the warps perpendicular with the opening side.  If this piece were used as a bag opening on it long side, its warps would be horizontal.  Only some Turkmen sissor bags have this warp direction.

Chavadans open on the short side.

This piece could have played the decorative purpose of a chavadan without being a bag, but there seems no provision for holding it in place on the lower front side of the juk.  So the use for which this weaving was made seems conjectural.  We are left to enjoy its simple, but considerable aesthetics.  Here are some detail images of S23.

The next piece was constructed from a tent band, but beautifully so.


Bands are difficult to display because of their great lengths in relation to their narrower widths.  One strategy employed is to take a given back and forth (either horizontally or vertically) to form a more compact mass.  Although this is a fragment, probably about half  of the original tentband, that is what has been done in this case.

This piece is a mixed technique Turkman tent band that would have been placed (decoration facing in) inside the felt covering, but outside the roof struts just above the place where the roof struts are joined to the side trellis’.  It would have been about 44 feet long, a great, sumptuous textile indeed.

In many contemporary western homes there is a decorative border placed on the top edge of the walls next to the ceiling.  Below is an item of vintage wall paper border that you could buy in long strips to decorate the top edge of a newly wallpapered or painted wall.

You can see that this border has a width of about 5 or 6 inches.  Well, the Turkmen have done us somewhat better in the matter of top-of-the-wall border decorations.  Theirs are 9 to 16 inches wide and this one (about 12 inches wide)  is hand woven in a complex mixed technique and decorated with silk in some of its middle areas.

The structure of these mixed technique tent bands deserves comment.  The pile areas are tied on alternate raised warps.  This structure leaves almost no patterning on the back.  Josephine Powell and Marla Mallett believe that Turkmen mixed technique tent bands like this were likely woven by specialists because of this distinctive structure.  Full-pile tent bands of this sort that seem more opulent are easier to make because they are analogous to “long, narrow rugs,” but the weaving of mixed technique tent bands is a distinctive and likely more difficult undertaking.

Here are a few more detail images of this nice piece to enjoy.

The next piece was a small Tekke Turkman pile rug.


This piece is about as long as the so-called “wedding-rugs” but is narrower and has only two rows of guls.  (Mogul Andrews observed a wedding rug being woven by a Turkmen bride-to-be, but says we can’t identify which rugs were actual wedding rugs by distinctive features).

Another distinctive feature is that it has elems with entirely different designs.

There is silk pile in some of the triangles used in the central instrumentation of the guls.  I think I see some silk in some of the minor ornaments as well.

It seems to me that the silk pile in this piece WAS put in to enrich it, visually.  It was meant to be noticed.  Here are some more detail images of this interesting and unusual rug.

The next piece is one to make you cry.


This is about one quarter of a Middle Amu Darya chuval in which the weaver used quite a lot of silk and in ways designed to attract attention.  The tears, of course, are for: “Who dared to cut up the original?  and what happened to the rest of it?”

In addition to the opulent silk, the wool of this piece is of a very high quality.  It sits on the back of my chair as I write and I get to look at it close-up and feel its wool every day.

Here are some more detail images of S26.

Sometimes you can see the use of silk better on the back.

The next piece was a Uzbek ikat fragment.


Its owner said that it suggested that there were sometimes still things looking at at the Georgetown Flea Market.  It is silk on cotton.

Here are a couple of detail images.

The next piece embarrasses a bit because it’s been seen with fair frequently, but it seemed important to bring it to a session with a silk in Central Asian textiles focus.


This is a fragment from a very delicate, silk ikat Uzbek garment.  It’s ikat fabric is so thin that placing it on a black backing washed out its designs.  A red background was needed.

I brought it again because Eleana Tsareva has said on occasions long separated in time, that this is oldest piece of Central Asian ikat she has seen.

It is silk with dark blue cotton wefts (most Uzbek ikats have red wefts) and that may signal a distinctive group.

The last piece of the day was a Tekke Turkman rug.


Here are some detail images of S29.

The ending elem was a little unusual.

And a peek at its back.

It was estimated as likely woven in the 1930s.  Its owner brought it because he thought its warps, especially, looked “silky” to him.  Examination indicated that the warps are wool.

Steve answered questions,

and brought his session to close.

The audience moved toward the textiles.

I want to thank Steve Price for permitting a virtual version of his interesting RTAM program.  Thanks to him too for his editing assistance after.  Ruth McDiarmid took a good set of notes for me.

I hope you enjoyed this look at some “silky” Central Asian textiles.


R. John Howe

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