Archive for June, 2016

Russian Printed Textiles: R. John Howe

Posted in Uncategorized on June 7, 2016 by rjohn

On  February 27, 2016, John Howe, that’s me, gave a Rug and Textile Appreciation Morning program on Russian printed textiles.



Note:  You can click two or three times on most images in this post to get a larger version.  This will be necessary, sometimes, for readability.



The recent Textile Museum exhibition “Old Patterns; New Order,” was tightly focused. 



It treated paintings and drawings from the era of Soviet Realism and related them to patterns in Central Asian textiles, mostly, from the 19th century.



This focus is the result of collaboration between The Textile Museum and The George Washington University’s Central Asian Program.

When I first walked through this exhibition I noticed that a large group of Russian textiles, those that are printed, was explicitly excluded. There were several Central Asian coats, lined with Russian printed cottons, but the coats were firmly closed-up to ensure the Russian printed linings were not seen. 

The image below, from another source, indicates what these Central Asian coats look like if their linings are permitted to show.



Courtesy Susan Meller

The left and right coats in the slide, above, are presented with the ikat side out.  But there are glimpses of the Russian printed cottons used to line and edge them.  The coat in the center has been turned inside out so that you can see the extensive use of Russian cotton prints to line it.

This suggested that it might be useful to have an RTAM program that acknowledges, Russian printed textiles, as an important Russian textile group, and that explores them a bit.

Slide3 *

And that is our focus here. 

I do not pretend to know anything about Russian printed textiles, but I’m a kind of aging “graduate student,” with a reasonable English-language textile library, and I can research, excusably, many textile subjects.  And I buy things when I need them. 

Above are the covers of some of the sources I’ve drawn on.



A Russian printed textile industry has existed since at least the days of Peter the Great.  Peter encouraged the manufacture of canvas (for his navy) and linen and wool mills.   Textile mills grew up in St. Petersburg, Moscow, and the village of Ivanova, about 165 miles to the northeast.  



Russian printed textile production was interrupted by Napoleon’s invasion, in 1812, and the burning of Moscow (textile factories in Ivanova were spared).



The steam engine, machine spinning, power looms and the mechanical cotton gin, had all appeared in the world in the late 18th century.  They came a little later to Russia but they came.

The prerequisites of “factories” were: machines used in social cooperation with a division of labor.  There are BC traces of factory-like forms, and a Roman mill in 550 AD seems to qualify, but factories also really arose in the 18th century.  A first instance, was an English, water-powered, silk mill.

In the last half of the 19th century.  The Russian textile industry revived with vigor as an aspect of the general surge of invention and industrialization.  Russian textile mills were built by wealthy Russian and English industrialists, using, mostly, English machinery.



This is a late 19th century photo of Ivanova, often described as a “little Manchester.”  (Manchester, most will know, was the center of England’s textile industry.)



Russian serfdom was abolished in 1860, and, although the plight of the “freed” serfs was, usually, not economically bettered, for years, the fact that about 80% of Russians had been serfs did, potentially, create a vast market for inexpensive textiles.  Russian printed textiles filled that bill.  Between 1870 and 1880 printed shawls (cotton and wool) made their appearance in Russian villages.



The Central Asians could afford and showed a real hunger for the colorful, inexpensive, printed, Russian textiles.   On the left, above, is an ikat coat lined with an elaborate, colorful Russian printed cotton.  The detail on the right lets you see this lining fabric close up.

Mills, mostly in Moscow, and nearby Ivanova, were busy.

Let’s tick off what seems to be known about some basic aspects of Russian printed textiles.



I’m not going talk much about the ground fabrics on which Russian printed textiles were printed.  

However, we should note that flax was grown in many parts of Russia (so linen was widely available).  Russia was an exporter of flax in the 19th century.  Early Russian printed fabrics, often, had a linen base.

Cotton is different.  Cotton was grown in Uzbekistan and Azerbaijan, and some was imported from Iran, but a great deal of cotton that was imported to Russia came from England (Russian mill owners preferred its longer fibers).  And a lot of the cotton that England had to sell in the first half of the 19th century was grown and harvested in slave-based conditions in the U.S.  So there is, likely, a clear connection between Russian cotton printed fabrics, before the U.S. Civil War, and slavery in the U.S., during this period.

This U.S.-sourced imported cotton was lost to Russia during the U.S Civil War, although, some British cotton from India was available.  In the last part of the 19th century, a concerted effort was made to expand domestic Russian cotton production in the “stans” and Azerbaijan, using U.S. seed and U.S. and British machinery.



The area in “Russia” in which cotton is grown is north of that where cotton is grown in other countries.  For example, the most southern cotton-producing areas in the Soviet Union are on about the same latitude as Fresno, California and the northern boundaries of Arkansas and North Carolina.  Special strains of cotton were produced to permit growth and maturation in the shorter growing season.



          What kinds of “dyes” are used?

  • Literature seems cagey on this point. The word “dyes” is not used often, but not entirely avoided.  And references are made to “mordants” and “synthetic dyes.”  But, more frequently, one sees references to “colors,” “pigments,” even “inks.”  There is reference to “oil colors” and even “boiled oil colors” (linseed oil can be combined with dyes with good effects).
  • Getting dyes to adhere to cotton is notoriously difficult and linen is even worse. Since, many of these printed cottons and linens were worn outside and washed frequently, perhaps the Russians identified mordants, early, that produced colors on cotton and linen that were pretty water and light fast. There is some reference to “synthetic dyes,” but no complaints about the latter fading in light or running when washed (although some faux ikat coats do look faded in color photos). 



Screen printed (a stenciling type of screen printing appeared in China in between the middle of the 10th and the late 13th centuries.  But screen printing was apparently not introduced into Europe from Asia until sometime in the late 18th century, and was not used commercially in Europe until the early 20th century.  Because flat-bed screen printing is so simple, and because silk was available in Russia, it seems likely that there were instances of Russian “hand printing” that were screen printing rather than block printing.  I just didn’t find any.

  *Slide14 *

Block printing of textiles is very old, but its actual beginnings are conjectural.

This is a carved wooden block used in hand block printing.

 Block printing of a textile entails putting a coloring agent on a wooden block with a design carved into it, and then stamping the block onto a ground cloth, usually not patterned.  Early Russian block printing was of a single color on a fabric of a different one.


 Here are some printing blocks and a line of block printers.  Each block has one “repeat” of a given pattern carved into it.  The block printer stamps the block onto the ground cloth, then carefully moves the block to a new adjoining position that, when stamped, creates a continuation of the pattern.


Slide16 *

Above is an Indian rather than a Russia photo of block printing, but it gives you a concrete image of how it proceeds.

Here are some examples of Russian block printed fabrics.




Here are a few older Russian printed fabric examples, mostly without comment, beyond what’s on the slides.





Above is part of a hand block printed curtain.  17th century.  Stripes seem similar to Uzbek ikat designs indicated in the colored detail.



Above is a Russian cotton hand block printed fabric done in Ivanova in the 18th century.

Below are a few more 18th and 19th century block printed fabrics, again, mostly without comment beyond what’s on the slide.




The two Russian block printed kerchiefs, above and below, are “tourist” textiles, but are in a Russian museum because they are before 1850, rare, and in perfect condition.


Slide25 *



Block textile printing was mechanized early.  The most prominent development was the invention of the “Perrotine” block printing machine in 1834.



Above is a Perrotine machine that could print fabric using longer blocks and mechanical indexing.

And below are two detail sections from a continuous “Perrotine” printing block with a pattern carved or cast onto it in relief.  The complete block was 3 feet long and 5 inches wide.

The cloth being printed passes (mechanically controlled) beneath the block, it is printed and then indexes to the next position (the height of the block) and the next area is printed to produce a continuous pattern.

Perrotine block printing had two major advantage over hand-block printing.  First, the longer length of the block (3 feet) increase productivity two and a half times.  Equally important, the precise mechanical indexing of the machine, to move the cloth to an adjoining area to produce a continuing pattern, permitted a degree of precision practically impossible in hand block printing.




Perrotine block printing had some disadvantages compared with hand block printing.  The printing blocks could be 3 feet long, but only a maximum of five inches wide.  And it could only produce a three color pattern (some sources say a few more).  Hand block printing can cope with a pattern of almost any scale and any number of colors.

Susan Meller, one of my important literature sources, labels some Russian printed textiles “machine printed” and others “roller printed.”  Her “machine printed” usage refers to block printing done with a Perrotine-type machine.

Next is “roller” textile printing.




Roller printing was invented late in the 18th century. 

Early models could print six colors, one after another.  Without attempting to explain roller printing in detail, the equivalent of a full repeat of a pattern was placed on a roller.  Each complete revolution of a roller printed a full repeat onto the ground fabric.  A primary advantage of roller printing was productivity.  A single color machine could print 10,000 to 12,000 yards in a single ten-hour day.  This increased productivity made printed cotton textiles much less expensive and so affordable by nearly all levels of Russian society.

Here is a more detailed listing of the roller printing process.  I’ll just let you read through it.

Click on it two or three times to get a more readable image.



The term “Back Grey,” in the third step from the bottom, may require a little explanation:

“Back Grey” is the name given to a fabric that runs behind the cloth being printed, in order to pick-up any pigment that has seeped through the actual printed cloth.

It is usually washed-out each time it is used and the resultant coloration is a muddy-grey — hence the term:  BACK GREY.



And here is an example of a 19th century Russian roller printed cotton.

As I’ve said, Russian screen printed textiles were likely because, once silk was available, it was so simple.  But I haven’t found any.

How are/were Russian printed textiles used?  The slide below lists various Russian printed textile uses.



One published title of this session talks about Russian printed “trade” cloth, and most of what we’ll deal with was likely that.  But, the literature indicates that some of the earliest uses of Russian printed textiles were distinctive (more about that shortly). 



Printed textiles were, as you’d expect, used to make and line clothes.



The Uzbeks used Russian printed cottons to line their sumptuous ikat coats.  One reason that they did this was aesthetic.  The Uzbeks were “dandies” and gloried in rich colors and designs.  One author said that, for Uzbeks, more was often not enough.

The complex patterns and rich colors were also seen to be protective.  They distracted evil forces and kept them from harming the wearer.



This is a famous photo of a textile merchant wearing a quilted coat made of Russian printed cotton.  It is likely that most of his wares are also Russian printed cotton.



This is a boy wearing the same kind of coat.  We can see both its outside and inside material both of which are Russian printed cotton.



Printed textiles were used as shawls,



And widely used as scarves and kerchiefs.



As tablecloths



Another early use, we’ve also seen above, was as curtains, either liturgical or for the home.



Russian printed cottons were also used for furniture upholstery.



And here are three table mats or runners made, in part, with Russian block printed material.



Slide45 *


One early use was as altar cloths.


Slide47 *

As we have already seen, above, printed cottons were also used in religious vestments.



Here are two more details of vestment of printed cotton.


Slide49 *

Russian printed cloth was also used by Central Asians to line or back various non-clothing textile formats. 

Above are two book bags lined with Russian printed cotton.



The wool pile Yomut saddle cover in the lower right of this slide is entirely backed with a Russian printed cotton.


Slide51 *

This is a Kyrgyz wall hanging, embroidered on the front and backed with a Russian cotton printed material.



Here is a small embroidered “Ersari” Turkman bag with a printed cotton back.

Now let’s look a bit a what the origins of the designs used in Russian printed textiles are.



* Slide54*

(Click thee times on the slide above and several that follow to get readable size images.)

Many scholars think that printed textiles and block-printed textiles originated in India around 3,000 BC, although no textiles or blocks have survived.  Figure 1, above, the earliest printed textile known, is from Egypt in the 4th century AD.  The earliest European example is from a tomb (502 to 543 AD) and is suspected to have originated in Egypt.



Above is evidence of the Indian creation and use of printed translucent muslims in the early 18th century.



And here is a late 18th century Indian screen with printed and painted cloth patterns.



And a late 18th century Indian cotton square printed and painted, that looks a lot like patterns used in Russian printed textiles.

Russian printed textile designs seem, before 1917, to have originated, importantly in India, modulated by a stop in France. Commercial relations between Asia and Europe intensified throughout the 17th Century, and it was due to the foresight of the Portuguese merchants (some say also the Dutch) that the Indian calico prints were imported into a Europe, hungry for an alternative to the heavy silks and woolens, or the rough linens of the times. These imports were a success and the merchant traders, such as those of the “East India Company,” flourished.

The rich, decorative designs of Indian origin were often elaborated, even totally changed to suit the particular wishes of European clients. This was a deliberate marketing strategy put into action by the East India Company that gives well-defined, general instructions for the creation of decorative designs adapted to the European market. Stylized flowers in two dimensions, undulating stems, natural or imaginary geometric plant designs. All these elements create an ornamental botany with a lot of graphic elegance, and a real balance of color use.

Reading the literature, one gets the sense that there were no indigenous Russian textiles design and that everything is borrowed.  The authors of the book on Ivanova printed textiles acknowledge the borrowing but say that, because a great deal of Russian printed textiles were made for the peasantry, designs sourced in Russian folk art were extensively employed. 



The oldest Russian geometric ornaments – spots, diamonds, circles and squares persisted through the 19th century into the beginning of the 20th



There are lots of small repeats, articulated spots, if you will, in Russian printed textile designs.




With a lot of the textiles we collect, attribution is difficult.  We may know the country or geographic area where a given textile was made.  We sometimes cite city names in our attributions (e.g. we often say that something was woven in the Konya area (an estimate that is often used to refer to a very large area).  We often think we know what “tribe” wove something.  And in a few cases we claim to know the name of the weaver or that of his workshop (e.g. that a given Kashan pile rug was woven by the great Mohtashem).  But often we are driven back to saying “western Anatolia,” “northeast Iran,” or “Turkman.  And we are sometimes absolutely guessing about a textile’s age.

The literature on Russian printed textiles is much more aggressive about attribution. Some of this is, simply, because they are often closer to us in time than are some of the other textiles we collect. 

Some books are organized by factory within town (Ivanova) and give dates as precise as 1863. Another book gives city, factory and the designer’s name. 

Look at the image above.  How often do we have, not just the town, factory and close approximate time when a textile was created, but also the name of its designer and her photo?

 Some have suggested that because the information we have about the Russian printed cottons used for the linings or backings of Central Asian piece is often more detailed, it is a more accurate guide to the age of the basic piece than is the fabric of the piece itself.  That may well be the case in some instances, but it’s dangerous to use as an indicator something that was inserted separately and could be again at any time.



Here is an example.   It’s a Lakai embroidered piece of a particular sort.  It is what is called a “constructed” textile, that it is composed of pieces of textiles of a different format. 



The original shape of the Lakai textile was likely like the much older one above.



Armed with this information, you can see (looking closely) that two parts of a square, early 20th century, textile were taken apart and combined in a longer, narrow format.  Then a set of borders, estimated to about 1950, was added.



The entire back of this constructed piece is covered with two pieces of a Russian printed cotton with the same design.

Now let us go back to the notion that the Russian cotton backing is a better indicator of the age of this piece than is the field of its front.  Since this piece is entirely composed, how do we know that this back (even if it turns out to be old) is a better indicator of age than is the look of the embroidered field front?  It could have come from an entirely different textile. 

You can see that this argument can be applied to any textile that has been either lined or backed with printed Russian cloth. 

So the age of the Russian printed cotton in a textile might be used in a cautious, tentative way, to date a Central Asian piece, for which it seems to have been used originally to as a lining or backing, but you likely need to be looking closely for signs of recent sewing.



Who used Russian printed textiles?

The literature emphasizes that Russian printed textiles were heavily used in Central Asia, and this is true.  But Russian printed cottons were used far more widely in “Russia” than that.

Some examples (some of these are older and dated, but some could be re-enactments of traditional costume).



These three girls, in the image above, are from far northwest Russia, west of St. Petersburg.

All the scarves are Russian printed textiles and some of the skirts also likely are.



This lady in Siberia from a distinctive ethnic group has a printed kerchief and a faux ikat dress.



Here we’re in Moscow.  This lady’s scarf is a Russian printed textile although most of the balance of her costume is embroidered or brocaded.



Dagestan is in the northern Caucasus.  The lady in the front row, on the right, is wearing a dress of Russian printed cotton.



These ladies are from the Russian arctic north.  Archangel.  Their dresses and kerchief seem mostly of printed textiles.  (This could be a re-enactment, but the clothes are traditional.)



This family is on the Moghan steppe in the southern Caucasus.  Lots of printed textiles being used.



And back to Uzbekistan.

As I have said, the literature shows that Central Asians were particular fans of Russian printed cottons.  This was likely, in part, because Uzbekistan, was one of the cotton-producing areas, relatively close to Russia, that was a major contributor to cotton needs of the Russian textile industry.

Let’s note, just for a second, how the literature on Russian printed textiles is organized.  The primary division is between those produced before the 1917 revolution and those made after it. 



There is not much treatment I found of Russian printed textiles since the end of the U.S.S.R., in 1991 (in fact, as I will say again, not much after the mid-1930s).

The most prominent book on Russian printed textiles, is by Susan Meller, who focuses on those used in Central Asia.  Her book is organized into these seven sections based on design differences.



(Click the image above for a larger version.)

Let’s take a look at a sample, or so, from each.



Her first section is on paisley designs.  These designs are seen to originate in Kashmir shawls, perhaps, passed through France.



There are a lot of paisleys.



Second she presents “Pre-Revolutionary Floral”



More “Pre-Revolutionary Floral” examples.  There are probably more “plant and blossom” designs used in Russian printed textiles than any other.



Meller sees her third category of Russian, printed, textile designs as examples of “Art Nouveau,” a style of art, architecture, and applied arts, especially the decorative arts, that traveled from Europe and England.  The pattern of this lining fabric is used as the cover of Meller’s book.



This second Art Nouveau example is a departure.  It was likely made just before or just after the 1917 revolution.  It hints at “Suprematism,” an avant-garde Russian style, we will talk about more, that had some limited influence onRussian textile design in the first years of the 20th century.



Meller calls this “Post-Revolutionary Floral.” Although, as we shall see, the Bolsheviks heavily impacted Russian printed textile design, there were still, often, a lot of floral designs in the Soviet era.  People, apparently, liked flowers.



Another Post-Revolutionary Floral example.  Note the color palette, without a more usual red.



One more Post-Revolutionary Floral example.



Meller’s next category is “Post-Revolutionary Modern.”



This is a propagandist design.  We’ll see more of these.



This is another Meller category: “Outside Influences.”  She sees the vertical stripes as similar to the designs in Persian shawls, but finds the horizontal devices puzzling.  I wondered whether this might be an instance of propagandistic design.  I think that the horizontal devices might be sheaves of wheat that do appear in a number of Soviet period textile designs.



Meller calls her last category “Stripes and Chits.”  This is, obviously a collection of stripe designs.



 “Chits” is a term used to describe block-printed textiles made in Central Asia usually on hand-woven material.  One reviewer of my planned presentation wondered whether “chits” could be related to the term “chintz.”  I looked about and think not.  It is true that one of the general usages of “chintz” is to refer to textiles that are perhaps pretentious, but of low quality, as in “She had new curtains, but they were “chintzy” as can be. Poor lady.”  I think “chit” most likely has the meaning I suggested, initially, above.

The lining of this coat is a one or two-color chit.  One expert on Indian textiles said that the design of this chit lining has a definite Indian flavor.  It also resembles both the design on the oldest printed textile known and some Russian folk art usages, shown in the detail images.



This is another chit with a complex, multicolor design.  Again, my Indian expert said that the balance and proportions of the designs of this piece are very Indian.

Now let’s move to Russian printed textiles produced in a given location: Ivanova.



I found one book that seems devoted entirely to Russian printed textiles made in Ivanova and its surrounding villages.  The designs are, with one 20th century exception, from the 18th and 19th centuries.    Russian textile designs in the pre-1917 revolution era seem mostly to have come from Europe, Paris in particular.  Russian mill owners haunted Paris for looking for new designs. 

The text in this Ivanova book is entirely in Russian, but there is an English-language set of captions that lets me use it.  It demonstrates how robust the manufacture of Russian printed textiles was before the Soviet revolution.

These captions indicate the town, the manufacturer, often very precise dates, and sometimes the name of the designer.

I’m going to click through most of these examples without comment beyond what is on the slide.












The design above seems likely an instance of Supermatism, something we will talk about shortly.




The above piece has a quite modern look for something done in the 19th century.




Now, let’s move to treat printed textiles of the Soviet era. 



There are some perquisites.



First, there were two art movements that affected textile design, just prior to, and then after, the 1917 Revolution.

“Supermatism,” moved sharply away from art based on objective reality.  Expression of feeling was celebrated.  Lots of squares and circles in these designs.  Part of its thesis was that art should not serve the state.  So, it opposed “thematic and propagandist” art.

“Constructivism” celebrated the industrial world.  Saw itself as modern.  Was compatible with thematic and propagandist art and many constructivist artists saw real opportunity in the “new society” envisioned by the Bolsheviks.

While opposed in theory, the products of Supermatism and Constructivism,as you can see above, often look similar.

Now let’s insert a little history.



Textile workers were active in prerevolutionary labor strife because textile mills, world-wide, were places where workers were exploited and abused.

The first workers’ councils (called “soviets”) were formed in Ivanova and St. Petersberg, both, then, important in the Russian textile industry.

The years immediately after 1917 were marked by civil war, loss of raw material and fuel sources, and a need for hard currency.  The Russian textile industry withered.

Shortly after the Revolution, Lenin issued a “Plan of Monumental Propaganda.” 


It was not explicit, and seemed particularly interested in abolishing architecture that celebrated pre-revolutionary values (see the image at the bottom of the “Historical Framework” slide above.  That is a wall erected to hide features of a building seen as objectionable in a Soviet society). 

But Lenin’s “Plan” had implications for art, design and textile design in particular.  Some “constructivist” textile designers enthusiastically set about creating textile designs emblematic and celebratory of the values of the new Soviet society.


Liubov Popova Textile Design c.1924
Liubov Popova
Textile Design c.1924
Pencil and ink on paper
234 x 191 mm


There were debates about what textile designs were appropriate for the new Soviet society.  For a while fabrics without any designs was produced simply because the need for them could not wait for these debates to be settled.


Coat of arms of the Soviet Union.svg


The U.S.S.R. was formed in 1922, one feature of which was that it took the cotton fields of both Azerbaijan and Uzbekistan into the new state.

In 1922 the All-Union Textile Syndicate was created.  It controlled all aspects of textile production.  The syndicate’s Artistic Advisory Council approved or declined textile designs submitted to it.

The influence of the Supermatism art movement did not last long, since it was opposed to the use of art by the state.  The constructivists had more impact on textile design, but both of these art movements were avant-garde and elitist, disconnected from public tastes.

Those influential in the world of Soviet textile design debated, but those favoring “thematic” textile designs won in the short term. 


1920-30s Shawl*

While there were still often lots of flowers in textile designs, there was an era beginning in the 1920s and continuing to the end of 1933, when thematic and propagandistic designs were dominant in textiles printed in the U.S.S.R

Major textile themes were not mandated by the Soviet government, but the textile design artists devised them in response to major government initiatives being planned and enacted…and the related propaganda. Major “themes” employed were industrialization, transportation, electrification, youth, literacy for all, (notice that this had a sanguine effect on women) agriculture, collectivization, and sports and hobbies.

The “thematic” era of Soviet textile design was emphatically ended in late 1933 by the Soviet equivalent of the U.S. president’s cabinet.  The debates about what textile designs were ideologically appropriate interfered unduly with the actual production and distribution of badly needed clothing.  A great many thematic designs were never manufactured.  Moreover, citizens, generally, refused to buy or wear textiles with these thematic designs.

While it is obvious that Russian mills have been producing textiles ever since the death of the Soviet thematic requirements, the literature I’ve found does not treat Russian printed textiles of this later period.  I also found nothing on Russian textile design after the collapse of the U.S.S.R. in 1991.



But, above, is a new textile mill in Tajikistan that opened in 2011.

Instead, the literature is focused sharply on the Soviet thematic and propagandist designs produced between the 1920s and early 1930s.  For that reason, my treatment of post-revolutionary Russian printed textiles will deal only with such designs produced during this period.



There was, in the 50s, as I was growing up, lots of sneering, in the U.S., about Soviet movies, in which the hero was more in love with his tractor than with his girl.  Similarly, most guardians of aesthetic quality have looked down on the Soviet printed textile designs as beneath aesthetic consideration.



You get a sense that Meller was “holding her nose” a bit as she included the propagandist design above in her book.



Despite the briefness of the thematic era of Soviet textiles design, and its failure to achieve its propagandist objectives, I found three books that treat Soviet textile designs from the thematic era seriously.

Let me show you a few examples.  One reviewer said that a number of the following designs seem uniquely Russian, and, of course, that was what Soviet designers were attempting.  Not just “Russian designs, but Soviet Russian designs.  They did not want to draw on the traditional, even traditional Russian sources.



You’ve seen the pattern above, but I find it attractive, even if the artist was only assigned the task of glorifying gears.



I, also, rather like this “marine” theme abstracted design.



The message aspect of this design is too strong for my taste, but the use of the colors chosen on a white ground is graphically effective.



The sickles, in the textile pattern above, are inserted cleverly, even discreetly.  But, for me, the message overwhelms the aesthetics of the design.



This is also, emphatically the case, with this pattern, despite an attractive use of strong contrasting colors and effective contrast in the size of its graphic elements.



The “railroad” design, above, does not preach and the colors are attractive and effective.



A very explicit theme is softened through abstraction.  The green-white contrast is effective as is the differing size of the various design elements.



A very bald theme of “smoke stacks, hammers and gears,” is nicely abstracted and treated with pleasant colors.  Items of very different scales in nature are brought to a similar one that produces a nicely balanced design.



“Steam Engine” seems a pretty humble theme, but the simple abstraction works to let us enjoy the pleasant color choices (despite the fact that the engine is recognizable).



With this design we’re over a line, and, for me, the theme drowns out the aesthetics.



Above, is an ultimate case, in which, the desire to glorify the Soviet military, overwhelms everything else, despite the choice of attractive colors.



We may still be too close historically to make balanced assessments of the merits of thematic Soviet textile designs.  (Some scholars and museums ARE treating them seriously.)  

There may be no way yet, for most of us, to save Soviet printed textile designs, produced during the thematic era, from the accusation that they are, often, at best, aesthetically “pedestrian.”

But I think it is harder not to admire some aspects of the broader universe of Russian printed textiles.

The Uzbeks, who made what are usually judged to be rich, beautiful, and sometimes absolutely, glorious ikat and suzani fabrics, liked Russian printed textiles a lot.  They lined these much more expensive textiles with them and seemed to experience neither competition nor denigration.

Until the day before I gave it, this was the end of my presentation.

I’ve said a couple times, here, that I looked for material on contemporary Russian printed fabrics and didn’t really find any.

But, my friend, Melissa Keshishian did. 



It was an article on contemporary Russian printed fabrics from a New York Times insert: Style.  With the key words in it, I looked around a little and here’s just a taste of what is likely about.



This is a textile designer, Olya Thompson, born in Russia, who, with some associates, is producing a lot of Russian-inspired printed fabrics.  The cover on the sofa in this picture is based on a Russian constructivist design.

Click three times for a larger image.

Here are three more examples.






Click three times on the image above.

The photo. above, takes us full circle, with Soviet Realism paintings and drawings on the wall.

My sources list, at the end of this post, gives you a few links on this designer and this material.

Now, let’s look at the material brought into this session.

I had borrowed a number of pieces with Russian printed cottons and had staged them on three tables.  They looked like this.




I’ll try to take you through them one at a time.

We began with three items pinned to the front board.



We’ve treated the reconstructed Lakai piece on the left in some detail in my lecture, so we won’t repeat that.

One of the difficulties I had preparing for this session is that I had not found anyone who collected Russian printed textiles.  Susan Meller sympathized with me, saying “there are not very many of us.” 

Although I had borrowed a number of coats and other Central Asian textiles, I had not found a single Russian printed textile by itself.

As it happened, Susan Meller, was selling some of her things on the internet and I ran into the piece, in the middle above, and bought it. 



It seemed an unlikely lining for a Central Asian coat because it is full of clock and chandeliers.  Very European looking.   When I suggested this to Ms. Mellers, she immediately sent me the image you see, full size, below.



She said that this is a Central Asian woman’s coat, a “paranjas,” with an almost identical Russian, printed, cotton design used as its lining.  She dates it to about 1900.

Here, below, is the back. (Notice the exceptionally long false sleeves.  It was worn over the head.)



The next piece was an item of contemporary Uzbek embroidery.  Silk with Memling guls.  It has three kinds of Russian printed cottons as backing.




The next piece was an Uzbek ikat coat.




 Here are glimpses of its cotton printed lining.



Next, four smaller formats and a coat on the board.  The smaller pieces were Uzbek silk embroidered bags or hangings.



Here is the small piece on the left.



Its backing seems to be a small piece of ikat.

Second from the left was this one with a printed cotton back.



Third from the left. A small corner of printed cotton backing.



Fourth from the left was this one.  Again, a cheerful Russian printed cotton backing.



The next piece was an ikat panel, not a coat.  An orange-tan, checkered, printed backing.




Color differences are due to different cameras.


Next was this ikat coat with a red-ground, “printed” lining.  (I don’t have a clear image of this lining but it looks like it could be woven.  We did encounter woven material used as lining in some of these pieces.)




A slightly fuzzy shot of another ikat coat (better details below).


photo a*

Note that the right half of this coat has been turned inside out to show the lining usages fully.




Another detail of the coat above.



Next, another ikat coat.




Next was a mild-colored suzani with a bright blue-ground print backing.


photo 5d*

Color differences are from different cameras.

Details of the piece above.






Next, was a Turkman coat with a striped outside, but a printed textile lining.




The usual striped red-ground edging on the inside of this coat was woven, not printed.

Next, was another ikat, shown only in detail.



Its back is a plain-colored material.



But printed cottons were still used as edge bindings.



Next, was another ikat coat.



Three different printed fabrics used to line it.



(color differences due to different cameras)


Next was an ikat panel.




Next, a coat with a light colored, striped outside, a light-colored printed lining but, then, with dramatic ikat inside edging.


photo 6da*

You can just see the striped outside fabric on the right side of the first of the following two details.



Notice the blue and yellow binding tape.



Next was another ikat coat.




Next, a Turkman hat.  Metal at the top, with lots of tassels, but printed fabrics are used underneath the metal in the crown.



I asked Bob Emry, whose piece this is, to explain.



Another comprehensive view of it.



And here is it’s interesting, pieced backing.



With the next piece we moved back to coats.  This time a Tekke Turkmen, with a dark outside fabric embroidered around the collar and down the front.  Also on the sleeves.  Russian printed cotton lining.





And, a woven striped inside coat edging.



This striped inside edging was also woven rather than printed.

Next, another ikat coat.





One last coat.



The last piece of the day was an applique, Uzbek hanging that resembles a piece in the related TM exhibition.



Here is the more complex “Old Patterns; New order” piece.

Textile Museum

Roberts Collection / Textile Museum / Renee Comet


Back to the brought in piece.  As usual, it has a printed fabric backing.




I brought my session to a close.




I want to thank David Zahirpour, Melissa Keshishian and Bob Emry for loaning the bulk of the pieces shown in the room. 

Thanks, also to Karthika Audinet, Sumru Krody and, my wife, Jo Ann, each of whom suffered through pilot tests of my illustrated lecture, at various points in its development, and made useful suggestions.

Tom Goehner, Karthika Audinet and Aija Blitte took photos during the session and shared them with me.

Amy Rispin took another good set of notes.

I hope you have enjoyed my little exploration of Russian printed textiles.


R. John Howe


Russian Printed Textiles

February 27, 2016


Kachurin, Pamela Jill, Soviet Textiles: Designing the Modern Utopia, Boston: MFA Publications, 2015.

Lidya Zalentova, Atti; Fabio Ciofi degli; Panzini, Frano, and others., Costume Revolution: Textiles, Clothing and Costume of the Soviet Union in the Twenties, translated by Elizabeth Dafinone, London: Trefoil Publications, 1989.

Meller, Susan, Russian Textiles: Printed Cloth for the Bazaars of Central Asia, New York: Abrams, 2007.

Meller, Susan, “The Russian Connection: Printed Cotton Export Cloth,” in Krody, Sumru Belger, Colors of the Oasis, Washington, DC, The Textile Museum, 2010.

(Compiled and introduced by Nina Asharina), Russian Decorative Art: 12th to the Early 20th Century, The Historical Museum, Moscow, Aurora Art Publishers, Leningrad, 1987.

Sobolev, N., Printed Textiles in Russia, with Illustrations, Moscow: 1912.

Yasinskaya, I., Soviet Design of the Revolutionary Period, London: Thames and Hudson, 1983.

 (No author indicated) “Ivanova, Print Textiles: 18th to Early 20th Centuries,” Leningrad: Khudozhnik RSFAR, 1983


Horace G. Porter and other team members, Cotton Production in the Soviet Union: Reports of a U.S. Team, Reprints from the Collection of the University of Michigan Collection, Reports on the period 1960 through 1972.


Printed textiles, general:  (prints red but works)

Russian printed textiles, general:  (use advanced search “Russia”) – three table decoration textiles (Actually not just printed fabrics; reproductions of traditional dress) In Russian (a site similar to the one above)

Soviet era printed textiles:

Post-Soviet era printed textiles:

Seeming contemporary Russian textiles:

Cotton Mill Design and Operation – General

How Russian Textile Mills Came to Be:

Indian Printed Textiles:

More Contemporary Russian Printed Fabrics

How It’s Done: Roller Printing

Fun At the End

In 2007, in Istanbul, I bought a piece of contemporary hand-embroidered suzani material done on a silk and cotton ground. 

Although it was not the usual application, I thought I might have it made into a kind of Central Asian type coat. 

Last December, I found a seamstress who was interested and had my coat made. 

I wore it briefly at the beginning of the session above, demonstrating that if you sell an American a nice piece of suzani material, he is likely to turn it into a kind of long, smoking jacket, with a shawl collar, side, on-seam pockets and a belt of the suzani material.



But the real problem is that he will likely not honor the Russian printed lining tradition, but will line it with an unimaginative tan.



When I realized what I’d done, I thought a redeeming feature might be that I had inadvertently created a unique version of the spectacular Uzbek coats, since the Uzbeks tend to make their coats of ikat, and suzani material is pressed in the direction of wall hangings.

No such luck.  Within two weeks I encountered, on Rugrabbit, two Central Asian coats made from suzani material.

I have no excuse for what I have done, but know already (I’ve only worn it twice) that I’m going to enjoy my coat.