Afghanistan’s many traditions reflect the diverse cultures represented within its borders. In particular, the northern part of Afghanistan has experienced the propagation of cultures from Central Asia as it encountered the rise and fall of miscellaneous civilizations and various tribes escaping from wars and drought. The art of embroidery and fabric handicrafts is rooted in the cultural history of Afghanistan. For example, embroidery by the Uzbeks, Hazaras, and Tajiks are world-renowned. Pashtun embroidery is very popular among many tribes within Afghanistan.
Using splendid techniques, embroidering is traditionally done by Afghan women and girls. They decorate the fabrics with gold and silver-colored threads made of wool or silk. They embroider everyday items such as small figures, tapestries, and bedspreads, as well as seasonal items like dresses and hats for weddings and holidays. During the night, free from the house chores of the day, women have the opportunity to embroider in an intimate familial atmosphere. The embroidering skills of women are widely admired, and they are most openly appreciated when guests visit for weddings and holidays.
Through embroidery, women weave the heart of the family into a physical form and enrich family history.
Styles vary depending on region and family. On top of preserving the tradition of embroidery, each woman puts creativity and imagination into her original work; this is why Afghan embroidery varies so drastically stylistically. However, this age-old tradition was virtually discontinued and almost completely lost due to 23 years of war. Today, since peace has been regained and refugees and evacuees have gradually returned to their homeland, time is witnessing a slow revival of embroidery as an art form as demand for local handicrafts has increased over the last few years.
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Typical Types of Textiles:
Red cotton material for tapestry or bedspread. Flower patterns distributed in red cotton cloth. Blue flower with six petals in center, surrounded by white flowers. Flowers and leaves are filled with chain-stitches.
Tajik / Panjshir:
Red purple, silk material for partition. Sun-like circle in center. Four trees of life around the sun, surrounded by a frame with four corners. Inside of the frame, are stars and trees of life.
Uzbek / Suzani:
Defined as embroidery on cotton cloth that decorates the inside of homes of tribes in Central Asia, particularly in the northern part of Tajikistan and Uzbekistan. Suzani is traditionally prepared for marriages by women from the groom’s side who embroider clothes with silk threads. Most clothes are natural un-dyed, hand-made cotton or homespun.
Dress of a Balouchi nomad. Embroidery is done on the breastplate, front pocket and cuffs. The dress is worn with pants of the same material.
Uzbek dress worn on wedding day or holidays:
Human-face-like pattern are placed in the center. The dress is put on with pants made from similar material. Uzbek patterns are gorgeous and rich in colors. These dresses usually involve embroidering bold flowers.
Both men’s hats worn under their turban and women’s hats worn under their shawls are made by women for her family.
Colors, styles and patterns of embroidery vary depending on tribe and family group. Today, hats are found in stores. Many women take part in the production of hats in order to sell them outside of their village. As sewing machines became popular in 1930’s, production of hats increased. Although some patterns were changed and some were standardized for commercial reasons, originality has been sustained. Hats are categorized by look: cone, circle, flat or square.
For more information, see Lost Embroidery of Afghanistan by Keiko Nishigaki (Kanpodo.co, 2003).