Silk and Cotton: Textiles from the Central Asia that Was, by Susan Meller

Susan Meller’s books on Central Asian textiles are a rare find. Even if I weren’t researching a novel set in early twentieth-century Central Asia, the wealth of brilliant photos alone would be captivating. Since I am, Meller’s  coffee-table sized books provide a treasure trove of information not just on textiles but dress, trade,  agriculture, ethnic groups, and the impact of Russian colonization and the Soviet Union on all of these.

Silk and Cotton includes hundreds of striking photographs of brightly colored, richly patterned, Central Asian articles of dress–hats, pants, robes, belts, veils–as well as wall hangings, bags, saddlery, and close ups of cloth.1 Most of the artifacts date from the late nineteenth century through the middle of the twentieth.

Meller’s also work draws on amazing Russian photographic archives, beginning with the 1870s, as well as photos taken by other travelers up to the 1950s. These invaluable resources document officials, families, schoolchildren, and monuments, as well as dress, architecture, bazaars, and other aspects of daily life.2

Not only is this a visually stunning work, Meller has mined travelogues and histories for fascinating period details. I never would have guessed that Central Asian Jews played a significant and specialized role in the textile trade. Meller’s introduction provides an overview of the people who have populated and ruled the region, including the various Turkic-speaking nomadic groups, the Persians, the Jews, and the Russians.

Appropriate to the title, Meller’s introduction also discusses the significant role that the cultivation and sale of cotton and silk have played in the region. For centuries the fabled Silk Road passed through the Central Asian caravan cities of Bukhara, Samarkand, and Tashkent, to name a few. Silk was has also been produced in Central Asia since the middle of the first millenium AD (p. 22). My husband and I have spent some time in Central Asia, and on one of our trips we had the singular experience of seeing–or rather, hearing–hundreds of silk worms munching on mulberry leaves, housed in a rustic mountain shed.

In the late nineteenth century, the Russians colonizers began to encourage cotton cultivation in order to fill the vacuum created by the American Civil War (p. 21). This development has had far-reaching and long-lasting effects on Central Asian society and economy, including the use of child labor and displacement of food crops (p. 25).

Following the historical introduction, Meller’s book is divided into sections consisting mostly of photographs, with informative introductions and captions. The subjects include Adult Clothing, Children’s Clothing, Headwear, Suzani (embroidery), Household, Animal Trappings, Cloth, The Bazaar, and Soviet Influence. The introduction to the section on the bazaar is composed almost entirely of quotes from Western travelers, and the photos provide both historical and contemporary scenes of bazaars, tea houses, and common items for sale.

“Soviet Influence” documents a number of ways in which Soviet rule influenced Central Asian society, including embroidered wall hangings and banners displaying the Soviet hammer and sickle, the Soviet unveiling campaign for women, and specimens of embroidery celebrating Soviet-introduced holidays.

Silk and Cotton is an accessible and valuable source of visual and factual information, adding to the (slowly) growing body of work on Central Asia. It will be of value to students of history, art, and textiles, as well as those with any interest in Central Asia. Thank you, Susan Meller!

1 Her earlier work, Russian Textiles: Printed Cloth for the Bazaars for Central Asia (Abrams, 2007), is also a great resource. Since Silk and Cotton (Abrams, 2013) examines similar topics in greater depth, this review is confined to the more recent volume.

2 Some of the photos taken by artist and photographer Max Penson (1863-1959) can be viewed online here: Maxpenson.com. More period photos are available in the unfortunately difficult to access volumes Bukhara (Garnet, 1993) and Khiva (Garnet, 1993). Both are part of the Caught in Time: Great Photographic Archies series edited by Vitaly Naumkin.

Note: This post was updated July 8, 2014.

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