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The History of Textiles of Western Central Asia

Korean Minjok Leadership Academy
International Program
Lee, Dahyeon
Term Paper, AP World History Class, December 2009

Table of Contents

I. Introduction
II. -200 BC, Before the Establishment of the Silk Road
II.1 Textiles before the Arrival of Nomads
II.2 Textiles of Nomads
III. 200 BC - 1400 AD, Silk Road in Operation
III.1 Textiles of Early Oasis Dwellers
III.2 Islamic Influence
III.3 Mongol Influence
IV. 1400 - 1900 AD, After the Shutdown of the Silk Road
IV.1 Timurid Dynasty
IV.2 Emirate of Bukhara
V. 1900 AD - Present
V.1 Russian Protectorate and USSR
V.2 Contemporary Central Asian Textile
VI. Conclusion

I. Introduction
            One of the most important features in Central Asia was the Silk Road, which connected China and Europe through Central Asia. Cultural exchanges were made through this network of paths. Religion, technology, textiles, most notably silk, spread from China to the Western world. Central Asia, on which the Silk Road passed, was also greatly affected by the Silk Road. Chinese goods were brought into the region via the Silk Road. Religion and certain textile weaving skills were also transferred. Not only merchants, but also raiders and conquerors followed this path, making Central Asia rather turbulent. This active cultural exchange through the Silk Road enabled Central Asian culture to be culturally diverse, thus making its textiles colorful and intricate in pattern.
            Since the influence of the Silk Road was magnificent in this area, periodization in this paper accords with the establishment and shutdown of this trade path: before the establishment of the Silk road, while the Silk Road was functioning, and after the shutdown of the Silk Road. Contemporary influences are also discussed.
            The definition of Central Asia is not strictly fixed. This paper focuses on regions covering from Turkey to Mongolia. Xinjiang and Tibet, although they are frequently included in the definition of Central Asia, are not discussed here because their textiles were deeply influenced by Buddhism, while most other Central Asian textiles were mainly connected with Islam.

II. -200 BC, Before the Establishment of the Silk Road

II.1 Textiles before the Arrival of Nomads
            History of clothing might have started in Central Asia because of cold winters in the region. In order to keep people from freezing to death, clothes were of huge importance to Central Asians. It is not a coincidence that the oldest needles, which had been made of bone and ivory around 40,000 BC, were found in Central Asia. (1) For this finding, Central Asians are generally attributed for inventing sewing.
            The first textile found in Central Asia is that of 3,200 BC, from the North Caucasus culture. (2) This textile is made of wool and is so far the oldest archaeological record made of that material. By 3,000 BC, herders in Central Asia used sheep¡¯s wool to make striped cloaks and skirts. They also made costumes out of hemp, which is a wild plant growing all over Central Asia. However, there are hardly any existing textile samples during this period because wool and plant-fiber threads, with which textiles are mainly made of, cannot survive millennia. This makes it difficult to identify textile traditions of the early years of Central Asia. Thus, textiles of Central Asia during and before Bronze Age are not very much known.

II.2 Textiles of Nomads
            The earliest nomads are considered to have mounted during the 7th century BC. Since then, many nomadic cultures entered Central Asia. Incoming of many nomads led to violence in the region. Fights over grasslands often caused conflicts between nomads. The winner took the grasslands and the loser had to move to another place to feed its herd. Through this process, some of the nomadic cultures such as the Scythians and Cimmerians succeeded in extending their influences over large areas.
            A unique aspect of nomadic textile culture is that the nomads wore hats and trousers. A record about this can be found as early as around 450 BC. Herodotus, a Greek historian, wrote that he found it unusual that Central Asians wore caps and trousers. He might have said so because neither Greeks nor Chinese wore trousers in the era he lived. Although Central Asian nomads are not authentically credited as inventors of trousers, they did wear them and it was an exotic feature for foreigners. However, it is hard to find images of those trousers not only because they were underwear, but also because they were mostly covered by garments. Only bottom part of the trousers was visible. Therefore, upper part of the trousers was usually undecorated. Hats are speculated to have functioned as identifiers to distinguish between different groups of nomads.
            The nomads used their textiles for practical uses. Textiles were highly decorative yet still were necessity because their nomadic lifestyle required textiles for various pragmatic purposes. For instance, the ground inside the yurts had to be covered with rugs in order to make them habitable. (3) Bands hung around the yurts were for realistic function of insulation. Note that Central Asians, exposed to extreme cold during winter, needed special insulating methods to survive the harsh season. Average temperature of Mongolia normally goes down to -20degrees Celsius in January and February. (4) Insulation is a big issue for Central Asians. The nomads¡¯ clothes were also functionally designed. Wearing trousers, one of unique characteristics of Central Asian tradition, was also a necessity. It enabled them to travel long distance by horses, donkeys, or camels, protecting their skin from long journey. (5) Also, they used materials that could be easily woven by their women with household looms.

III 200 BC - 1400 AD, Silk Road in Operation

III.1 Textiles of Early Oasis Dwellers
            As trade routes between China and Europe were activated, small sedentary cities were established along the Silk Road. These cities were usually located near oases where their inhabitants could supply themselves with enough water required for living. They functioned as intermediate stations of the Silk Road. Merchants would stay at those cities and prepare their long journey. The Silk Road brought great wealth into Central Asia. Silk was introduced into this region from China. Ikat weaving skills, although it is uncertain where it exactly came from, was brought into the region. (6) Along with the wealth, also transported through the Silk Road were culture, religion and technology. Such Cultural influences were greater in oasis cities than in nomadic societies, mainly because oasis cities had more contact with merchants traveling along the Silk Road.
            Oasis dwellers had more decorative textiles than nomads did. Urban population developed more ornamented textiles because they needed indicators of rank and wealth. Rich residents wanted to wear complex textiles to show their wealth and high rank. General idea was that the more intricate a person¡¯s clothes were, the higher his social stature was. Those who were in the upper class of the society required more and more decorated clothes. Finally, clothes making reached a level where an individual artisan could not make prestige textiles without help from others. Specialized groups of textile makers emerged to make it easier to produce prestige textiles. (7)
            However, basic clothing for sedentary Central Asians did not vary a lot. They wore underclothes called tunic, which is also found in 13th century Mongolian traditional costume. (8) Central Asian tunics were long enough to come down to knees. They later became shorter until their bottom part was as low as waist level. Trousers and coats were also basic garments that everyone wore. Therefore, the type of one¡¯s clothes did not tell much thing about one¡¯s status; the material with which those clothes were made of marked one¡¯s stature. Their basic clothes were simply the same kind for all social classes and sexes. The lowest ranks wore coats made of adras(silk and cotton) while the highest ranks wore silk velvet ikat, sometimes embroidered with golden thread.

III.2 Islamic Influence
            Islam came into Central Asia in about the 8th century. The Battle of Talas in 751 between Abassid Chaliphate and Chinese Tang Dynasty signaled mass conversion to Islam in Central Asia. Since then, Islamisation took place in the region. Islam culture fused with Central Asian native culture, forming many Islamic practices known as folk Islam. Samarkand, Bukhara and Urgench flourished as centers for Islamic learning, culture and art in the region until the 13th century Mongol invasion.
            Influx of Islamic culture brought the new forms of of pattern and design into Central Asia. Textiles of oasis dwellers before Islamic influence mostly had motifs of antler horns, ram horns, or other animal figures that can be perhaps associated with animism cult of the region that predated Islam. (9) However, as Islam spread into Central Asia, those animal motifs disappeared. Instead, abstract patterns replaced their place. One of the reasons for this shift was that Islamic religion prohibits the use of realistic images. (10) Using realistic figures is feared by Muslims because they believe it is idolatry and thereby a sin against Allah, which is forbidden by the Qur'an. (11) It is also conjecture that infinitely repeating patterns symbolized Islamic understanding that Allah¡¯s presence is without end. (12) In regions where Islam was not prominent, animal motifs still existed. Nomadic cultures were not as heavily influenced by Islam, so their shamanistic beliefs didn't disappear. Ram's horn pattern is found in their rugs.
            Another intriguing influence of Islam is a women's dress called 'paranja.' It is a veiling garment worn over the head. When women wore this garment, their face was entirely covered. Still they could see through the veil while others couldn't see their faces. It was invented because strict adherence to Islamic custom prohibited exposure of women's faces and hair in public. Muslims believed it was necessary to do so because it will hide women from harmful forces. Also, protecting them from the gaze of strangers was a major role of paranjas. Although most agree that this was deeply affected by Islam, however, there are claims that this was a quite recent innovation, much later the emergence of Islam in Central Asia. They claim Paranjas do not appear in written sources until the 18th century. (13)

III.3 Mongol Influence
            Islamic expansion stopped when the Mongols came into Central Asia in the 13th century. Genghis khan established the largest contiguous empire in history. The empire reached from the Danube to the East Sea. As the Mongols ruled a vast area, cultures within the empire were disseminated and exchanged. Under Mongol rule, Central Asian culture was also affected by other cultures and in turn affected them. Central Asia was a part of the empire until the legendary conqueror Timur established Timurid Empire in the 14th century.
            Invasion of the Mongols was a devastating event in Central Asian history. Ibn-al-Athir¡¯s history of the Islamic world by Genghis Khan begins like this. '... .Nay, it is unlikely that mankind will see the like of this calamity, until the world comes to an end and perishes ...' Starting from 1220, Genghis Khan conquered city after city in Central Asia-Bukhara, Samarkand, ?rgandj, Balkh, Nishapur, Herat, Merv. As the cities fell, hundreds of thousands people were slaughtered. (14) The massacres were of appalling scale and cruelty.
            Textile makers of Central Asia were relatively lucky under Mongol rule. The Mongols enslaved artisans and took them to cities in Mongolia and eastern Central Asia before the massacres began. Mongols considered their weaving skills useful, so they could be saved. Artisans who were forced to leave their homeland worked for the Mongols by making luxury textiles. Shimmering gold decorations in silk textiles perfectly suited the taste of the Mongol court. Mongol silks with exotic floral and animal patterns, which were not used under Islamic influence, was again acquired for clothing and furnishings for the clergy and nobility. Such patterns were also used by painters as models for hangings or garments. (15) Yet only few of them still exist..
            Central Asian textile culture was mixed with that of China under Mongol Empire. Artisans were drafted not only from Central Asia, but also from China. Central Asian and Chinese artisans were together confined in Mongol cities, where they exchanged textile weaving skills. A good example would be a textile of mid-13th century with winged lions and griffins. It is made of silk and gold thread, so it is called ¡®cloth of gold.¡¯ Both the overall design and animals are of Persian origin, but the cloud-like ornamentation of the lions¡¯ wings, the cloud scrolls of the vines in the background, and the dragons¡¯ heads at the ends of the lions¡¯ tails are based on Chinese models. (16) Aspects of Central Asian textiles and models of Jin China were combined in this piece of luxury textile.

IV. 1400 - 1900 AD, After the Shutdown of the Silk Road

IV.1 Timurid Empire
            Tamerlane established the Timurid Empire in 1370. Timurid historians have tried to draw connection between Tamerlane and Genghis Khan, but he was actually no Mongol but a Turk. (17) His empire was in theory a Mongol Khanate, but was more like a Turkic confederation. Tamerlane later converted to Islam, thus bringing the religion back to Central Asia. Still, he didn¡¯t create an entirely new law. He stuck to the old Mongol laws in order to avoid conflict with other Mongols because his empire was Khanate at least by name. Central Asian Muslims thus thought he was just a successor of Genghis Khan, but in practice, he was a supporter of Qur'an.
            It is very hard to find a generally recognized Timurid textile, although drawings frequently describe Timurid geometric carpets. (18) By studying the descriptions of Timurid carpets in paintings, researchers have discovered that they are remarkably similar to "small-pattern type Holbein carpets," which are depicted in European paintings with patterns composed of octagons and lozenges arranged in a staggered rows. (19) Small-pattern Holbein carpets were favored by Western Europeans and are found in their drawings from the 1450s. Although their origin is unknown, it is conjectured that their patterns and color reflect Timurid taste and designs.
            Silk Road as silk trade route was shut down by that time. Silk trade with China was thus made difficult. However, it was not a big problem for the Timurid court who could supply themselves with enough silk. They still used silks for their luxury textiles, only some of which are now surviving. Researchers believe that Timurid court textiles were deeply influenced by Chinese culture. There is a record that a Timurid prince Muhammad wore a robe of blue Chinese Zaytuni silk. (20) Other clothes found of this era show patterns and motifs that were inspired by Chinese culture. Both Ming and Timurid historians agree that Chinese silk was used in Timurid court for its desirability for court use.

IV.2 Emirate of Bukhara
            After the Timurid Empire was disestablished in 1526, the Khanate of Bukhara was the dominant entity in Western Central Asia. In the 17th and 18th century, the state was ruled by the Janid Dynasty. The Emirate of Bukhara was the next to follow. It was founded by Manghit emir in 1785. Over the 18th century, emirs slowly grew their power in the Khanate from their position as ataliq. (21) When the Khanate was conquered by the Persians, it was clear that the real power was in the emirs. The Emirate of Bukhara lasted until 1920.
            The center of textile culture in this era was the city of Bukhara, an ancient city where various workshops for weavers, dyers, designers, and wealthy consumers resided. (22) A remarkable feature about Bukharan textile culture is its textiles with gold embroidery. Gold embroidery was done from ancient times in Bukhara. Traces of gold embroidery from 1st and 2nd centuries were found in the Tashkent Region by M.E. Voronstov. (23) However, nearly all specimens found are from 19th and early 20th centuries. No earlier pieces are found. Those ancient embroidered textiles are only shown in drawings. Gold embroidery developed intensively in the 19th century because the emir's court required a lot of textiles. Household articles of the emir and the custom of giving precious robes required great mass of embroidered textiles. Pre-Russian tradition of giving luxury coats as accolade for recognizable contribution or as New Year¡¯s presents is also responsible for increase in demand for luxury textiles. (24) These custom still exist in Central Asia.
            In the 19th century, royal gold embroidery was mainly done on velvet, chamois leather and wool, seldom on silk. The velvet, which was imported from Persia, Turkey, India, Syria and France, was considered the most valuable fabric of all. Domestically made velvet called "Bakhmal-makhmal" was also used. Lower class usually wore silk ikats. (25) Note that silk was domestically produced in Central Asia at that time, so the shutdown of the Silk Road was not a big problem for silk supply.

V. 1900 AD - Present

V.1 Russian Protectorate and USSR
            In 1882, the emirate of Bukhara was incorporated as a Russian state. This had little cultural effect to Central Asians because European art still remained unknown to them. Traditional culture remained predominant in the region. In fact, the Soviet authorities wanted to maintain the existing carpet and textile industries, although they encouraged some cosmetic changes to them. (26)
            Some visible changes were made after the Russian Revolution. The soviet authorities founded schools to train Central Asian artists, teaching them European art. (27) Central Asian cultural identity became blander during this period. Central Asian Nomads became increasingly sedentary under Russian rule. Nomadic textiles such as wide variety of bags, tent bands, felts, animal trapping were less produced in response to this shift. (28) Production of luxury textiles also underwent dramatic changes. Traditionally, luxury textiles were made by specialized groups of artisans as a cottage industry. When the Russians took over, large mechanized factories were introduced to produce textiles. It changed Central Asia from a textile making center to a producer of raw materials that were shipped to Russia.

V.2 Contemporary Central Asian Textile
            As the Russians withdrew from Central Asia, its antique textiles received public¡¯s attention. Westerners became more familiar with those old textiles of Central Asia, and were willing to purchase them. Prices for antique textiles severely increased. (29) Old techniques revived in accord with this need for textiles. As the markets were opened, contemporary Central Asian embroideries were exported to European and American countries, providing a new source of income for skilled Central Asian women. Now, those textiles are available on the internet. Many internet malls offer Central Asian textiles such as ikats, embroidered carpets and so on.

VI. Conclusion
            Central Asians developed textile culture very early because of the region¡¯s harsh natural environment. Nomads came into the region and some of them became sedentary near oases. Nomads wore unique clothes such as trousers, and used their textiles for practical uses. Sedentary societies used textiles to express their social stature, as some of them became rich by trading with merchants traveling along the Silk Road. Islam came into Central Asia. Its influences prohibited the use of traditional animal symbols in textiles. Instead, abstract patterns replaced their place. Mongols who stopped Islamic expansion drafted artisans and forced them to make luxury textiles for court use. Timurid Dynasty, which followed the Mongol rule, also drafted artisans. Those artisans exchanged textile weaving skills or patterns with Chinese artisans who were also drafted and worked at the same place. Emirate of Bukhara, whose textiles are famous for their gold embroidery, succeeded. Russians, who came into Central Asia in the 1900s, made some changes in textile making methods. Nowadays, Central Asian textiles became internationally known, and are available on the internet, which helps Central Asian economy


1.      Central Asian Clothing, from KIDIPEDE
2.      The North Caucasus is the northern part of the Caucasus region between the Black and Caspian seas and within the European Russia.
3.      The yurts were their traditional mobile home.
4.      Climate, from Mongolia: A Country Study.
5.      "The life of the nomad," Powerhouse Museum
6.      "The Life of the Oasis Dweller," Powerhouse Museum
7.      R. J. Howe's summary of Christine Brown¡¯s lecture on Uzbek Clothing.
8.      Darney page 7.
9.      C. Sumner, J. Menzies, video introduction to exhibition, "Silk Ikats of Central Asia." Art Gallery of New South Wales
10.      "Textile Arts in Central Asia", from Powerhouse Museum
11.      Islamic Art., from Wikipedia
12.      "The Life of the Oasis Dweller," Powerhouse Museum
13.      R. J. Howe's summary of Christine Brown¡¯s lecture on Uzbek Clothing.
14.      Wardwell 1992 p.354.
15.      Description of a 13th century textile of Central Asia, The Cleveland Museum of Art
16.      Description of a mid-13th century Central Asian golden textile with winged lions and griffins, The AMICA Library.
17.      Grousset 1970 p.507
18.      Lentz 1989 p.221
19.      "Carpets of Ottoman Period," Old Turkish Carpets.
20.      Lentz 1989 p.217
21.      Article "Emirate of Bukhara," Wikipedia.
22.      "Textile Arts in Central Asia", from Powerhouse Museum
23.      Gold Embroidery Art of Bukhara, from
24.      ibid.
25.      R. J. Howe's summary of Christine Brown¡¯s lecture on Uzbek Clothing.
26.      "Central Asian Arts," Encyclopedia Britannica Online, 2009.
27.      ibid.
28.      R. J. Howe's summary of Christine Brown¡¯s lecture on Uzbek Clothing.
29.      ibid.


Note : websites quoted below were visited in December 2009.
1.      "Textile Arts of Central Asia." Powerhouse Museum
2.      "Central Asian Arts." Encyclopedia Britannica Online 2009.
3.      Heilbrunn Timeline of Art History, The Metropolitan Museum of Art.
4.      J.Harvey, Traditional Textiles in Central Asia, Thomas & Hudson, 2009
5.      Article : Scythians, from Wikipedia.
6.      Article : Caucasus, from Wikipedia.
7.      Introduction to exhibition "Silk Ikats of Central Asia." Art Gallery of New South Wales.
8.      Article : Ikat, from Wikipedia.
9.      Article : Silk Road, from Wikipedia.
10.      Article : Silk Road, from International Encyclopedia of the Social Sciences. Thomson Gale. 2008.
11.      R. J. Howe¡¯s summary of Christine Brown¡¯s lecture on Uzbek Clothing.
12.      Gold Embroidery Art of Bukhara, from
13.      Article : Central Asian Clothing, from KIDIPEDE,
14.      Mongolia: A Country Study. Washington: GPO for the Library of Congress, 1989. R. L. Worden, A. M. Savada
15.      Article : Islamic Art, from Wikipedia.
16.      Anne E. Wardwell, article "Two Silk and Gold Textiles of the Early Mongol Period", The Bulletin of the Cleveland Museum of Art, Vol. 79, No.10, 1992.
17.      Rene Grousset, The Empire of the Steppes : A History of Central Asia, trans. Naomi Walford (New Brunswick, NJ: Rutgers University Press, 1970).
18.      Old Turkish Carpets.
19.      The life of the nomad, from Powerhouse Museum,
20.      The Life of the Oasis Dweller, from Powerhouse Museum
21.      E. Darney, Mongol Costume in Art : A study of Mongol Clothing in Contemporary Art,
22.      Description of a 13th century textile of Central Asia, The Cleveland Museum of Art,
23.      Description of a mid-13th century Central Asian golden textile with winged lions and griffins, The AMICA Library.
24.      T.W. Lentz, G.D. Lowry, Princely Vision: Persian Art and Culture in the Fifteenth Century (Los Angeles County Museum of Art, 1989)
25.      Article "Emirate of Bukhara," from Wikipedia.

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