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Textile Art of the Caucasus

A selection of Caucasian embroideries from the 17th to the 19th centuries
Exhibition organised by The Textile Gallery




Following the success of the exhibition Turkish Rugs and Old Master Paintings, The Textile Gallery has embarked upon a programme of thematic exhibitions to be shown in a number of different venues in Europe and America. All the works presented are offered for sale, and it is hoped that the variety and nature of the exhibits will provide a broader perspective of the art of particular regions or cultures and will stimulate the interest of new collectors in these beautiful works of textile art.

Textile Art of the Caucasus, presented at Rippon Boswell, Wiesbaden, Germany, in October and November 1996, was devoted principally to the silk embroideries of the region - unsigned works of art created in the 17th, 18th and early 19th centuries. As far as we know, there had never previously been an exhibition specifically devoted to Caucasian embroideries and no book has been produced to date on this subject.Textile Art of the Caucasus was the first exhibition to bring together silk embroideries from several areas of the Caucasus, providing the opportunity to compare their various artistic and technical styles. Several of the textiles employ the same patterns that can be seen on early Caucasian rugs, and for this reason we included a small group of the latter.

In 1993, our sister company Textile & Art Publications published a book on Kaitag embroideries - Kaitag Textile Art from Daghestan, by Robert Chenciner - but these come from one small region and, although very beautiful, are not fully representative of the great variety of embroidered panels that were created throughout the Transcaucasus region.




Karabagh region?, south-west Caucasus
circa 1700
60 x 87 cm, silk embroidery on cotton (detail)

  The most beautiful examples of Caucasian embroidery that survive are scattered in museum and private collections throughout the world, and illustrations of them can generally only be found in a number of rare books on oriental rugs; it is hoped that one day the rich variety of Caucasian embroidery may be brought together in a single publication. In the meantime, over the past twenty-eight years, we have been most fortunate to have had a number of outstanding examples pass through our hands; these, combined with those noted in public and private collections and those published in the literature, have given us the basis for a small archive of illustrations for study and research. Based upon this, for the purposes of our own studies and identification, we have chosen to divide Caucasian embroideries into five groups. This has been done principally on the basis of style, but also taking technique into consideration.
The Hunt
Probably Kaitag region, south-west Daghestan
17th century
46 x 30 cm, silk embroidery on silk (detail)


Group 1
Our first group, of which we know only a few examples, is composed of textiles with highly pictorial designs, illustrating horsemen and hunting scenes. They are very much in the style of classical Safavid Persian art, as seen in miniature paintings and silk woven textiles from the second half of the 16th century. The drawing, however, is rather provincial in style and all kinds of abstract motifs are included. It is probable that these Caucasian embroideries follow the tradition of 16th century Persian examples and date from the 17th century, because although the eastern and southern regions of the Caucasus were continuously being fought over with the Ottomans over the centuries, these areas had become part of the Persian Empire at this time. Only the pattern of these textiles is embroidered and the background is left plain, the embroidery being worked in a laid and couched stitch on a fine silk plain-weave cloth (detail left). The same technique is seen on the embroideries identified as coming from the Kaitag region of Daghestan, although these are mostly worked on cotton (see group 5). Indeed, we now think it quite likely that these group 1 textiles are in fact the earliest known Kaitag embroideries. Three group 5 Kaitag examples with a design of six horsemen are closely related to the more finely worked silk embroideries of group 1.

Cypress Tree with Figures
Possibly Shirvan region, east Caucasus
17th century
108 x 102 cm, silk embroidery on cotton (detail)


Group 2
The small number of examples in the second group share the same design repertoire as the Caucasian 'Shield' group carpets, which are attributed to around the Shirvan region in the eastern Caucasus and date from the middle of the 17th to the end of the 18th century. These embroideries appear to be related to the earlier known examples of the carpets and probably date from 1650 to 1720. Two examples have designs of figures confronting cypresses in the classical Safavid manner (detail left). The textiles in this group are fully embroidered in a long stitch (often called 'surface darning', 'stem stitch' or 'split stitch'), a technique widely used on Caucasian embroideries. The foundation cloth is cotton plain-weave dyed blue, and the workmanship is particularly fine.

Stars and Octagons
Possibly Karabagh region, south-west Caucasus, circa 1700
72 x 84 cm, silk embroidery on cotton (detail)


Group 3
The examples in our third group have a number of designs, ranging from purely geometric tile-like schemes composed of eight-pointed stars, cartouches and octagons to abstract floral designs that can be compared to the so-called 'Dragon' and 'Blossom' carpets from the Karabagh region of the southern Caucasus - with several permutations in between. All of these designs can appear in each of the three techniques by which we have sub-divided this group:
(a) Fully embroidered in a long stitch, often known as stem stitch, usually coarser than the embroideries of group 2.
(b) Fully embroidered in a tent stitch, often called 'cross stitch' (ref. 14400 - detail left).
(c) Fully embroidered in a counted stitch, which is used in a far more regular manner than the other two techniques. For example, the silk embroidery might be passed over four warps and under one warp of the foundation cloth. The rows of embroidery are staggered by the stitch being passed to the back of the cloth, creating an effect of diagonal lines on the surface (ref. 15473 - detail top left).

Cartouches and Stars
Probably Azerbaijan, south Caucasus
early 18th century
46 x 97 cm, silk embroidery on cotton (detail)


Group 4
Our fourth group contains the largest number of examples (apart from the Kaitag embroideries, group 5). They are generally attributed to Azerbaijan, although there is little evidence to substantiate this. The attribution probably arose because these embroideries share design features of both Persian and Caucasian art, and Azerbaijan separates the Caucasus from Persia as we know it today. These embroideries are mostly thought to date from the late 18th century. Fortunately, two examples have precise dates associated with them. It is also possible that the tradition goes back one or two centuries earlier. Like the group 3c examples, the textiles of group 4 are fully embroidered in a counted stitch in a regular manner and an effect of diagonal lines can be seen on the surface (ref. 14213 - detail left). On several examples, while the borders and pattern are worked in a counted stitch, the background is worked in a 'drawn' technique; and in the areas left unembroidered, the warps and wefts of the backing cloth are gathered and wrapped in silk, creating a net-like effect.

Tree of Life
Kaitag region, south-west Daghestan
18th century
67 x 114 cm, silk embroidery on cotton (detail)


Group 5
Due in part to the isolation of the Kaitag region of Daghestan, a large number of embroideries have survived from there, and these form our fifth group. Despite their rich variety of designs, they were all produced in a restricted area by one small multi-ethnic group. Their design bravado, shimmering colour density and assured juxtapositioning of colour and texture give them a contemporary significance. Indeed, the more abstract examples stand on a par with the work of 20th century Western masters such as Klee and Matisse. They have a confidence and verve which evokes a sense of recognition and pleasure in an audience far removed in history and culture from their original owners, to whom they were evidently of powerful totemic significance - Chenciner informs us of the ritual use of the embroideries connected with birth, marriage and death.

While the principal group of Kaitag embroideries follow a very clear style with a defined pattern repertoire, others are clearly inspired by design traditions from neighbouring regions (ref. 16601 - detail left ). There are examples resembling embroideries from Karabagh (ref. 16687), Azerbaijan and Persia (ref. 17397 - detail at top of page). There is a category of Kaitag embroideries resembling Ottoman textiles from the 16th and 17th centuries - both the courtly velvets and brocade silks from Bursa (ref.17589) and the domestic embroideries of Thrace and Epirus. Almost all Kaitag embroideries are worked on a foundation cloth of coarsely woven cotton in a open-faced plain weave (often called 'tabby'). This foundation cloth is usually composed of smaller sections pieced together, often dyed. Sometimes these sections are of different colours, which can also contribute to the overall effectiveness of the design (ref. 16610). A few examples, usually in the Ottoman design style, are embroidered with a layer of woven silk above the cotton foundation.

Interlocking Circles
Kaitag region, south-west Daghestan
dated 1699
55 x 106 cm, silk embroidery on cotton (detail)




The dating of Caucasian embroideries is fraught with difficulties, in spite of the few known dated examples, and authors have made various speculations. Often these have been based upon the knotted pile carpet designs to which several of the embroideries relate - yet there is no agreement on the dating of the various carpet groups. The dates proposed appear, for the most part, to be based upon limited research. It is evident that the Kaitag embroideries contain a variety of design elements of great antiquity, of both foreign and ancient local origin, but the continuity of design tradition makes it very difficult to date the earlier embroideries; only one dated example is known (detail left). It would be misleading to attempt to ascribe dates to the embroideries on the basis of their archaic designs alone, since such designs have survived until recent times in other media in Daghestan.