Silks of Eurasia
The exhibition ‘Silks in the Culture of the Peoples of Eurasia’ is dedicated to the culture of silk, the most exquisite and expensive textile material in the history of mankind that was worth literally its weight in gold.
Festive caparison is a diplomatic gift from 13th Dalai Lama to Tsesarevich Alexei Nikolaevich presented by scientist, religious and state leader Khambo Lama Agvan Dorzhiev in 1913 for the Romanov Tercentenary.
As you know, silk is one of China’s cultural ‘trademarks,’ both material and spiritual. The history of the great Empire itself cannot be imagined without silk and the traditions associated with it.
The cultures of the Turco-Mongol peoples (modern Mongols, Buryats, Kalmyks, Tuvans, Altaians, and Khakas) had centuries-old traditions of using Chinese silk for festive and prestigious elements of both women’s and men’s garments and accessories, ceremonial caparison, as well as interior decor elements, which is confirmed not only by monuments of material culture preserved in museum collections but also in a rich folklore tradition.
In China and other territories within its sphere of influence, and Kalmykia, in addition to everyday purposes, silk threads, cords, fabrics, and brocade were used for elements of the Buddhist priest garbs, as well as decorations for temple interiors and various religious objects, which proves the high, perfected aesthetics and prestigious status of the material.
From ancient times, the Fergana Valley was one of the largest sericulture centers in Eurasia. It had all the necessary natural conditions for silk farming, and the location on the main route of the Great Silk Road contributed to growing popularity of this occupation.
The oasis in the middle of the Zeravshan River (now the territory of the Republic of Uzbekistan) was famous for its silk fabrics back in the mid-first millennium, when this area was called Sogdia.
In the Horezm Oasis, the oldest civilization center in Central Asia, silk weaving on imported raw materials though existed has not been much developed.
Silk farming and silk weaving among the Turkmens, a nation with a nomadic culture, is a unique phenomenon in the Eurasian silk history. The Turkmens and Teke of the Ahal and Merv Oases used to weave silk not with a designated machine, but with a narrow-beamed one, which was initially used for the production of wool fabrics.
Iran was one of the first centers of silk production. Here, silkworm breeding was facilitated by the climate, which was especially mild in the coastal provinces.
The heyday of silk weaving in Iran was determined by the large scale of silk production in a number of provinces as well as the high domestic demand for silk and semi-silk fabrics.
In the South-Eastern Caucasus Region, including the Kur-Araks and Caspian Lowlands, sericulture had been known since antiquity and reached its heyday in the 15th century in the country of Shirvanshahs under Safavid Iran.
The history of sericulture in the North Caucasus and Dagestan regions in the 19th century shows just how much it was influenced by culture and politics. In the first half of the century, silkworm breeding in Cossack villages developed under state initiative; additionally, there were many local sericulture centers rooted in traditional economics.
The traditions of silk production in the Black Sea area of the Southwestern Caucasus, which includes the historical lands of Armenia and Georgia, are inextricably intertwined with the great heritage of Byzantium; the aforementioned sericulture province can be considered a part of Asia Minor.
The Tatars and Bashkirs have been familiar with a variety of silk fabrics since the Middle Ages. It was an expensive commodity that was imported into the region via trade routes crossing the Middle East and Central Asia.
In the 19th century to early 20th century, a variety of silk fabrics, usually machine made in Russia, were primarily used in sarafan costume sets of girls and married women in the northern and central governorates of European Russia, the Urals, and Siberia. Silk was the fabric of choice for shirts, sarafans, skirts, short breast wear with straps or sleeves, outerwear, like shugai, pelerines, fur coats, and kaftans; silk fabrics were also used to cover headdress bases and undersides of fur coats.
Silk fabrics produced in Russia had a few distinctive features, like their simplicity and cheapness; they were intended for townspeople and peasants of moderate means. Fabrics were available for purchase at fairs, markets, shops sold by cuts; then they were used to make clothes and accessories; it was also possible to buy some ready-made silk products, like shawls and covers, belts, gloves, purses and handbags, ribbons and webbing, cords and tassels.
On the territory of the southern part of European Russia, silk fabrics were most often found in the costume of the Don and Terek Cossack women. Their clothes, outwardly resembling outfits of the North Caucasus peoples, included a long silk shirt with sleeves extending to the wrists, and an outwear slim fit dress, festive and sometimes everyday variations of which were made of silk, damask, satin, taffeta, and others.
Since the mid-19th century, silk threads and fabrics were actively used to decorate peasant clothes in the southern regions of Russia.
In the 19th – early 20th centuries, small sericulture farms appeared in the Kiev, Poltava, Podolia, and Chernihiv Governorates. However, this production type did not become widespread in the region, in particular due to the impossibility of large-scale cultivation of mulberries.
A key factor in the development of sericulture in Bessarabia was the resettlement of Bulgarians in the early 19th century, who had developed sericulture traditions themselves.
In the 18th century, silk clothing was an important marker demonstrating the status of the highest Polish aristocracy. Later, in the first half of the 19th century, low duties on the imported silk and the proximity of European markets contributed to its propagation.