For centuries, caravans of merchants traversed the perilous land routes between China and the Middle East to bring luxurious silks to eager customers. Silk was an important commodity itself, but it also inspired new textile arts along the traders’ way. This is particularly evident in the silk-on-cotton embroideries shown here, which were done in the home by women and girls primarily for personal or household use. These examples were made in the 18th and 19th centuries in the central Caucasus, the southern Caucasus (Azerbaijan and the province of Azerbaijan in northwestern Iran), and the oasis towns of central Asia, such as Bukhara (present-day Uzbekistan). In each of these regions silk yarns were available locally, possibly even produced from silkworms cultivated by the women and girls who worked the embroidery.
The dark colors and medallion patterns used in the central Caucasus are reminiscent of rug designs from the same area. The Azerbaijani embroideries show light colors with geometric and stylized floral patterning, also found in rugs from surrounding areas of the Caucasus and Iran. The central Asian works have brightly colored floral imagery. The embroideries display only a very few stitches: cross-stitch, running stitch, chain stitch, and couching. Embroiderers in the central and southern Caucasus counted the threads of the ground cloth to help them build their stylized patterns, using cross-stitch or closely worked rows of running stitches (“pattern darning”). The central Asian embroiderers drew naturalistic designs and worked them freely over the surface in chain stitch and couching without using the woven grid of the ground fabric to define the design.