Daghestan's Kaitag Embroideries - and Henri Matisse?

Kaitag is a small district in Daghestan's mountains. It consists essentially of two villages, and probably never had a total population much over 7,000 people. Spectacular silk embroideries were produced there from at least the 17th century to the early 20th century.


Kaitag embroideries are done on a cotton ground, usually around 2' x 4', made of several pieces joined together before being embroidered with silk floss. The embroidery technique is relatively unusual, the floss being laid onto the surface of the ground cloth in parallel lines and then tacked down (couched). This results in nearly all the silk being on the same side of the textile, with very little of it visible on the back side. The style of drawing is also quite characteristic, tending to be highly irregular and fluid, rather than angular. The embroideries were apparently made for three broad classes of use, and reasonable guesses of which use a particular one had may be made from the designs on it.

One group was used to wrap a bride's dowry. These often have designs that are clearly derived from Ottoman textiles, with roundels, lattices and floral devices in fairly regular arrays.

A second group was used in funeral rites, either as cushion covers for guests or to cover the face of the deceased. Covering the face of the dead is apparently an important custom in the local culture, and one folk song includes the lament, "Who will cover my face when I am dead?" Embroideries assigned to this group often include images of horses, presumably a mode to transport the soul to the afterworld, and layouts that are interpreted as cosmic maps.

The third group, to which I believe the one illustrated here belongs, were draped over the head of a baby's cradle to distract the malevolent evil eye and direct it away from the baby. The imagery in this group includes sun signs, fantastic animals, and stylized eyes, and uses large numbers of bright colors. It is not difficult to see what appear to be two large red dragons and two golden yellow birds among the many zoomorphic forms in the piece shown here. The concentric ovals that form the central element may be a sun sign, and the numerous white dots are reminiscent of stars in a night sky.


It is interesting to compare this embroidery to some of Henri Matisse's prints (one is illustrated). The similarities in drawing style is obvious, although I know of no reason to believe that Matisse ever saw a Kaitag embroidery (they were virtually unknown until fairly recently) so it is unlikely that he was influenced by them. The embroidery shown here is estimated to be an 18th century product by those who claim to be able to estimate the ages of these things, so the person who made it could not have been influenced by Matisse.

This raises an interesting consideration. It is common practice to hypothesize interaction between textile producing groups when clear similarities can be seen in their products. Most of us ignore similarities that could easily be explained as coincidence; for instance, crossed lines and simple geometric forms. But similarities in form and style as striking and unusual as those seen in this Kaitag embroidery and Matisse print would almost surely provide the basis for a proposal that they are related if they were found on weavings from two different groups. This ought to give us some pause when considering such proposals.

Finally, this piece clearly shows the creative drawing that an embroiderer can use by virtue of not being nearly as limited as a weaver by technical factors. She can use floss far too fine to have the structural strength needed in a weaving, and has nearly as much flexibility in layout and morphology of motifs as a painter does.

There are currently good collections of Kaitag embroideries and Matisse prints on the internet. I recommend that interested readers visit these sites.

Robert Chenciner's Kaitag, Textile Art from Daghestan (Textile & Art Publications, 1993) is the most extensive published source of information on the Kaitag district, it's culture and embroideries.

© Steve Price
With the permission of TurkoTek

  • 21-3-2008

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