Intangible Cultural Heritage of Asia and the Pacific

Scarf, block printed fabric © Rasuljon Mirzakhmedov

Textile Block Printing of Uzbekistan

Textile printing is the process of printing flowers, ornaments on cotton or silk fabric (chitgarlik) by hand using carved wooden stamps.
This applied art has existed in Central Asia since ancient times and stems from the region’s cultural and commercial interaction.
The art of textile block printing traveled along the Silk Road and flourished in the villages and towns of Central Asia.

A piece of calico fabric exhibited in the State Museum of History of Uzbekistan was found among archaeological excavations in Old Termez of the Surkhandarya region. Its pattern and rhombus-like shape on red cotton fabric dates back to the tenth and eleventh centuries and includes legendary animals typical of Central Asian handicrafts of that period like ceramics, metal, or fabrics.

In Central Asia people use textile printing products such as tablecloths, blankets, scarves, curtains, and wall hangings in their daily life. Although the production is very slow and takes time, the art is unique and cannot be compared with other types of crafts. The designer produces a variety of shapes by matching the mold flowers to the fabric during his working process.

Printed ornaments, which are mainly made of flowers and plants, remain unchanged to this day. The flower chitgar decorations printed on the hard-woven cloth are almost indistinct from those found in the fourteenth century fabrics found in the tomb of Amir Temur’s wife, Bibikhanum. Black images with a dark purple border still echo the mastery of the craftsmen of that time. Although there was a wide variety of colors and images in that period the most popular was fabric decorated with dark blue colors.

According to Russian scientist P. N. Nebolsin, Central Asian block printed products were also known in Russia for their quality and design of decorative items and floral fabrics of Bukhara and Khiva were exported as clothing until the fourteenth century.

By the second half of the nineteenth century, Central Asian block printed fabric was not able to compete with the factory-made fabrics. Subsequently, cheap Russian-made fabrics flooded Central Asia and squeezed hand-printed fabrics out of local markets and artificial colors degraded the quality of fabrics.

For block printing, mainly cotton fabric called buz or calico was used and was white as well as black and red. The black printing molds are made in a unique way. A part of a pear tree is soaked with lamb fat, dried throughout the year, and carved in the form of a flower pattern. Most of the molds stored in the museums of Uzbekistan made from pear tree are a shining examples of not only printing, but also of ancient wood carving art.

Working process of the master Rasuljon Mirzakhmedov © Rasuljon Mirzakhmedov
Usually a master boils a white fabric in a liquid prepared from fruit and pistachio leaves and spreads it on a large table for printing flowers. Next, three liters of cotton oil is heated in a one hundred-liter boiler with three kilograms of wheat flour, ten kilograms of rusty iron, five kilograms of animal bone (usually beef) and finally five kilograms of water. This mixture is boiled for two hours and lasts for eighteen to twenty days until the hundred liters is reduced to seven to eight liters of black liquid. Finally, a line is scratched in a piece of boiled fabric, and if it is black, it means the color is ready, but if it is gray, the master adds another ten liters of water to the boiler and boils it two or three times more.

The finished black paint becomes dark with the help of apricot glue. This mixture is absorbed into a woolen sponge and applied to the wooden mold, which is then pressed by hand to white fabric and struck with a wooden knife. After being stamped, the fabric is dried in the open air for a while until the fabric is rinsed in running water to remove excess paint and glue.

The base color of the fabric used in block printing is prepared with the help of bright colors. Before printing the fabric is usually colored with pomegranate skin and indigo. The preparation of yellow uses only the flowers of the egg tree (Japanese sakura) and red is usually derived from jasmine (Rubia Tinctorum).

Thankfully, since independence, many types of handicrafts in Uzbekistan are being restored with the support of the government and a number of international organizations Solijon Ahmadaliev, Rasuljon Mirzaakhmedov and Nematullokh Mirzaakhmedov, tenth generation masters, have been striving to preserve the traditional skills of block printing at the Margilan Craft Development Center and through international grants, the center is restoring block printing wooden molds. Today, young professionals are learning the secrets of block printing in training sessions organized by UNESCO Tashkent in Uzbekistan. Furthermore master bearers, Abdurashid Rakhimov (Tashkent), Valodia Ahatbekov (Samarkand), and Malika Habibova (Bukhara) are transmitting their skills and producing block printed fabrics using their own techniques and colors.