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A Cotton Tale

Uzbek caps

During the Soviet era in Uzbekistan, production of the highly desirable cotton crop escalated dramatically. Quotas were introduced to ensure production of massive tonnages and during the harvest, entire communities were forced to abandon their ‘day jobs’ to pick cotton in order to meet the quotas. Teachers, doctors, professionals and public servants could all be found crouching in the sun-baked fields, performing the arduous task.

Sustainable farming practices such as lucerne crop rotation for cattle, and production of other high value crops such as melons and grapes, were abandoned or diminished in the quest for higher quotas, and water from the Aral Sea was drained to irrigate the farms.

The cotton was sent to Russian and Ukrainian textile mills and manufactured into fabrics expressly for export back into Central Asia. The value-add of the raw cotton was retained by the Soviet state.

While it is a sorry story in many ways, the Russian textiles are today highly sought after, particularly from the 1950’s and 60’s. The designers sent back to Uzbekistan a unique collection of textiles, favouring strong colours, bright swirling patterns, paisleys, and over-sized florals.

Many of these fabrics brought vibrancy and colour into linings for traditional caps or robes, where up to six different patterns can be featured; and there is now a movement for the use of the fabrics in contemporary Uzbek fashion design.

Hard to find fabrics include pre-Revolution art-nouveau inspired prints, and it is also a rare excitement to find Soviet-era propaganda prints that reflect revolutionary politics.

The foremost authority on these textiles is US-based designer and collector Susan Meller, who has written a book well worth seeking out: Russian Textiles: Printed Cloth for the Bazaars of Central Asia. The book showcases textiles exported from Russia over a 100-year period from 1860 – 1960.