Textile Society of America


Date of this Version



Presented at Textile Society of America 11th Biennial Symposium: Textiles as Cultural Expressions, September 4-7, 2008, Honolulu, Hawai'i. Copyright © 2008 Carol Bier


Among the earliest collections of suzani in the United States is that acquired by Doris Duke, kept at Shangri La, the home she built in Honolulu. Nine of the suzani she purchased in India while on her honeymoon in 1935. In January 2005 the Shangri La Suzani Research Project initiated a collaborative effort to document Duke's collection with respect to materials, stitches, designs, patterns, colors, and ground fabrics. Suzanis represent an urban embroidery tradition in the 19th century and perhaps earlier; they are worked by young women of Uzbekistan and neighboring regions in Central Asia. Bright and colorful, they are large in contrast to most domestic embroidery work. They are used as hangings and covers, often initially for the household of a bride. With the collaboration of a curator, textile conservator, and technical assistant, three pairs of eyes all trained to look differently yielded a collective understanding that affected our vision and led to an analysis that distinguishes our work from that of others who preceded us in the study of suzanis. We began to recognize that variations in stitch type, size, placement, orientation and density, combine to play with effects of light. We came to understand that catching the light is clearly an intention of the design and construction. During the course of our analysis and documentation, we came to appreciate aspects of this needle craft that exhibit a clear articulation of the relationship of symmetry and beauty. While the stitching in each object was consistent, what particularly distinguishes the group is the careful attention to both symmetry and symmetry-breaking, and to contrasting patterns of local symmetries and global symmetries to create differing visual effects. This paper presents the suzanis of Doris Duke's collection, focusing on the playfulness in catching the light through the use of stitch, and joyfulness in the visual expression of beauty through the play of symmetry and symmetry-breaking.