Encyclopedia of Embroidery from Central Asia, the Iranian Plateau and the Indian Subcontinent

Linda Hanssen

After the publication of the successful Encyclopedia of Embroidery from the Arab World in 2016, Gillian Vogelsang-Eastwood surprised the textile world with another work, entitled Embroidery from Central Asia, the Iranian Plateau and the Indian Subcontinent. It is co-authored by Willem Vogelsang.

This is the second volume of the Bloomsbury World Encyclopedia of Embroidery, covering the embroidery from Central Asia, the Iranian Plateau (Iran and Afghanistan) and the Indian subcontinent (including India, Pakistan, Nepal, Bhutan, Sri Lanka, and the Maldives). Embroidered objects in this vast area are part of a rich material culture that goes back to a long and shared history. Embroidered textiles have been produced to decorate human’s clothing, homes, and animals. The traditional embroidery of the ethnic cultures is heavily influenced by common ancestry, religion (mainly Islam), political upheavals, and the dense network of overland and maritime trade such as the Silk Road. These influences resulted in a myriad of different local types of embroidery. The book gives an overview of embroidery in the broadest sense of the word, covering multiple countries and eras. One has to realise that this was an arduous task: as the authors experienced themselves, the country borders are arbitrary. Another issue they had to deal with was that several ethnic groups live with their large communities in neighbouring countries. They managed to overcoming these challenges well.

The book is a splendid reference work, with 42 separate chapters divided into six sections. Section One and Section Two provide background information and deal with the archeology and history of embroidery. Sections Three, Four, and Five focus on embroideries from Central Asia, the Iranian Plateau, and the Indian Subcontinent, respectively. These sections make up the largest part of the book. The last section consists of four appendices, an 11-page bibliography, and an index.

Each chapter is introduced with a map of the state and their ethnic groups. These are accompanied by appealing images of objects with lots of details. These include photographs of embroiderers at work, of embroidered garments worn as daily wear or ceremonial garbs, and of tools. They also include drawings of motifs and stitches, charts of designs, and schematic patterns of garments and accessories. The depicted objects are mainly from the vast collection of the Textile Research Centre Leiden, but also from famous international museum collections. 

The appendix with a stitch list based on ‘Family Groups’ such as the ‘chain stitch family’ deserves special mention. Every variation is drawn in three ways: from the front, the back, and the direction of embroidering. This approach is a marvelous asset to the research of embroidery.

The authors are Gillian Vogelsang-Eastwood, Director of the Textile Research Centre in Leiden, and Willem Vogelsang. Contributions and assistance came from many regional and international specialists. Valuable information came from discussions with weavers, printers, embroiderers, dealers, and others about their crafts, activities, and thoughts on embroideries, which puts embroidery in a contemporary context.

The special thing about this book is that it gives an overview of all the aspects that influence embroidery: economic, social, and technical aspects of the technique; the embroiderers themselves; the trade, the materials, the history and the archaeology; the influence from outside; fashion and decoration of clothing, household goods, buildings, and interiors. Every subject that touches on embroidery is covered. Moreover, the book shows links with other regions and cultures as well. For example, India is linked to Bangladesh and Nepal. The political and military contributions of Willem Vogelsang in this edition also place embroidery in a broader context. With its attention to political boundaries on the one hand and cultural boundaries on the other, this book distinguishes itself and is an eye-opener for specialists in this geographical area who do not necessarily have a focus on textiles.

This volume is a great reference book for archeologists, anthropologists, historians, art historians, textile curators of museum collections, and private collectors. It is a source of inspiration for embroiderers, designers, textile artists, and anyone passionate about embroidery from this interesting area.