Thursday, February 10

Clouds Asleep On Silk

Ikat is a Malay-Indonesian term for cloth which is patterned by dyeing the threads before they have been woven. Ikat techniques seem to have evolved independently in Bali, India, Japan and Uzbekistan. Ancient Sogdians, Bactrians, and Khorezmians were already taking silk-worm-raising techniques from China and producing dyed cloth. Phyllis Ackerman, the doyenne of Persian Art (and founder, c. 1925, of the American Institute for Persian Art and Archaeology) had suggested, based on the Turkic word atacha for ikat in Iran, as well as the strong tradition of striped textiles in Central Asia, that this region is actually the point of origin for the ikat resist-dye kind of weaving. The Uzbek term for ikat is abrband, literally "cloud-tying". Fabric made using silk for warp and cotton thread for weft is called adras; but cloth that has pure silk for both warp and weft is called atlas.

Of the various kinds of ikat, the Japanese is the most restrained - often only indigo and white, in simple patterns. In India and Bali, the warp and weft can be both dyed; this results in exuberant floral patterns with two axes of symmetry, but the palettes typically consist of only two colors -- background and foreground. The Uzbek ikat uses dyed thread in only one direction, the weft being made of plain thread. This results in one axis of symmetry, i.e. the patterns are linear or arrow-shaped; but, compared to India, in Uzbek ikat many more colors are simultaneously used; the effect is that of a child's water-color box -- why leave any hue out?

One of the legends says the great Alexander came to the area in order to find the 120-year-old master who produced the silk atlas called hariri (gentle). In return, the master asked that Alexander's soldiers build a wall around his village; thus was founded Alexandria Eschate -- the farthest of towns named after the general -- now known as Khujand. Another legend (recounted by Timur with a belly-laugh) says that when he arrived, Alexander was given lunch by the quaking villagers. "What is the name of this place?" the general barked in Greek. The locals thought he was demanding the names of the dishes presented, so they promptly answered murgh i non (chicken and naan). Alexander scowled and wrote down Margilon on his map.

Under communism, all labor belonged to the State. Whatever people earned was defined as an entitlement to a share of the State’s productivity. No one was supposed to have personal property or his own income. Even simple skullcaps had to be bought from a State factory, they could not be made at home. After independence, people started looking for ways to be individuals again, and it became necessary to be more forcefully Uzbek. Ikat was part of this re-discovery.

We are going to the Yodgorlik (“Memento”) Silk Factory of Margilon. When Yusufjon Mamayusupov decided to buy the old Soviet silkworks, his friends were incredulous. Why did he want that creaking pile of labor-intensive un-equipment? Why not buy a modern mill for artificial rayon or viscose?

One of the ikat masters Fazlitdin Dadajonov says about the first years of trying to re-establish the industry: “... we went for six years without a single sale. Many people had mostly forgotten about ikat, and didn’t value the amount of work that went into it. But I started to give ikat, and clothing made from it, to dancers and musicians performing at weddings and parties. Tourists started to ask where the beautiful fabric came from, and business started. Before too long, the local customers came, too.”

Mamayusupov is too modest to say he is doing well, but there is a new 500-series Mercedes Benz parked in the compound. The factory is half-closed on this Saturday, he enquires after us to make sure guests are not inconvenienced.

The vats where the silkworm pupae are boiled alive (if they emerge as moths they will wreck the cocoon) are operated by women. Spinning the fiber into yarn is also womens' work. The chizmachi (pattern designer) is a man, and so is the kukchi (master dyer), who sits athwart a ledge between bubbling pots of dye. Three abrbandchis, who tie bunches of thread according to the design, are working to Uzbek pop belted out of a stereo with flashing lights. The women who weave are the youngest -- there are postcards of Shah Rukh Khan on several looms -- and the factory employs many relatives. We chat with Surayyo, who is taking a tea-break from weaving a blue-and-white khan-atlas -- the best atlas, suited for a king. Her aunt works in the sheening department; two cousins spin thread. Neighboring looms clack-clack on, a woman carrying a kettle comes in to pour a cup for Surayyo. It seems a low-stress atmosphere, no one is supervising these women or appearing to extract work -- they gossip and laugh and drink tea between snatches of focused treading on the looms. The ikat pattern appears inch by inch, clouds asleep on silk.

The businessmen and proto-capitalists of Ferghana have the look of people who have made their peace with authorities, and are indeed connected well to the government. Foreign cars are charged 100% import tax, and so a USD 150,000 vehicle represents several lifetimes' salary for the average Uzbek. In the USSR, you were supposed to be able to tell the nomenklatura from their propensity for Marlboro; and while status symbols are now more likely to be Italian shoes or Swiss watches, there is a red packet of American cigarettes poking out from Mamayusupov's leather-jacket pocket. He has the air of a paterfamilias; the women bob and simper as he walks past, but he seems to have no power over the dye-master, who looks vacantly at the mid-distance, unmoving from his ledge, not appearing to acknowledge the owner as he passes.

From a news story on the Uzbek silk industry:

For one month a year, from morning to night, Dilorom Nishanova grows silkworms, a painstaking and exhausting job. She has been doing it since she was 8.

Uzbekistan's authoritarian government insists child labor is banned, but Nishanova, now 15, hasn't heard about it. She and her siblings, aged 9 to 17, think it's perfectly natural to be helping their father grow silkworms, as well as cotton and wheat.

"We just help our parents," she said, her braided dark hair covered with a traditional Muslim scarf. "That's what children have to do, right?"

Her father, Adkham, a bony 42-year-old, farms four hectares (10 acres) of loamy land. In early May, he said, an officials from a state-owned nursery handed him two 30-gram (one-ounce) boxes of silkworm eggs to be nurtured into some 100 kilograms (220 pounds) of cocoons. Within four weeks of hatching, silkworms grow to 10,000 times their original, poppy-seed size. Their creamy stomachs turn greenish from their exclusive diet of mulberry leaves, and they need constant attention. "They're as helpless as newborn babies," Dilorom said. They feed seven times a day and die if their meal is an hour late. Dead ones must be removed promptly lest they infect the others swarming among the fresh mulberry twigs that Dilorom has risen at dawn to gather. Sensitive to light, noise and breeze, the silkworms grow up in a humid barn next to the family's dilapidated adobe house. Their munching sounds like the patter of raindrops.

Silk-growing nations such as South Korea and Japan have switched to less labor-intensive mulberry bushes and mechanized leaf harvest. But Uzbek authorities prefer to "follow the old school where big mulberry trees are utilized for feeding silkworms," says Hisham Greiss, a Chicago-based independent expert on silk farming.

Speaking of this year's season, Dilorom recalled: "We worked hard, had to miss some classes. Just like many other kids in school."

For the farmers and their children, "silk farming opens an annual cycle of forced labor and abuse by authorities," said Ganikhon Mamatkhonov, a rights activist who investigated numerous cases of abuse of Uzbek farmers. The risks these advocates run are considerable. Months after Mamatkhonov spoke to the AP in May, 2009, he was jailed for five years on bribery charges --one of dozens of government critics imprisoned in recent years. (Mamatkhonov's colleagues say he was framed.)

In 2009, the Uzbek Ipagi monopoly sold cocoons for about $6 a kilogram ($2.70 a pound)-- or almost eight times what it paid the farmers, and even that money isn't guaranteed, say the farmers, who complain that payment can be delayed for months, even years.

Uzbek Ipagi, the state-run monopoly, exports Uzbek silk to China, India, South Korea and Western Europe. Some stays in Uzbekistan to be woven into scarves or rugs at small factories and mainly sold to tourists. They rarely reach Western stores. "I never saw any silk garment with a tag 'Made in Uzbekistan'" in U.S. stores, silk expert Greiss said.

Ikat making in Central Asia was the most vibrant in the second half of the 19th century, tracking the growth of urban societies from Kabul to Bukhara and the growing purchasing power of the sarts. A couple of years ago, the Victoria and Albert museum held an exhibition of Uzbek ikats from this time. Practitioners of Margilon are struggling to recreate some of the colors and patterns.

Fazlitdin Dadajonov says: “There is a deep, serious color between blue and black that our ancestors used. I am still trying to make it.”


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