Afghan embroidery (History & Overview – Courtesy Textile Research Centre, Leiden, Netherlands)

Afghanistan is surrounded by many different ethnic groups and cultures and it is not surprising therefore that the materials, designs and colours used by the Afghan people for their embroidery reflect the central and important location of their country in Asia. Almost each ethic group inside Afghanistan has its own specific way of living, which is often reflected in their traditional embroidery.

In general the production of embroidery is carried out by girls and women at home. By the end of the twentieth century there also was a significant number of men carrying out embroidery, but this was usually machine embroidery produced in tailor’s workshops.

Embroidery is used in Afghanistan to decorate a wide range of objects. It is used for house decorations (table cloths, mats, towels, curtains and so forth), for animal trappings (notably the decorative blankets for horses), as well as for the clothing of both men and women. In general, women’s clothing tends to be more elaborately and colourfully embroidered than that of men.

Some of the most famous embroidery for men, for example, comes from Kandahar. This is the famous whitework embroidery. It is locally known as khamak and is worked in satin stitch on a fine cotton or white silk background. The satin stitch is traditionally worked from the reverse side of the material, and great care is taken to ensure that the front and back of the embroidery look alike. Comparable forms of embroidery are known from Herat, in the west of the country, and from among the Nuristanis, east of the capital Kabul. This form of embroidery is comparable to the chikan work from northern India (especially from the city of Lucknow).

One of the most widespread uses of embroidery is for the small skullcaps worn by men, women and children. Each group has its own style of cap and form of decoration, with many variations, designs and colours that can be related to different villages, gender, and so forth.

A range of different types of silk, cotton and wool yarns are used for embroidery on whatever fabrics are available. Metallic threads, spangles, sequins, mirrors and metallic braids are incorporated into the designs.

In addition, beads and large mirrors are used for Pashtun women’s dresses, while beads, coins and shells are often found on the dresses worn by nomadic women. Pashtun and Baluchi women also include small mirrors (shisha) in their works; an idea that originates in northern India.

Life in the harem of the Afghan Amir, around 1900, is described as follows (see illustration):  “The harem of the Ameer of Afghanistan is not in the least like the pictures one is accustomed to see. The ladies are never seen lounging about as depicted on the stage. One the other hand, they vie with each other in striving to produce the best work in knitting, embroidering, in silk and wool, and in their own beautiful fine stitching. The Queen of the Harem, who is also the favourite wife of the Ameer, often may be seen making her children’s clothes with her sewing machine, whilst one of the ladies of the court reads to her.”

A relatively limited number of stitches are used and these are closely related to the various ethnic groups. Some of the main forms are: blanket stitchchain stitchcross stitchherringbone stitchHolbein stitchladder stitchlong and short stitchRoumanian couchingsatin stitch, and slanting blanket stitch. Some of these stitches are used to cover large areas of cloth quickly with bold, floral designs, while others are used to create intricate, geometric patterns.

Afghan embroidery offers a great variety of motifs and designs. Each region and group has its own particular range of motifs, such as the sun and stars; geometric shapes (circles, squares, triangles, rosettes; Greek fret patterns); foliage based motifs such as almond leaves, melon stalks, pomegranates, as well as flowers such as tulips and pimento blossoms, which represent fertility.

Stylised animal elements, such as ram’s horns and ‘lions tails’ also occur. Sometimes objects such as amulets and even teapots are included. In some areas embroideries include figurative motifs such as animals, birds and very occasionally human beings.

Afghan Dress

Many people, both inside and outside of the country, regard Afghanistan as a land that is perpetually affected by war, terrorism and internecine strife. Yet Afghanistan is also a country with a remarkably rich heritage, including a fascinating array of ethnic and regional clothing traditions. Afghanistan is the home of more than fifty ethnic groups, and many of these have indeed their own styles of garments and textile decoration. The different traditions often reflect the position of the country, between Central Asia to the north, Iran and the Middle East to the west, and the Indian subcontinent to the east. For millennia the people of all these neighbouring lands have affected the history and the dress traditions of the people of Afghanistan, just as the people of Afghanistan have influenced the history and dress of the neighbouring lands.

This online exhibition is based on a gallery display at the Textile Research Centre, Leiden, called “Well Dressed Afghanistan”. The exhibition, open between 8 November 2010 and 23 March 2011, included over thirty outfits, plus other garments and accessories, for men, women and children. There was also an unusual outfit for buzkashi, the aggressive game of ‘polo’ played by Afghan men on horseback. In addition there was the opportunity to try on a chadari (burqa), the (in)famous Afghan veil for women.

Also on display was a series of photographs taken by the Dutch photographer, Hans Stakelbeek, who between 2006 and 2010 frequently visited Afghanistan on behalf of the Dutch Ministry of Foreign Affairs. The organisation of the exhibition was supported by Dr Willem Vogelsang, former curator Southwest and Central Asia of the National Museum of Ethnology, Leiden, and between June 2008 and January 2011 working in Uruzgan, Southern Afghanistan, as cultural advisor to the Dutch forces stationed in the province.

The TRC collection of Afghan clothing and textiles owes much to May and Rolando Schinasi, who donated to the TRC many items that they collected in Afghanistan from the 1950s to the 1970s. Another collector who donated many items to the TRC is the American ethnomusicologist, Mark Slobin, who spent long periods of time in Afghanistan between 1967 and 1972. Finally, we would like to thank Mohammad Khairzada in Kabul, and many other Afghan friends, for all their help and advic

For further reading, see: M. Catherine Daly, ‘Afghan dress and the diaspora’; Willem Vogelsang, ‘Regional dress of Afghanistan’; Gillian Vogelsang-Eastwood, ‘Afghan embroidery’, and idem, ‘The chadari/burqa of Afghanistan and Pakistan’. These four articles are included in: Gillian Vogelsang-Eastwood (ed.), Berg Encyclopedia of World Fashion and Dress, Vol. V: Central and Southwest Asia. London/Oxford/New York/New Delhi/Sydney: Berg Publishers (Bloomsbury Publications) 2011.

For more information on the exhibition, click the TRC Needles entry.

The items contained in the individual image galleries all form part of the TRC collection, unless indicated otherwise.

For this online exhibition:

  • Authors: Gillian and Willem Vogelsang
  • Web-design: Joost Koopman
  • Exhibition design: Willem Vogelsang
  • Publisher: TRC Leiden.
  • Year of publication: 2017
  • Copyright: All illustrations of objects housed in the TRC collection can be used free of charge, but please add to the caption: “Courtesy Textile Research Centre, Leiden” and the pertinent accession number of the object.