Textile Art from Daghestan

by Robert Chenciner

Textile & Art Publications, 1993

Quatrefoil Medallion, 18th century,
111 x 66 cm, silk embroidery on cotton (detail)



Situated between the Black Sea and the Caspian Sea, Daghestan is an inaccessible and mountainous part of the Caucasus, an autonomous region first of the Soviet Union and now of Russia, flanked by the mighty Russian and Persian empires. Kaitag art, from a small region in the south of Daghestan, is the creation of a multi-ethnic people, incorporating Zoroastrian, Muslim, Christian, Jewish and pagan symbolism. This remarkably vibrant and beautiful tradition is found mostly in the rectangular panels embroidered with vividly coloured silks that are the subject of this book. Examples are attributed to the 16th through to the 19th centuries. The geography of the region and the self-contained and inward-looking pattern of living of the Kaitag people were major factors in the confinement of such a distinct art to such a small group of villages.



Lakai couple beside her horizontal loom, like those used to weave the cotton ground cloths of the embroideries


Two women in their yard, cleaning wool on a vertical steel comb for felt to make boots, covers or ritual masks



The vast repertoire of designs is the legacy of the history of the region and the multi-religious society that produced them. Byzantine, Fatimid, Mongolian, Timurid, Mamluk, Chinese, Ottoman and Celtic forms, many of great antiquity, combined with local animist art in a glorious diversity: hieroglyphic motifs, sun signs, birds signs, sun bursts, octagons, cosmic columns, horns, crosses, fantastic crab-like beasts, elk, reindeer, fat swordfish, dragons, amoebae-like shapes, masks and even foetuses can be identified. Many ancient talismanic symbols occur, for these panels were used in rituals associated with birth, marriage and death - to wrap cradles or as dowry covers, for example. A number of the motifs can also be found on local tombstones.


Elk on Red, 18th century or earlier,
120 x 78 cm, silk embroidery on cotton (detail)


Ribbed Horns on Red, 18th century,
95 x 64 cm, silk embroidery on cotton (detail)

  The design bravado of the embroideries, with their shimmering colour density and the assured juxtapositioning of colour and texture gives them a contemporary significance. The designs have a confidence and verve which evoke a sense of recognition and pleasure in an audience far removed in history and culture from their original owners, to whom they were evidently of powerful totemic significance. Indeed, the more abstract among the embroideries stand on a par with the work of 20th-century Western masters such as Klee, Miro and Matisse.


In his text, Robert Chenciner has skilfully combined Kaitag history, philology, ethnography, material culture and textile technology to provide a context for their rich and exciting art. To accompany the text, forty-seven outstanding Kaitag panels, representing the extraordinary variety of designs, colours and techniques which combine to create these great masterpieces, are presented on full colour plates. These also form part of a comprehensive catalogue of 171 examples, each illustrated in black and white, with a full description and technical analysis. The embroidery stitches are fully explained with diagrams, and many of the dyes have been analysed. This catalogue will doubtless serve as the definitive reference work on Kaitag art.


Three Hands, 18th century or earlier,
88 x 49 cm, silk embroidery on cotton (detail)


Zigzag, 18th century or earlier,
107 x 67 cm, silk embroidery on cotton (detail)

  The Author
Robert Chenciner is a Senior Associate Member of St. Antony's College, Oxford, and an Honorary Member of the Daghestan branch of the Academy of Sciences of Russia, and he has been studying textiles from a wide range of cultures for over fifteen years. He originally obtained permission to visit Daghestan in 1986, and during six years of ethnographic fieldwork with his collaborator Dr Magomedkhan Magomedkhanov visited hundreds of villages. He found that many traditional customs have survived, and the local people helped answer various questions about the embroideries and their usage.



...a thoroughly researched and superbly illustrated catalogue raisonne. [Chenciner] provides the first thorough contextual survey of Kaitag and ethnography, as well as of all aspects of the embroideries themselves.
Hali, The International Magazine of Carpet and Textile Art

This is one of the most absorbing books on art published [recently]..., and the colour illustrations make the most of the staggering repertoire of patterns and colours in Kaitag art.

Published by Textile & Art Publications Ltd, London, November 1993
First edition 2,000 copies
- 315 x 245 mm
- 208 pages, hardbound in linen with colour jacket
- high quality colour reproduction on French art paper
- 28,000-word text by Robert Chenciner, comprising an introductory essay and extensive captions, with a comprehensive catalogue including full technical analyses of 171 embroideries
- 80 colour plates and photographs, over 180 black and white illustrations, as well as drawings and a map of the region

ISBN: 978-1-898406-00-6

Buy Now

Available direct from:
Textile & Art Publications
Unit 4 Heron Trading Estate, Alliance Road, London W3 0RA, England
TEL (44-20) 8896 3238



all text and illustrations © Textile & Art Publications 1993-2006:
not to be reproduced without permission.

turn to: Textile & Art Publications front page - textile-art homepage