Dressing The Stans

Turkmen fleece cap from northeastern Iran, late 20th century. Turkmen fleece cap from northeastern Iran, late 20th century. TRC 1999.0136.

4. Raw fibres

Central Asia is home to a range of raw materials that are used for the production of textiles for personal, domestic and public use. Traditionally the main fibre types are cotton, as well as various animal fibres, such as camel hair, silk, sheep’s wool and goat hair.


The cotton plant is a member of the Gossypium genus (mallow family). Cotton consists of the soft, fluffy fibres that grow in a protective case (called a boll) surrounding the seeds of the cotton plant. There are four main types of cotton, of which Gossypium arboretum is native to Central Asia. Cotton has been grown in this part of the world, and in India and Pakistan, for thousands of years. By the medieval period the production of cotton was widespread. But it was in the twentieth century that the mega-industrial scale of cotton production in former Soviet Cental Asia and neighbouring Afghanistan took place and with it the devastating environmental damage due to the intensive use of water. The huge Aral Sea, for example, has just about vanished due to intensive cotton farming of cotton in the region and the drying up of the Amu Darya river.

Camel hair

Both the one-humped (dromedary) and the two-humped camel were used for their hair, that was applied to make various forms of cloth for garments, especially coats, and soft furnishing. The dromedary is more common in the Middle East and Iran, while the two-humped variety was more prevalent in the colder and more mountainous lands of Central Asia. The Bactrian camel (Camelus bactrianus) is in fact named after the ancient province of Bactria in what is now northern Afghanistan. The ruins of its ancient capital, now known as Balkh, still rise from the plains west of the Afghan city of Mazar-i Sharif. For thousands of years the Bactrian camel has been an important pack animal, especially along the so-called Silk Road that used to connect China with the Persian world and onto Europe.

2007.1125Uzbek woman's ikat dress made of silk, early twentieth century. TRC 2007.1125. For further information, click on the illustration.Silk and rayon

For hundreds of years, silk has been produced, spun, dyed and woven in Central Asia, and in particular in what is now Uzbekistan. The most widespread form of silk moth used is from the Bombyx sp., which lives on mulberry bushes. Until comparatively recently it was the most prestigious of the textile fibres. Then in the late 1890’s rayon or artificial silk (based on cellulose) was invented in France. By the mid-20th century rayon was widely used in many parts of the world. Rayon and more recently synthetic yarns (usually based on oil) have come onto the open market and have taken the place of ‘real’ silk. By the beginning of the 21st century most of the ikat textiles produced in Central Asia were of rayon or a synthetic fibre.

Wool and goat hair

Many different types of sheep and goat are kept in Central Asia, some of which are used for meat production, while others are more important for their wool and hair. These products are used for a wide range of goods, including clothing (notably coats and shoulder cloths and blankets), soft furnishings, tents (including the typical, circular yurts), tent furnishings, animal trappings, as well as specific items such as carpets (pile and flat-weave forms).