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Salon du Tapis d'Orient

The Salon du Tapis d'Orient is a moderated discussion group in the manner of the 19th century salon devoted to oriental rugs and textiles and all aspects of their appreciation. Please include your full name and e-mail address in your posting.

The Embroidered Niche Form Textile

by Richard Farber


In the world of textiles there are certain shapes and designs that tend to repeat through the centuries because of functional, technical, traditional or aesthetic reasons. Embroideries used to wrap things - korans, turbans, piles of bread - tend to be square.

Embroideries used to hang on the wall tend to be rectangular and large. Bedsheets are bigger than the size of beds. The width of cloth conveniently worked with embroidery is pretty much a constant. - it is easier to work a cloth 20 to 50 cm wide than one a meter wide.

The niche form embroidery is one of these recurring shapes that one finds in many geographical areas of the Moslem world in different centuries. In this salon I will attempt to share some of what I have learned about these pieces, to suggest an idea or two of my own and finally, to present in more detail a new acquisition of mine, an Ottoman embroidery, in this form and ask your input about it.

The area of discussion, then, is: textiles embroidered with an arch form on light weight fabrics - cotton, linen, or silk in a particular range of size. I will leave out the heavier fabric textiles that were used in tents. It is not my area.

Here are two closeups showing the quality of the embroidery.


In delineating an area of research, a definition of the area is important. The size of the object is part of its definition. The literature in this field is meager and seems not be based on a large enough sample of pieces analyzed.

First we will look at examples from the literature describing niche form textiles from Uzbekistan.

Tschepelwezkaja in Susani Usbekistans (on pg. 17, calling them dshojnamas, "kleinen Gebetsteppich") says that the size is 130-150 cm length, 40 - 110 cm width. The only example in her book lies outside the parameters that she stated (126 cm by 96 cm).

She also states that because of their main function as prayer mats, the central field is not embroidered and the bottom is not usually 'occupied' (we will get to these points later).

Bausback in his catalogue Susani Stickereien aus Mittleasiaen, gives the dimensions as approximately 130/150 x 90/110 cm. The only example in his catalogue, 158 x 95 cm, is outside the parameters that he suggested.
Bausbeck continues, "With this type of embroidery the religious function of these covers (Decken) like that of prayer rugs has a rigid religious function". This idea will be considered later.

Yigal Yanai in Susani Central Asian Embroideries on p. 18 describes "Jai Namaz: an embroidered prayer rug. The embroidery is in the form of a Mihrab, the Muslim prayer niche, leaving the center without embroidery. Typical size: 1.6 x 1.2 m. His only example is on pg. 22 and it is 143 x 98 cm, again outside the parameters that he suggested.

There is very little literature on the subject and these are the only textual references to djoi namas that I have. I don't want to denigrate the outstanding contributions of these pioneer researchers, but only to show that these inaccuracies in questions of size are just an indication of how much is yet to be learned and of the importance of cataloging and studying the pieces that survive.

A catalogue of my collection was published in 1996 by the Deutches Textilmuseum in Krefeld, Oriental Textiles, a Composer's Collection. This is a photo of an embroidered saf from Krefeld catalogue. It is not included in the table showing measurements.

Here are some dimensions (in cm) of my collection of suzani arch forms, listed by length.

Length Width
102 76
123 82
125 90
127 90
128 87
128 111
130 87
132 90
133 83
133 83
133 105
137 90
139 80
140 85
140 93
140 86
148 84 Embroidered central field.
150 110 This piece is missing the top; this probably was its original size.
152 109
165 97 Embroidered central field.
167 90

The lengths are 102 - 167 cm; widths are 72 - 111 cm. Thus, typical dimensions for niche form suzani would be 120-160 cm x 80-110 cm. Here are some published examples that also fall within these parameters.

The Bausback piece 158 x 95
The Yanai piece 143 x 98
The Tschepeleweskaja 126 x 96
A further Bausback from 1979 132 x 107 Central field embroidered.

Textile Arts currently has a djoinamas with the measurements of 155 x 114 cm. This is slighty outside the parameters suggested, but I will stay with the 120-160 cm x 80-110 cm approximation until a large database is assembled, because some limiting categorization which is close to including all the examples is necessary to understand any media discussed. A size definition of too large a range might be less effective or even meaningless.

There is another form of embroidery that often has a niche (sometimes a rectangle), a large cloth with an unworked field, that according to the literature was used as a bedsheet on the bridal night in the Ottoman empire and in Central Asia. These are typical bedsheet size, over two meters by about a meter and a half and are not considered here. I think it is important to differentiate between these two traditions of embroidery. Size is the clearest indication.

My Persian niche form is 69.5 x 48 cm (the bottom guard border is missing, so its original size was perhaps 72 x 48 cm).

My Mughal niche form is 163 x 105 cm (It was originally part of a saf). A very similar piece is the V & A. with similar dimensions. (See Barbara Brend, Islamic Art, British Museum press, 1991 for a color illustration).

The Ottoman niche form that will be questioned later is 109 x 81 cm.

I don't know of further existing Persian and Ottoman and Mughal examples of original niche form embroideries on light weight material. It seems clear that a larger database on this form is needed.

Rectangle with borders including guards on at least three sides, with a straight or curliqued arch. Opposed to what is stated in the literature, in some examples the central field is worked and in many examples (about one third of my collection) there is a bottom guard border or an indication of one by a straight or scalloped line.

A question now arises as to whether pieces with an embroidered field under the arch should be considered separately. I believe that they should be considered together.

(I suggest that you have a look at the article by Steve Price "What do you mean, "It's a prayer rug?"

The embroideries under discussion here may have had different functions at different times. I will list the possible usages of this textile form:
1. Ritual - religious use: Embroidered fabrics are far too fragile to be put on the ground when the supplicant is engaged in prayer. Although there is some wear to the region where the knees would be placed on my Mughal piece, which suggests that somebody might have tried to pray on it a couple of hundred years ago (probably in Persia, where the backing was made), I don't think this was the major use of these niche forms; none of them would have survived. The textiles might have been used in the home, especially by women, to indicate the direction of their prayers (Qibla - the gate to paradise, the direction of Mecca). The dome in Islamic architecture is sometimes the symbol for the celestial heavens rising on a series of arches above the open areas for prayer. But sometimes they are just a convenient way of roofing a space. Just because a form sometimes has a religious meaning, doesn't mean that the form will always have one.
2. Functional use in the home. As bed quilts, for example. Michael Franses has suggested that the quilted examples of this textile may have been used as covers for cribs. Covers for children might be more reasonable because they seem too large for cribs. I have seen some that have been quilted, but not a large enough number to suggest what percentage was quilted. Four of my pieces are quilted.

They might have been used as wall hangings to cover niches (instead of doors). This is the usual explanation of the nim suzani (nim means half or half-sized in this context), which is the fully embroidered non-arch form of the pieces in question. They may have been objects of decoration. In various descriptions of the use of textiles in the home, Roderick Taylor in (Turkish Embroideries and in Greek Island Embroideries), and others note that, especially during times of festivities, the house was festooned with embroidered textiles.

I think that the decorative function and the importance of embroidery as a means of artistic expression for the women who probably made these objects, cannot be stressed enough. There are strong dualities in this area of the world. Some examples include: nomad and settled, desert and oasis, religious and secular, harsh light and shade, linear and arabesque, natural and stylized nature (formal gardens).

The geographical areas where these textiles were produced have striking change over short distances. You are in a desert or steppe environment and suddenly there is an oasis or a river garden. The dichotomy between the flowering and the barren, the nomadic and the settled, the harsh light outside and the cool shadows of the home, is manifested in these Islamic textiles by the floral border and the empty center (in the case of the non-worked center fields) - the love for detailed filling in of the surface as opposed to the striking emptiness of the white, and the arabesques of the borders in opposition to the straight lines which often determine the arches. I believe this so called prayer rug form is an important expression of some of these dualities.

The pieces with a worked field under the arches are of a different aesthetic. Perhaps the arched borders represent the gate to paradise and the central field is a description of paradise itself. I also suggest that the geometrical form of arches is a tribute to Allah and his order.

In most examples the borders are in mirror symmetry. In this example the two borders are not in mirror symmetry. It is a beautiful "error" caused by forgetting to go between the minor and the major flower in the right border at the top.

1. Opportunity. During the 70's and 80's, a large number of immigrants came to Israel and brought with them large numbers of textiles. The arch form pieces were not much loved by the dealers, some of whom had a superstitious dislike of objects that they thought were used in Moslem ritual. The prices were therefore much lower for a piece with an arch form than for a similar quality and sized piece that was embroidered all over.
2. Appreciation I find that the challenges to the creator of the textile by the arch form necessitated artistic solutions that are very beautiful, and that the different manifestation of the arch form in the various traditions are fascinating. I especially appreciate the sharp dichotomy between the floriated and the plain
3. Dialogue. I began to find that these arch form pieces when displayed together would 'sing' to one another and enjoyed hanging three or so arches together, rather like creating Safs. There was a wonderful concert in Krefeld when an entire area was devoted just to these forms and one could feel the movement of styles between them.
4. Research. I feel that I cannot know enough about all forms and areas of embroidery and surely don't have the resources to assemble a collection that says something, so the choice was to either specialize by region or by form. The combination of availability and inclination led me to specialize in the prayer and the square forms. I also have been lucky in finding pieces and have had the help of friends and dealers (very often the same).

And now with the help of the textile fans out in web land I hope to further the research into this one 'niche' by assembling a data base and learning from you all.

Please Continue to Part 2.