Zoomorphic Motifs in Contemporary Textile Design

Issue #2 • 1648

Borijon Torebaev,
Designer, Textile Technologist

Animal images, or zoomorphic motifs, are one of the common types of textile ornamentation. The ancient Assyrian culture monuments dating to y.668 BC bear images of hunting wild animals, masterfully created by the Scythians who often pictured only parts of an animal (head with horns, horns separately, and the like). Still this was not an ornament yet, as the images were not connected with one another and did not repeat homogeneous forms in a rhythmical iteration. Over time, a picture of an animal lost its ritual purpose and turned into an ornament.
A good notion about patterned textiles is given not only by original Coptic fabrics with animal designs, but also by miraculously surviving remnants of the VI-VIII century murals found in Northern Tokharistan and Sughd. The Balalyktepa and Afrasiab wall paintings shown aristocracy clad in luxurious vestments, which give an idea about patterned textiles common in Central Asia in the early Middle Ages. Most of these fabrics are decorated with circles framed by pearls, offering several versions of being filled with heraldic compositions of lions, wolves, wild boars, deer, rams and domestic animals. Scholars believe that the tradition of using this kind of textile ornamental medallions survives to this day in Central Asian suzane embroideries and printed cloth.
In the early Middle Ages the so-called Sassanid style dominated, featuring abundant pictures of animals and feats of real and mythical heroes. Sometimes the ornamentation related to the style contained interconnected or scattered rosettes, medallions, pearls, hearts, etc. One can also trace a link between the silk weaving art of Tokharistan and the Sasanid art.
Zoomorphic ornament has different variations. One of them, ornithomorphic, is popular in the art of many nations, including those of Central Asia. The motifs in this ornament are birds and elements thereof. For example, women’s skullcaps in Marghilan are decorated with embroidered blue or green birds, the symbols of happiness. The birds, bulbul nuskha, are pictured sitting on branches. Nightingales, for instance, are embroidered in bright colours; they appear organic and have an integral ornamental style. Feathers of different birds, especially exotic ones – an important detail and an ornamental emphasis in the costumes of many nations – were perceived to be the symbol of riches and bounty.
In the past, Central Asian women (sometimes men, too) decorated their headdresses with feathers. For instance, they believed that the feathers of an eagle owl could protect from a bad disease. The Maverannahr miniature paintings show girls in conical hats with base rim embroidered with pearls, to which small tubes with black feathers were attached (1). To this day among some of the Central Asian peoples lives a custom to clad a bride in a gown with pheasant feathers. The Italian Renaissance textiles, apart from a pomegranate design, also featured a particularly popular ‘peacock feathers’ motif.
Warm colour and decorative ornamentation of ceramics certainly appeal to the textile design masters. For example, Gijduvan ceramics is characterized by velvety greenish-brown scale with golden shimmer, as well as figurative painting that echoes the design of popular Uzbek textiles. Of particular interest is a centre-piece of a lagan platter showing a simplified image of a peacock or peacock tail, tovus pati (peacock feather), and other bird elements often resembling a flower characteristic of the Gidjuvan pottery school (2).
Creative process of developing an ornamental design for apparel textiles is inseparable from the work on costumes sketches, which textile designers call croquis [кроки], for even a perfect design poses a question of whether it would look good on a human figure. Therefore, professional designers have a custom of making sketches to most accurately communicate their idea to clients and manufacturers. Thus, an image on paper is an essential part of textile design, which informs and tests the creator’s idea. Artistic and technical evaluation panel then uses additional sketch known as costume graphics (sometimes also called fashion graphics), which is widely used by apparel designers.
The images of amphibians and fish are known as ichtyomorphic motifs. The balik kuz (fish eye) ornament in the form of tiny squares is often found in embroidered collars of women’s dress, in carpets, small embroideries, etc. The frog motif (kurbaka) exists in the art of many nomadic and semi-nomadic nations; although, being a totem image, it represents the look of the freshwater inhabitant quite realistically. At the Bronze Age Sapallitepa site archaeologists found the most ancient frog in the territory of Uzbekistan, carved in stone. L. I. Rempel noted that in the applied arts of Central Asia frog is present at all conceptual levels as the embodiment of moisture and rain, a protective charm, and a symbol of happiness and prosperity.
Entomomorphic ornament represents insect forms of innumerable variety. The appeal of the tiny creatures comes not only from their mysteries, but also from their beauty and a perfect shape. Textile design often uses butterflies and dragonflies, and of the beetle family – ladybugs: miniscule, beautiful and brightly coloured, usually they feature on children’s clothes.
Belief in the sacral power of animals may explain the emergence of commonly used ornamental elements, such as horn-shaped designs and different variations thereof, including frequent presentations of an animal based on the principle of substituting whole with part. Horn is one of the totem symbols popular both in the art of Central Asia, and in the applied arts of Caucasian and Siberian peoples; it was associated with wealth, the multiplication of cattle, and protection. There is a big variety of horn motifs; some are very specific, while others transformed, acquiring schematic, graphical form. In a single image they may combine parts of different animals. Among the most common versions of a horn motif is a cross with horn-like elements at the ends. Combinations of horns and a cross have loaded semantics, functioning as double protection and making one of the most ancient symbols in the applied arts of many nations. Heart-shaped designs representing camel’s footprint stand for the wishes of a happy journey. Goose neck, eye of a camel-calf, dog tail and others are often found in the culture of nomadic and semi-nomadic peoples of Central Asia. Magical properties were endowed by the Karakalpaks to tracks of different animals: birds, mice, dogs… (3)
In the distant past it was prohibited to portray living beings in the Muslim art, and artists resorted to the conventional language of symbols and metaphors. Ancient symbols might seem to turn into an ornamental motif, while in fact, despite all the restrictions, images of living creatures still retained their significance for the peoples of Central Asia as magical and protective symbols. In abre textiles the original prototypes were stylized almost beyond recognition and completely transformed into ornamental compositions. These include oqkush (swan), kuchkor shokhi (ram horns), yulbars dumi (tiger tail), ot tuyok (horse hoofs), chiyon (scorpion), ilon izi (snake track), etc. The names alone point to the zoomorphic nature of the images.
Lately, textile design has offered great variety of animalistic subjects sometimes akin to illustration graphics, as they are based on objective representation of the world with the illusion of space, spectral effects and tonal shifts. The ornamental pattern, in turn, may be used both in synthesis with its outward shape, and as its integral element. Besides, it can be transformed outside its association with the object itself. Thus, ornamental nature motif can be regarded as having a self-contained artistic value in textile design.
Animal designs have been used since ancient times. For instance, Rustam, a hero in the Shahnameh poem, was portrayed wearing a kabo with a design imitating tiger skin. There was a time when many nations clad their military commanders in leopard skins; these were also worn by high-ranking French officers. To this day Scots use this attire as part of their dress uniform.
In textile ornamentation zoomorphic motifs usually coexist with vegetable ones, or appear against the background of fluttering butterflies, the inhabitants of herbal jungle. Integrity of style and colour solution of the motives, while connecting the heterogeneous elements of the composition, subjects them to a common rhythm and motion.
Theme images can go along with a script to reproduce the environment in which the action takes place. Script is an important element of a textile composition, created with the same artistic means and techniques as the main ornaments. Expressiveness of the script makes the reading of the text easier, and its ornamental quality and stylization are then converted in fabric to a textile design (5). Textile designers can use readily available fonts and alphabets and modify them to suit the look of an item.
In the mountainous areas of the country they have found more than 150 sites of ancient rock art – petroglyphs showing great number and variety of subjects. Petroglyph-inspired design is not often found in contemporary art, yet recently artists have demonstrated a keen interest in this ancient art. Textile designers also source their inspiration from rock art with predominantly animal themes, as well as from the texture and color of stone.
The animal world offers an inexhaustible source of ornamental ideas. Nowadays, too, the motifs inspired by this beautiful and mysterious world, which frequently recur in fashion, are extensively used in the design of modern textiles.

1. Рахимова З. И. К истории костюма народов Узбекистана. Ташкент, 2005.
2. Алиева С. Гончарное дело Гиждувана // «San’at», №4, 2000.
3. Богословская И. Зооморфные мотивы каракалпакского орнаментального искусства // «San’at», № 2, 2009.
4. Махкамова С. А. Узбекские абровые ткани. Ташкент, 1963.
5. Козлов В. Н. Основы художественного оформления текстильных изделий. М., 1981.

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