A connoisseur of traditional Kazakh art, the modern scholar Tokhtabaeva T.J. notes about regional features of embroidery, namely female master of Semey and Taldykorgan regions preferred to embroider on a dark background, while in the southern regions they prefer a brighter background. At the same time, the ornamental structure of embroidery in western Kazakhstan is distinguished by predominantly geometric motifs.
Artisans mostly use a wooden hoop, which was most often rectangular in shape for Kazakh women, and the biz hook made from bone. Today, instead of the bone tool, craftsmen use a metal one.
Traditional craftswomen used several technical methods of embroidery: chain stitch – biz keste, chain stitch in combination with serging – baspa or bastyrma, serging – shyralzhyn, looping topstitch – shalma keste, when thread forms a zigzag weave, which gives it openwork. Also, cross embroidery – jörmeme, which is mainly used in the decoration of women’s headdresses.
Embroiderers used a variety of threads: wool, silk, silver and gold. Embroidery in silver and gold is called altyndap tigu and zerleu, which was regarded as an elite art. This technique was used to decorate ceremonial clothes, velvet boots and shoes, usually such things were made for the higher authorities.
The range of embroidered goods was quite wide. These are, first of all, wall carpets tuskiiz (embroidered carpets of plis, velvet, silk and other fabrics, the decoration of which is dominated by medallions and floral patterns), towels sulgi or towels with two embroidered edges yeki basty sulgi, cushions japkysh, curtains perde, details of clothes, scarves oramal and many other products.
The most striking example of the skill of Kazakh artisans is the tuskiiz wall rug, which is usually based on round toothed and festoon motifs, of very complex and intricate forms, with an abundance of additional details. The classic U-shaped composition, dominated by solar circles with swirling rosettes, swastikas and various plant motifs, is very common.
The ornamental motifs of embroidered carpets are centred rosettes, buds, large medallions, flowers, garlands, etc. In other words, the ornamentation of embroidered carpets is dominated by plant, zoomorphic, geometric, and cosmogonic motifs, or a combination thereof, i.e. objects and phenomena of the surrounding world, sometimes combined with magical ritual signs.
Analyzing some samples of embroidered tüskiiz art historian J. D. Zhukenova notes their special structure, imagery and strength of emotional impact. Usually the ornament of an embroidered tüskiiz has large clear outlines, which is applied to a cotton or silk cloth or velvet. Tambour stitch biz keste was used to clearly indicate the contours of the pattern, and the inner surface was embroidered with a satin stitch. On expensive items embroidery with gold threads was also used.
Traditionally, the tüskiiz were left unfinished as a sign of the continuity of the art, its transmission from mother to daughter. The ornamental composition expressed the ideas of continuation of life, family, prosperity, wishes of happiness and abundance, which was quite understandable due to the functional purpose of the products.
Clothes were also richly embroidered. In women’s clothes these are parts of dresses (sleeves, hem, breast part, collar), camisoles, shapans, wide skirts – beldemshe, säukele, kimeshek, skullcaps and other headdresses. Men’s trousers and shapans, etc. were richly decorated with embroidery. In this regard, the museum funds of the country and a number of foreign museums keep unique samples of Kazakh embroidery art, which, as figuratively expressed by Sh.Zh.Tohtabayeva, it can safely be attributed to the products of a masterpiece type.
Just a few years ago, the art of traditional Kazakh embroidery was considered lost. However, the active work of one of the strongest masters of his craft, qandas and already world-famous artist Zeinelkhan Mukhamedzhan-uly has done a noble thing – the revival of traditional Kazakh embroidery in Kazakhstan itself. Having special artistic education, he became fascinated by traditional crochet embroidery biz keste, in which the artist found yet another opportunity to show his interest in the cultural heritage of Kazakhstan.
The master conducts a variety of trainings and has many students. His wife Gulzhai and daughter Botagoz are also recognised craftswomen. Another recognised master of embroidery also hails from Mongolia. She is Askhan Seilbeg, who is not only actively engaged in this type of art, but also teaches at the craft club in Mukur secondary school, 20 km from Semey.
Gulnazim Omirzak, a hereditary craftswoman, is distinguished among modern biz keste craftswomen. Her mother, Kalemkhan Rakhmetbaykyzy, is a master of traditional applied arts. Gulnazim herself admits that making art is time-consuming and complicated, but very beautiful and fascinating. Her handwriting is abstraction; her embroidered paintings often feature images of women, sky, stars, space and other archetypical symbols and signs of Kazakh culture.
Aigul Turalieva is another Kazakh craftswoman who works in the biz keste technique. She is called a unique designer who creates entire collections of clothes in the national style using a variety of techniques and materials. On one of the competitions Aigul presented her unique product – chapan of natural suede, decorated with the help of traditional Kazakh embroidery biz keste. For this product the craftswoman was awarded the nomination “Authenticity” at the republican competition “Sheber” in 2022.
Following the example of Zeinelkhan Mukhamedzhan-uly, the work of a young master Azamat Kosheterov, who became a finalist in the 10th Kazakh artisan competition “Sheber-2018”, stands out among the masters of biz keste embroidery. His teacher and mentor is the well-known masteress Laura Berdibekova, and Azamat’s work is characterized by richness of images, depth of implication, conciseness and special flair.
Shymkent-based embroiderer Elmira Shermukhanbetova is one of the well-known master embroiderers of biz keste. She believes the embroidery business is booming in Kazakhstan. But, nevertheless, hand embroidery, especially traditional embroidery, is a rare phenomenon.
A great contribution to the development of the traditional art of embroidery is made by the remarkable master, Tlek Sultan. He is a winner of many competitions, including the national Sheber artisan competition. The master works in the technique of biz keste and systematically teaches this art to all comers. The craftsman’s products have been awarded the UNESCO Seal of Excellence.
Once upon a time, the traditional Kazakh embroidery of zerleu has also gone practically into oblivion. Today, thanks to the efforts of talented craftsmen, this distinctive national brand is becoming popular. Virtually the only enterprise in this industry is the workshop of the famous artist Aizhan Abdubait.
Thus, in recent years, craftsmen have been literally reviving this unique form of art from the ashes, and much credit is due to Zeinelkhan Mukhamedzhanu uly and the Union of Artisans of Kazakhstan. However, it is too early to talk about a really big scale.
In this regard, especially attractive is the experience of China, where an industrial park of about 6,000 embroiderers was established in the region of Mora (Kazakh Autonomous Region). And the park’s activities are one of the sources of economic development in the region.