Colors of the Crossroads: Textiles of Afghanistan

Colors of the Crossroads: Textiles of Afghanistan

The traditional textiles of Afghanistan reflect the diverse nature of the country itself. Bordered by Iran, Pakistan, Turkmenistan, Uzbekistan, and Tajikstan, this landlocked nation has long been a cultural crossroad and a political battleground. Centuries of invasions and migrations into the area have produced Afghanistan’s great ethnic variety, as well as its troubled history. Today, Afghanistan is populated by approximately 26 million people that belong to over 20 different ethnic groups, each with their own language, customs, and traditions. Major groups include the Tajik, Uzbek, and Turkmen of the northern part of the country; the Hazara, who occupy the mountainous central area; and the Baluchi of southwestern Afghanistan. The Pashtun, the country’s largest ethnic group, inhabit the southeastern and eastern areas. Many of these groups also occupy parts of neighboring countries.

The designs, materials, and techniques of the traditional textiles of Afghanistan display these varying ethnic and regional influences, creating a mixture of Middle Eastern and Central Asian styles that are further combined with those of the Indian subcontinent. Clothing and household furnishings feature vibrant silk and cotton fabrics, wool woven into intricate patterns, and lavish embroidery. Even utilitarian items like grain bags and animal trappings may be beautifully decorated, creating liveliness in often harsh environments.

Most people of Afghanistan are Muslim, and their traditional garments are of Islamic type. Women wear a tunic or high-waist dress over loose trousers, and they usually cover their heads with a scarf or a large cloth. Some women wear tent-like garments, or burqa, that cover their bodies from head to foot. Men also wear a long tunic over loose pants and cover their heads with a cap or turban. A variety of vests, coats, and cloaks are also worn by both men and women.

This online exhibit presents Afghan garments and textiles from the Museum’s ethnographic collections. Made by various ethnic groups, these items provide examples of the diversity and rich heritage of this region

References and Related Links

Afghan dress (from Cultural

Map of ethnic composition of Afghanistan (from

Gillow, J. and B. Sentance. 1999. World Textiles: A Visual Guide to Traditional Techniques. London: Thames and Hudson.

Harvey, J. 1996. Traditional Textiles of Central Asia. London: Thames and Hudson.

Kalter, J. and M. Pavaloi. 1997. Uzbekistan: Heirs to the Silk Road. London: Thames and Hudson.

Kennett, F. 1994. Ethnic Dress. New York: Facts on File.

Madani, H. 2004. Afghanistan. San Diego: Greenhaven Press.

Text prepared by Mary French, winter 2006.

tunicTunic dressHazara Dress dressPashtun Dress Uzbek coatUzbek Coat
coatCoat wall hangingWall Hanging tent-pole coverTent-Pole Cover saddle bagSaddle Bag
capCap Chitrali capChitrali Cap

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