This beautiful and colourful woman’s traditional robe or (khalat) was purchased by Dr. Reem Tariq El Mutwalli at the Sharjah Islamic market (suq), recently named The Blue Souk – an outstanding market for antiques in the UAE – in 1997. It was eventually added to The Zay Initiative to enhance its collection.
This is a (yatak) style khalat in cotton (adras) with no padding or quilting. The absence of a distinct collar in this yatak is a sign that it was made for women.
The field of the yatak is constructed of cotton adras in ivory, brown, and grey. The hemline all over has borders or edging made of a separately woven or braided thick edging piece or (jiyek)in ivory, black, and brown silk hand stitched to the piece.
The lining of the piece is constructed of three different fabrics. The primary lining is in printed cotton with blue and green tiny floral motifs while the sleeves are lined with a grey plain satin and the borders are of silk adras in blue, green, and ivory.
The border lining is further secured with (butterfly_chain_stitch) in a mustard yellow thread which also acts as an embellishment. It has slits on two sides to enable ease of movement and riding.
A Central Asian robe or khalat like this is very common around the old Silk Road. It travelled through India and Iran to the Middle East and through Ottoman Turkey as far as Russia and Romania.
In medieval times richly decorated robes or khalat were given as honorific gifts in India a tradition that was borrowed and continued by the British through the Colonial times when khilat a derivative of khalat was used as any gift of money or goods bestowed by the British East India Company.
Thus, it is fascinating how the connotation of a word that was originally loaned from the Arabic word khil’ah meaning honorary robes changed in Central Asia and referred to any robes. However, when the Central Asian loan word khalat reached South Asia its connotation changed back to the meaning of the original Arabic word.
Similarly, the word has been borrowed in modern Russian to mean any robe, while in Romania a derivative halat is used for garments such as smocks, bathrobes, and dressing gowns.
Additionally, the Yiddish and the Ashkenazi Jewish community use another derivative khlat which refers to loose long coats with (shawl) collars. It is also worth noting that these Central Asian long loose robes were often made of or had lining in silk (ikat) fabric also known as (adras) or (atlas) in Central Asian and Uyghur Turkic respectively is sometimes classified as cloud or (abr) in Tajik as the patterns are reminiscent of the iridescent reflection of clouds on the water.
Usually, silk was cultivated by every household in Central Asia, however, the silk yarn dyeing industry was primarily dominated by the Jewish community of Central Asia.
Central Asian ikat are traditionally (warp) ikat which means they have silk warps with intricate patterns held together by cotton (weft). These ikats were made in established locations and required the contribution of at least 13 specialized craftspeople.
Among them were designers or pattern makers, who drew patterns on the warps, makers of hot and cold dyes, expert resist dyers, loom builders, workers who arranged and adjusted the warps on the loom, and weavers who created the final material.
The fact that these crafts were often organised into guilds and comprised of diverse ethnic groups meant that completing a single ikat fabric was a remarkable feat of occupational and ethnic cooperation.
Amongst the Uyghurs (atlas) or ikat was used exclusively for women’s clothing.
Historically there were twenty-seven types of atlas during the Qing Chinese occupation, out of which only four varieties exist today. These include the black ikat – qara-atlas – reserved for older women; the yellow, blue, or purple ikat – khoja’e-atlas – worn by married women; red ikat – qizil-atlas – for young girls; and the royal ikat – Yarkent-atlas – which was developed during the Yarkent Khanate – 1514-1705 – and displays a wide range and styles.
The Uyghur word ‘atlas’ and its Central Asian synonym ‘adras’ is probably a direct loan from either Greek Atlas or Arabic ‘(aṭlas)’ which means silk in Arabic, because traditional ikat fabric in Central Asia was made of silk fibre.
Opinion is split on the origin of the Arabic term. While one group believes that it comes from the Aramaic word with the same pronunciation which means dusty or black, another suggests that it was a derivative of the Greek Atlas a name given to the biggest moth – Attacus Atlas – in the world native to China, India, Malaysia and Indonesia that also happens to produce the finest quality silk.
It is only fitting that one of the biggest moths in the world shares a name with Atlas, the Titan god of Greek mythology cursed to hold up the heavens for eternity and synonymous to endurance. However, scientists have long speculated that it could have been given its name because of the patterns on its wings, which also look like a paper map.
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- Suleman, Fahmida. Textiles of the Middle East and Central Asia (British Museum) The Fabric of Life. London: Thames and Hudson, 2017.
- Embroidery from Afghanistan Fabric, folios. Sheila Paine. Washington: University of Washington Press, 2006.
- Sukhareva, Olʹga Aleksandrovna. Suzani: Central Asian Decorative Embroidery. Samarkand: SMI Asia, 2013.
- https://www.textile-forum-blog.org/2023/01/on-the-roads-of-samarkand-wonders-of-silk-and-gold/ 3