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Silk Road

A Textile Journey

Review of the talk by Chris Alexander
on September 25th 2019
Chris Alexander

Chris Alexander is not your normal Arts Society lecturer; erudite and full of knowledge of course, but he is not so much an academic as a practical, hands on British entrepreneur from the Central Asian steppes!  Having lived and worked in Khiva, Uzbekistan, and established a carpet and textile workshop reviving ancient designs and embroideries, his skills and experience extend to combing yak down, walnut wood carving; and he is now, in London, a church curate!  No wonder several times he said to us “That is another lecture”.  What a versatile person.

His themes were threefold of wool, silk and cotton all covering different historical and geographical themes.  Often, he gave a perspective of, for example, erecting of the family yurt with its frame of poplar and willow, minus forty to plus forty temperatures; or the political context of Soviet oppression of the local peoples.  Animals are at the heart of the way of life in these parts; the sheep for example being valuable for meat, wool, milk and dung for fuel.

The Silk Road is an expression from the 1870’s and is a phrase used to link a number of exiting central Asian trade routes.  Chris took us through the life of the silk worm through to the tools, equipment and processes of weaving silk garments; the combination of cotton warp with silk weft.  There were diversions to the role of the large Jewish communities which used to exist in the area and their role in the trade in dyes and colours.  He explained the role of silk in trade where it has been a currency for the purchase of paper and gunpowder.

It was fascinating to hear of the role of cotton in the imperial rivalries of Britain and Russia in the nineteenth century over control of trade routes with India.  While Chris occasionally paused to show us a sequence of patterned and coloured materials, we were then taken forward to the destruction of the Aral Sea and the diverting of water resources, such that by 2014 the Sea has ceased to exist.  He described this as one of the world’s largest ecological disasters.

He added some guidance of the position of religion in local Uzbek society, nominally Muslim but with a strong line of “Folk Islam”; but even now the rivalry between Sunni and Shia Islam seems to have spread to this area; and it is “another lecture” when he drifted on to the plight of the Uighur population in China.  He had begun his talk with images of ancient textile wrapped corpses, well preserved in dry air and with salt, which seemed to show an ancient ethnicity that was not Chinese.

Chris covered a lot of ground about wool, silk and cotton.  It could not be described as a lecture of pinpoint detail rather a wide discourse full of fascinating stories and anecdotes.  He kept us enthralled from beginning to end and there was more than a murmur afterwards from members that we would like to welcome him to Cranleigh again one day.

Stephen Dennison

Related link

Silk Road - Wikipedia article