Keste is traditional Kazakh hand embroidery with colorful threads, needle or hook (biz/ilme) and wooden hoop (kergysh). In Kazakh, keste means “scheme”. Samples of embroidery with colorful wool threads were found among artifacts in Berelskiy repository (Eastern Kazakhstan), dated fourth century BC.
Traditionally Kazakhs embroider on velvet, plush, felt, cotton and silk fabrics with wool, cotton, silk and metal threads and gold and silver bullion. As well gimp trim, seed beads, coral and mother of pearl beads, and pure silver elements are widely used. The most outstanding embroidery technique Kazakhs were known for is elegant and fine silk embroidery on suede.
There are around 40 Kazakh embroidery stitches that vary from simple ones to more sophisticated and intricate stitches. These include biz keste (tambour embroidery made with fine hook); tizbek tygis; shyrash tygis; tyshkhan iz (mouse footprint); khus izi (bird footprint); shynzhar; shym keste (filling stitch); khoykhusak; khygash; albyr keste (double chain stitch), oraypek or oraypa (types of albyr keste); kebeke/zheurme/orys keste/aykhakh tygis (cross stitch embroidery); kerege bas tygis (goat stitch); khabyrga; shyralzhyn (couching stitch); baspa (satin stitch); bastyrma (bokhara stitch); bedel keste (padded satin stitch); zhormeu (dimensional stem stitch); marzhandau (seed bead embroidery); altyndap tygu (goldwork with gold/silver thread); zerleu (gold/silver bullion embroidery); okha (gimp braid trimming).
Thread dyes are made from plants, including madder, moss, henna for bright orange; rhubarb for yellow; pine bark for reddish-brown; onion peel for earthy colors and ochre; cherry extract for pink, and currant extract for vinous. To ensure natural dyes remain colorfast, ashutas (alum/bitter stone) used as a mordant.
Using embroidery on clothing, religious objects, and household items widely diversified Kazakh needlework techniques. The most iconic embroidered item is tuskiiz, a wall carpet and talisman. Others are traditional holiday clothes, including chapan (light coat), koylek (dress), beldemshe (wraparound skirt), beshpent (waistcoat), oramal (headscarf), household items (dastarhan (tablecloth) and korzhyn (saddle bag). Kazakh embroidery varies from region to region. Western Kazakhstan is known for goldwork and trimming, while as Eastern Kazakhstan is famous for tambour embroidery.
Richness of the artistic language is expressed in ornamental forms like circle, floral motif, and cosmogonic symbols and tells us a story of the Great Steppe and sends a message from the kesteshi (embroiderer) to the receiver of the embroidered item. Despite sustained canonicity of the design, creativity and improvisation in selection of the colour scheme and combination of the patterns are equally important. This approach makes every embroidery project unique. A wide variety of Kazakh embroidered items can be found in yurts during celebration of Nauryz which marks the beginning of a new year, the coming of spring and the renewal life of the Earth. As for the embroidered clothes, one can witness the variety and richness of the Kazakh culture during celebration of the Day of Traditional Costume.
Distinguished modern kesteshi (embroidery artists) include A. Sagynayeva, G. Balgabayeva, C. Kesykova, L. Berdibekova, S. Ayazkhan, K. Akasheva, S. Seytmagambetova, Z. Mukhamedzhan, K. Khusman, B. Zeynelkhan, O. Rystan, G. Omirzak, A. Abdubaytova, M. Mashay, Shermukhanbetov sisters and B. Simova. Embroidery pieces are widely exhibited in national museums of Kazakhstan. Nationwide, the Union of Artisans of Kazakhstan, art colleagues and national museums are all involved in preservation and revival of Kazakh cultural heritage.