The woolen homes of the Kyrgyz
Wool within wool. What is it? Like round fluffy white mushrooms, the temporary dwellings of the highland Kyrgyz dot the the mountain meadows. The yurts – their surreal portable homes sprout magically all across the summer pastures hidden in between steep slopes or set next to alpine lakes. Inside, wrapped in woolen hats, with woolen shoes, lying on woolen mats live the masters of the herds. It is a fairy tale land where for each star in sky you can count a sheep in the grass. Every summer, when the sun melts the snow, the Kyrgyz grab their felt-made tents and climb up the hills followed by numberless crowds of bleating and neighing hungry animals. Those who stay in town sometimes build yurts it in their yards, and in any case their hearts remain linked to the soft homes of their ancestors.
Less than a century ago, finally coming to terms with the fashion brought by sedentary civilization the Kyrgyz moved into brick houses. At least for the winter. Empty rooms filled with colourful felt in different shapes: shyrdaks, ala kiyiz (different sorts of felt carpets) covering the floors or hanging from the walls; pillows and mats embroidered with beautiful patterns rest folded next to the wall only to be spread on the ground in the evening as a beds, or as seats if guests are coming; rooms often separated by a lonely door framework and the scarce amount of furniture shyly hides in the corners taking as little space as possible. Everything speaks rather of a static yurt than of a typical home (at least in the western sense). And we love the Kyrgyz homes – their colorful simplicity invites us to sit around for tea and chat.
Not content with simply enjoying the pleasures of their crafts we venture into one more edition of our travelling crafts project and set in search for the makers of felt. In Karakol the neatly organised shop of “One Village One Product” association gives us all the indications to find local craftmakers. On our second round through the southern shore of Lake Issyk Kul we get to visit Felt Art Studio, a cooperative set in 1991 in the small town of Bakonbaev, where they proudly merge Kyrgyz traditional skills with a designer’s touch, producing tuurduk – the thick felt covers of yurts and beautiful shyrdaks – the felted quilts that we see in each home, the reason why we came to their atelier. The founder, Jildiz Asanakunova, created the studio with a focus on quality design, and over 300 original patterns leave the workshop yearly for the local and international markets. Ainura, herself an Art School graduate and designer, who shows us around, explains that the largest part of the production process takes place in the workshop (wool processing, felt making, design and cut) and then over 30 women work at home finalising the shyrdaks.
“Where do local women learn this craft?” – we ask. “There is not a single Kyrgyz woman that does not know how to sew” – says Ainura with a smile as she invites to follow her. It turns out that, just as we saw in the villages, mothers and grandmothers take very seriously the task of producing shyrdaks for their home and their children, making sure they will be able to gift at least one to each of them.
The art of felt production
The wool (already trimmed and cleant by hand or mechanically) is evenly spread over a large mat of reed called chiy. The felt for yurts is made of 3 layers of wool, while shyrdaks and other items are just one layer thick.
Boiling water is evenly spread over the wool
The mat is rolled tightly and pressed over and over to compact the wol into felt. The traditional method is called “walking the wool” and involves the whole family and neighbours stepping on the rolled mat for hours in order to create felt. In Felt Art studio, though a mechanical press is used for faster and more efficient results – 15 minutes are needed for thinner layers and 20 minutes for thicker ones.
Colours and symbols in Kyrgyz shyrdaks
Shyrdak, Kyrgyz quilted rugs, are made from two (or more) sheets of dyed felt cut into identical shapes and then sewn back together as a mosaic of interwoven positive and negative patterns. The colours should be contrasting (red over green or blue over red) and although, until the beginning of the 20th century Kyrgyz used only natural dies (walnut, indigo, madder…) nowadays aniodine dyes are used too, and shyrdaks combine both natural and artificial colours.
The patterns speak of nature and Kyrgyz tradition. Usually mountains decorate the borders of the rug. And in the inside schematized shapes represent values of traditional life: some people said that the ramshorn is connected to male potency , but it could also be prosperity and household wealth, and a bird-like figure may invoque the protective mother goddes of fargone times, or represent the freedom of a falcon’s flight. Rivers, forests, paths or love, everything has its place in the art of Shyrdaks, and good wishes find their ways into the local homes. We even found out that a spiral means a new beginning, as in a source of water, and happily added one more layer of meaning to our symbolic snails.
Shyrdak design process
Two large sheets of coloured felt are stitched together and the pattern design is drawn over them with chalk. Although most Kyrgyz women are gifted shyrdak makers, the help of a skilled master (usta) is seeked for in the design process.
The pattern is cut out with knife or scissor, creating two “negative” and two “positive” patterns, that will be combined for 2 different quilts. In this way, the whole piece of material is used, and nothing goes to waste.
The patterns are combined in contrasting colours (red, green, blue or orange are common ones) and the whole piece is then sewn onto a thicker layer of felt (usually of brown or grey natural colour). The key of the craft lies in putting all layers together, following the pattern with precise stitches and adding relief to it in the quilting process. Plated threads in a third contrastig colour are used to highlight the design, while covering and strengthening stitches in between the felt patterns.
Interesting facts about yurts that we learned in the mountains:
The Kyrgyz word for yurt, boz üy, literally means “white house”
To make a yurt 5m in diameter one needs to use the wool of 50 sheep.
It takes one full year for a family to make the yurt from scratch in the traditional manner (from trimming the sheep to setting it up).
If you are curious about all other parts of Kyrgyz yurt construction and use, here is a short but detailed guide
And some more about shyrdaks:
The typical size of a shyrdak is usually 1.5 x 3 meters – ideal to use, store and transport.
- To make a shyrdak the wool of 5 sheep is needed.
It takes at least 2 months to design, prepare and quilt a shyrdak, and it’s usual for local women to meet and share the production process or divide their tasks.
To assess the quality of a shyrdak one needs to check its reverse side, since the quilting is done through all the felt layers and should be perfect on either side.
A good quality shyrdak can be used at home for 40 years or more (some said 80!). It travels through generations!
- A large festival for shyrdake makers and lovers is held every summer near At-Bashi (Naryn region)
- For this and other interesting women-led craft initiatives in Kyrgyzstan, check OVOP Association “One Village One Product” in facebook.
- And to contact Felt Art Studio, Bakonbaev, Issyk Kul (Kyrgyzstan) – Jildiz: firstname.lastname@example.org
This post is part of the series Snail Trails – Handmade in Asia – a roving initiative to document, collect and share crafts from the places we pass by and the artisans we meet on our way East. Because there is a life behind the souvenirs and we are curious to see what it looks like. If you also want to know more click here for artisan’s and craft stories.