by Saffia Farr
I learnt the legend of how felt was discovered from ten-year old Altynbek, my guide as we rode through Chong Kemin valley on a horse and cart. Altynbek told of a poor boy who stuffed holes in his shoes with wool. After days of walking and sweating it pressed into felt.
Felt-making was a focal part of rural life in Kyrgyzstan. Before being collectivised by the Soviets, nomads roamed the steppes with herds of sheep using wool to make homes, clothes and furnishings. Today, desperate to continue the traditions of their grandmothers and escape poverty following the break up of the Soviet Union, enterprising women have set up groups to turn wool into dollars. While I was living in Kyrgyzstan one of these groups, Altyn-Kol meaning ‘golden hand’, organised a festival called ‘From Sheep to Shyrdak’. Curious, I went along to find out how it was done.
I travelled into the mountains to Kochkor, turning right 120 kilometres east of the capital, Bishkek. In the village the livestock market was crowding the streets, a jostling throng of women in headscarves, grandfathers with white goatees perched on donkeys and men in ak-kalpaks, conical felt hats, tendering brown sheep whose fat bottoms wobbled as the jeep squeezed past. They were the sheep, now where were the shyrdaks?
We eventually found the festival in a field by a river. Clustered around a yurt, the round felt tent of nomads, women in velvet dresses were twirling yarn from spindles and boiling roots and leaves in huge iron caldrons over fires to create natural dyes. Making felt, I learnt, is a long and physical process. First the wool is bashed with vicious metal rods before being teased into fluffy mounds. Then it is spread on a reed mat, the thickness much deeper than I was expecting. Too little and your felt will have holes in, the ladies explained. Swift fingers deftly tugged orange and blue puffs into curves of stylised sheep horns, a much-used symbol of prosperity. This was an ala-kiz, a carpet made by arranging the colours directly into the felt rather than cutting and stitching individual pieces.
When the pattern was complete, boiling water was poured onto the wool while the reed mat was rolled up enclosing it. The roll was bound into Hessian sacking with rope and hot water then dragged up and down, traditionally by a small boy or horse, while we stamped on it to compact it. After an hour the mat was unfurled. We gasped – it was felt. The women of Altyn-Kol knew there was more work to do. They rubbed the rug with soap, to meld it and brighten the colours, poured on more hot water, rolled it back up, got on their knees and rolled and pressed with forearms in the motion of Islamic prayer. Roll and press, roll and press, more hot water, roll and press. It took hours – and this was a truncated form of the process – to produce a smooth carpet of merging colours.
Watching felt being made that day I gained a better understanding of the immense effort needed to live as a nomad in the mountains. The warmth and protection of felt was central to survival and hours of pressing and rolling and beating and teasing had produced only a small, thin carpet. How many hours, I wondered, would it take to make enough felt to cover a yurt? Standing inside the yurt I looked around at the painstaking details, all crafted by hand. The wood for the lattice frame had been shaped and painted, each individual join tied with a tiny knot of gut. The bands securing the lattice were bright woollen strands woven on a loom. The chiy, mats creating the circular walls, were hundreds of reeds woven into large pieces. We were shown how to do this: A wooden pole is suspended between two sets of crossed sticks. The reeds are laid across the pole with long strands of wool spaced along them, weighted by stones tied at the end. When each reed is placed, the wool is thrown over to the opposite side to secure the stalk. Progress is slow and laborious. Some stalks are twined round with thread to make the mat more durable and many mats are impressively decorated, colours and patterns intricately incorporated into the weave.
On the floor of this yurt was an enormous shyrdak. Shyrdaks are made by cutting curved patterns from contrasting colours of felt which interlock in a mosaic of geometric patterns. They are sewn together, using a brass thimble to protect finger tips, overlaid with plaited braid, bordered, backed with more felt, and decorated with tiny quilting stitches. According to the Altyn-Kol brochure, half a square meter of shyrdak takes about eighty hours of work, but sells for a few dollars; a powerful illustration of how hard people have to work to earn a pittance.
I left the festival with a deep respect for those who undertake these crafts. From sheep to shyrdak is hard work. Felt making takes days, a completely unsuitable occupation for lazy foreigners. You have to be stuck in the mountains with no winter clothes or struggling to survive on post-USSR wages to have the patience to make felt. I’d tried for an hour and had blue hands and a sunburnt forehead as a result. But I’d also gone home with a felt ‘bag’ which I could proudly say I’d made, and that’s rare satisfaction in this modern commercial world.