The Warmth of Felt
In the past, Kazakhs would live with felt all around them. This warm and soft material was an integral part of their domestic environment, from the day they were born until the end of their lives. Nomads believed that a large felt rug in the home would bring them luck and scare evil spirits away.
The significance of felt can be explained by the fact that ancient cultures saw sheep not just as a sacrificial animal but also as a protective totem. Its fleece, being the main ingredient of felt, was well-known for keeping away the poisonous scorpions and spiders that lived on the steppe.
This versatile material was used by nomad cattlebreeders to cover the walls and floors of their yurts. The thickest layer would be used to cover the cupola. Felt was also used for footwear and clothing. The lighter wool from the autumn shearing was reserved for headgear and stockings with the thin down from the neck of the sheep being the most highly valued. Wool was blended with horsehair to make rugs to decorate camels and it was made into cases to transport possessions safely. It was turned into covers and into wall bags for plates and linen. When a new khan was proclaimed ruler, he would be raised on a white mat of camel wool and for the final journey, people were wrapped in a sombre mat of dark felt.
The traditional nomadic home was named after this material: kyizui (felt house) is what the Kazakhs called a yurt. Felt is kyiz in Kazakh. Three different layers of felt covered the framework of a yurt: tuyrlyk — the bottom and sides, uzik — the cupola and tundik — the upper circle of the frame. The outside layer of felt was often decorated with patterned applique work.
The dense felt used for covering a yurt was made from sheep’s wool after the spring shearing; it formed a protective barrier not only from the winds and severe cold in winter, but also from the rain and burning sun in the summer. Numerous felt carpets decorated the inside of a yurt: patterned tekemet and syrmak, variegated felt аla-kyiz and quilted mosaic carpets called shyrdak covered the floor. The most beautiful carpets, the tor-kyiz, were laid in the place of honour, reserved for visitors. Elegant panels, tuskyiz, were made of other materials and inlaid with felt and embroidered applique work and hung on the walls.
Тekemet — a white carpet with pieces of dyed felt sewn onto it. It usually incorporates square or diamond shapes in the central section, which are filled in with ornamental patterns.
Syrmak — a carpet in which one design is mirrored in different colours, created from shapes cut out of fine felt. The patterned layer is quilted together and sewn onto the felt lining. A decorative red cord follows the outline of the patterns where they have been stitched together.
Bitpes — the best-known type of syrmak carpet with a compound ornamental pattern symbolising the idea of world eternity. It is decorated with spirals and buds made of coloured woollen cord.
Тuskyiz — white felt with colourful applique work using ornamental patterns made of velvet, velveteen and silk. Ceremonial tuskyiz carpets were embroidered with goldencoloured silk thread using a chain stitch to create decorative patterns shaped as rosettes, garlands, flowers and peacock feathers. These panels demonstrated prosperity and were passed down through the generations as valuable relics and talismen for the family. A bride would embroider a tuskyiz herself for her dowry and her skill would be judged by its beauty.
Felt was made of natural wool in grey, white and black. Later, people started painting large felt mats with colours made from the juice extracted from plants and tree roots. The property of each felt mat would be ordained by the type, breed and age of the animals and the season in which they were sheared. The process of making a large piece of felt was a collective job: in autumn, all the residents of the aul (village) would take part in the process. This work would be approached with a holiday spirit and singing often accompanied every stage of felting. People sheared the wool and put it in layers on the carpet, moistening it with hot soapy water and slapping it with their hands; the ornamental composition was placed on the background piece in layers. After the first layer was done, the whole piece would be rolled up inside a floor mat, tied up with ropes, rolled back and forth, and then left to dry.
Our ancestors believed that ornamental patterns helped communicat with the world of gods and spirits.
There were many ways to process and decorate felt mats.
The following techniques have survived until the present day: the system of ‘rolling in’ the pattern, applique work using textiles and leather, mosaic layers trimmed with embroidery, quilting, painting colours onto the felt and ornamentation with glass beads and cockleshells.
The famous Pazyryk technique was named in the honour of the felt wall hanging, over 30 square metres in size, which was found in one of the burials mounds in the snowy Pazyryk valley in the Altai mountains. This brightly-coloured carpet is one of the finest examples of applique work and is kept in the Russian Hermitage. The pattern has been rolled in using the Iranian technique in which small pieces of wool are put on top of a base material then rolled up and felted.
Mosaic and applique techniques were popular in the Kazakh steppe. The applique technique involves sewing pieces onto a monochrome base: the patterns are cut from different coloured pieces then sewn onto the felt. The mosaic technique is based on the principle of mutual symmetry: using a template, mirror image patterns are cut out from two or more sheets of different colours, then swopped around; the inserts from one piece are placed into the matching space in the other so they fit together perfectly, and then they are rolled in the felt.
Patterns and Ornamental Patterns
Kazakh patterns are clean and clear; as a rule, they avoid excessive ornamentation and lavish details, with exception of the carpet makers from the semi-nomadic regions of the south who had been trading their carpets in bazaars for many years. Southern artisans adopted the traditional techniques of the farmers from neighbouring regions and created carpets to sell. The domestic life of the nomads, however, did not allow them to carry carpets they did not need themselves.
The ornamental patterns on felt mats, as in other ancient cultures, acted as a talisman. Our ancestors believed that they helped them to communicate with the world of gods and spirits. The mats often depicted images of the sun, moon, flowers, animals, trees, hills, cupolas, hovering eagles and hunting scenes. Ornamental geometrical, zoomorphic and foliate patterns reflected the ancient and mythological beliefs of the nomads about the composition of their world.
Collections of Ancient Felt
The collection at the Central State Museum of Kazakhstan includes examples of felt work dating back to the 18th and 19th centuries as well as more recent works. The museum holds over 1500 carpet and felt products, 300 of which are made entirely of felt. These include carpets with luxurious finishes, skilfully sewn in chain stitch, satin stitch, and embroidered with gold thread.
A considerable part of the collection was gathered in 1957 and 1958, and it was expanded with the addition of the best work created by artists and craftsmen working for the ‘Decade of Kazakh Literature and Art’ in Moscow.