Carpet weaving is important to nearly all Central Asian people and has a long history in the region. It occupies its own separate category of arts and crafts with its own customs and traditions. The artistic traditions and craftsmanship used in making carpets are unusually high. Indeed, the carpet weaving was one the few means of aesthetic expression practiced by the stock-raising peoples of Central Asia. [Source: advantour.com]
Carpets have traditionally been used in yurts to help cover the ground, decorate the walls, cover different things and provide warmth. Carpets helped make the yurt cozy and served as furniture and decorations. The outside of a yurt was sometimes hung with a carpet curtain. The entrance often consisted of carpet rather than a door and the threshold was covered with a small narrow rug. The yurt dirt floor was covered with soft and warm koshmas (felt carpets), palaces (pileless carpets) and carpets. Special carpet carryalls were used to keep different things.
For all stock-raising peoples of Central Asia carpets have traditional been an integral part of a girl’s dowry. According to old customs, a new bride became part of to her husband’s family and was responsible for decorating the inner part of his yurt. Mothers had to give at least three carpets to their daughter’s dowry. Often the most skillful women from the bride family gathered to weave the carpets before here wedding day.
Urban people also have traditionally decorated their houses with different carpet items. As wooden furniture was not so common and people liked sitting on the floor carpets were the most often the most treasured and useful possessions in their houses.
The Kyrgyz began using the felt for weaving of carpets and other things many centuries ago. The development and perfection of every kind of Kyrgyz carpet art were affected by different factors, such as: conditions of life, climate, natural environment and social factor. Kyrgyz carpets are famous for their high quality. This is due to the subtlety of artistic devices and techniques. The Kyrgyz traditionally have not practiced carpet making as business or commercial activity, they mainly wove carpets for their own needs. That has changed now as Kyrgyz carpets have acquired a good reputation throughout the world. Among the most popular kinds of carpets are tush kyjiz, shyrdak, piled rugs, kurak, chiy and ala-kyjiz.
Teasel weaving — weaving using a frame — holds a special place in the rich and diverse heritage of Kyrgyz people. Piled carpets and other items made using this technique are colorful and known for their original designs. Carpets and woven items have their own stylistic traits, creating a harmony of patterned motifs in a variety of colors. This type of weaving is mostly associated with the southern parts of Kyrgyzstan. [Source: fantasticasia.net ~~]
Kyrgyz pile-woven items come in various sizes and are used for different purposes. Small bags are used for storing clothing and household articles, small carpets, horse harnesses, and a long band called a tegirich are used for decoration of the yurt. Large piled carpets called kilem are a greatly valued. Their size is approximately 150x300 centimeters. Kilems are widely used. When nomads and herders move from one place to another, they covered a loaded camel with a carpet. Carpets are laid upon felts and mats on the floor of a yurt at weddings, funerals, celebrations and when receiving guests. The carpets are stored faced down on the Juk - the central part of the yurt.
Kyrgyz piled articles are decorated with great variety of designs. Pattern plays a key role in decoration. Specific shapes often have symbolic value with a deep meaning to the Kyrgyz and other Central Asian people.
Kyrgyz Pile Carpets
Aijbek Aitbaev wrote: “Piled carpets are mainly made in the South of Kyrgystan and are a special example of a weaving process. The Kyrgyz were weaving the carpets beginning from early Middle Ages, but in spite of this fact, only a small quantity of carpets were made at production level. The First Russian travelers appreciated Kyrgyz piled carpets very much. However, it should be noted that the Kyrgyz began developing their carpet weaving in industrial scale as late as in the 19th century. Heretofore the carpets were made mainly for domestic usage and in after years, they were sold in the markets and exported abroad. [Source: advantour.com]
“Some carpets were used as bags, covers for saddles and otherwise. Large carpets at size of 150 to 300 centimeters called kils were normally decorated with a fringe twisted into threads. They were used to cover the cargo carried by camels that moved from jailoo (pasture) to jailoo, or were placed over the felt carpets (ala-kyjiz and shyrdak) in the yurts. The majority of these carpets were made of wool, but sometimes cotton was used for this purpose. Normally the Kyrgyz prefer to use camel pile because of its strength and durablilty. Weaving of the piled carpets is a team work which involves several women working together and who are normally representatives of one family.”
The piled carpets add coziness and home-like atmosphere to Kyrgyz houses and, in the summer time, to yurts. In summer pastures – jailoo the tourists and guests of the country may watch de visu magnificent Kyrgyz yurts decorated with piled carpets. “
Unique features of Kyrgyz applied arts found in piled carpets includes succession of background and pattern colors and an interaction of blue and red colors. The majority of piled items have a central field and a border. Each part has its own rules of ornamentation including fixed character pattern arrangement and certain color combination. On hand carpet patterns are stable, keeping close with traditional shapes and symbols. One the other hand, new ideas are constantly being added by the craftsmen with each new carpet.
Marking a Pile Carpet in Kyrgyzstan
Traditionally, carpet weaving has been a skill practiced by craftswomen called cheber, who have been involved into the production of carpets since they were 9-12 years old. Gifted craftswomen who wove patterned carpets have always been respected. Many of them were also good at rolling felt and were excellent needle women.
Kyrgyz carpets are famous for high quality and durability. They are mainly made of wool, but some are made of cotton. Wool of sheep, goats and camels is used to weave carpets. Preference is given to camel's wool because of its strength. Sheep's wool of grey or brown color is used for making warp (up and down threads) , weft (sideways threads) and pile (an upper layer of pile attached to a backing). Coarse wool is used for warp and a weft. Soft wool is used for making a pile. Sometimes white goat's fluff is used for the pile. The lengthwise threads of the carpets (the longitudinal warp) are spun and twisted very tightly and evenly. They are treated in a special fashion to make them stronger resulting in a firm and thick carpet. The crosswise threads (latitudinal weft) are not spun as tightly as the lengthwise threads because the weft does not have to be stretched on a loom in the way that the warp
The device used for making carpets — the loom — is very simple. It is fixed to the ground and the frame is made of four wooden bars. Such devices are used through out the country and more or less the same as those used in ancient times. The tools of carpet makers are simple: 1) a wooden comb or tokmok used for adjusting threads of the weft and pile; 2) a knife, or pychak applied for cutting thread of the pile; and 3) scissors, or kaichy for leveling the pile. Traditional carpet making is accompanied by observance of some old traditions such us kilem ashar, which means to provide assistance in carpet making. In accordance with this a carpet maker is helped by several women. When the work is finished they are given presents and food.
The process of making a pile carpet begins with the weaving a thick border 7-10 centimeters in width. It is usually a grey or brown color. Most carpets ended with long fringe of plated threads. The basic color combination of carpet consists of two colors - red and blue. This tradition is rooted in ancient times. Both colors have delicate and soft shades. Kyrgyz carpet makers use plant dyes to make many of their colors. In addition to red and blue colors, they used orange, yellow, pink, green, brown and white.
The most popular kind of felt carpet in Kyrgyzstan is a shyrdak. It is woven using a mosaic technique, which is one of the more complicated weaving methods, but at the same time makes the carpet very durable. By some estimates the average lifespan of a shyrdak is about 100 years, and often much longer.
Shyrdak carpets have traditionally been among the most valuable things owned by a Kyrgyz family. They comprise an indispensably part a girl’s dowry. One of the key elements of these carpets is its stitching — shyryk (which gave rise to word shyrdak) which enhances the carpet’s durability. The stitching follows design drawn on the carpet, creating its pattern inside the felt. The size of a shyrdak is about 1.5 meters by 3 meters, which is convenient for handling.
Among the traditional drawings of a shyrdak are animals, deer horns and inscriptions, which often have special meaning to the carpet’s owner. Nowadays many shyrdak carpets are made in the provinces of Naryn and Issyk–Kul. They are presented to girls as a dowry for their wedding-day. In ancient times Shyrdaks are not available just for everybody, while today it is an integral part of interior of most of Kyrgyz houses. Shyrdaks laid down in the center of the yourta, on the place called Tor, just across the entrance. A few of them also kept on Djuk.
Shyrdaks are one of the best known felt hand-made articles. They are known for their fine stitches and decorative patterns, balancing the background and main patterns with rhythmical simplicity and expressiveness. The repeated motifs are often inspired by things in the natural environment such as kochkor muiuz (mountain sheep horns) or teke muiuz (mountain goat horns) or ky'yal (fantasy images). The interface between negative and positive, light and dark, and fullness and emptiness creates the feeling of richness in spite of simple materials and limited colors used to make the carpet. In 1960s multi-colored shyrdaks became popular. In recent years large traditional patterns have been replaced by geometrical designs such us rhomboids or hexagons.
Making a Shyrdak
Shydaks have traditionally been made in the summer from pieces of felt (pounded and layered wool) that has been repeatedly dried and dyed and sewn together with camel-hair thread. Patterns are made by cutting away upper layers to reveal different colored felt underneath. Common motifs include the ibex horn pattern, plant patterns and decorative scrollwork.
Different regions have different motifs and different patterns. A good shydak can take a group of Kyrgyz women several months to make but it can last for decades. The best quality ones are hand made. They generally have irregular stitching on the back and even stitching around the panels. To make sure colors do not run lick your finger and run them over the fabric to make sure it doesn’t bleed. The best shydaks are said to come from the Naryn area.
Making a shyrdak is very labour-intensive. It can take a woman two to six months to weave one carpet depending on how much time she can devote to it and how busy she is with her other chores. Normally Kyrgyz women work in groups, mainly made up members of a single extended family, especially to produce the larger ones. Working in this way smaller carpets take about 15 days to make, while the larger ones can take about one and a half monthes. Working on her own a single generally needs six months to a year to make a three meter by two meter shyrdak,
The basic process of make a shyrdak carpet is as follows: 1) the carpet is made of two kinds of felt — an upper layer made from thin felt to which a colored drawing is applied, and a lower layer made of thick felt of brown or black color. 2) The pieces of the dyed felt are folded and sewn together. Ornamentation is applied with the help of a piece of chalk and made by cutting away pieces of cloth with a fine knife to reveal the cloth underneath. [Source: Aijbek Aitbae, advantour.com]
To make a shyrdak the felted wool is first washed, then dried and dyed. Before dyeing, big sheets of felt are cut into square pieces. The background normally has dark color and uses only thick pieces of felt. To make the upper panel two colored pieces of felt (say red and green) are loosely stitched together. Then the outline of the pattern is drawn in chalk in a corner of the top layer of felt. The second half of the pattern is produced by folding the felt over and pressing it so that the chalk outline is imprinted as a mirror reflection on the same piece of felt in such a way that the pattern covers half of the square piece of of felt. This process is repeated to produce another mirror image on the other half of the square. In this way a perfectly symmetrical pattern is produced. [Source: fantasticasia.net ~~]
A sharp knife is then used to cut along the chalk outline. The result is four pieces of felt — two backgrounds and two inner patterns — in different colors. The two background pieces, which are still connected by the thread originally used to join the two squares, are separated. The inner part of the color is then sewn into the background piece of contrasting color to form a square form. When the second panel is completed: 1) The two are sewn together to give a mirror image of contrasting colors; or 2) a large carpets are made by sewing the colorful panel together with dark panels. The panels of the carpet are then surrounded by a border. The outer edging usually consists of two or three borders of different widths; each of them sewed on individually. The edging features a chain of curls, triangles, broken lines or other shapes between two narrow borders. The last is sewing on a backing to give the shyrdak extra thickness and strong. The is especially important if the shyrdak is placed on the floor.
Ala-kiyiz are felt carpets, which sometimes serve as carpets, and sometimes as wall hangings. They can be large or small and it is possible to find examples that are like pictures. Wool is first of dyed different colors. It is not spun into a thread or made into a felt blanket but kept in a bag as loose wool. Ala-kiyiz vary greatly in size, with pieces measuring three by one meters or four by 2.3 meters being the most common sizes. Usually there is a large central pattern surrounded by a narrow border area. The pattern in the central area has a pattern with horn-like curls, (called “muyuz”). A wide variety of colors are used – such as reds, blues, brown, yellow and orange on a dark black or grey background. [Source: Aijbek Aitbaev, advantour.com]
Because the wool is not stitched, but is melded together in the process used to manufacture them, Ala-kiyiz are not as strong and sturdy as shyrdaks, lasting only about half as long — 30 to 40 years — but are much quicker and easier to make than shydraks and most than other types of carpet. In comparison with clear and rhythmical distinctness of Shyrdak, Ala-Kiyiz often look faded with motley designs. This again is because manufacturing technique of Ala-Kiyiz is different, however the materials, patterns, colors and color matching schemes are similar. [Source: fantasticasia.net ~~]
In everyday life Ala-Kiyiz are used to cover the floor of a yurt. In permanent homes they have traditionally been laid down in the room where women gather to do needlework or some other their tasks. They are also common dowry gifts.
To make an Ala-Kiyiz first the wool is dyed of different colors. The background is made by placing wool of one color on a chiy mat — a long mat made of reeds — on which a felt base has been stretched. Pieces of other colors are then laid on top to create a pattern or picture. The resulting mat of loose wool can be several inches thick. The wool is then covered with a cloth so that it doesn’t move and sprinkled with hot water and the chiy mat is rolled up with a string tied around it—the same process used to make felt. The roll is taken to an open space and — with hands, elbows and feet— rolled, kicked and trodden on for several hours. This melds the wool together into a friable whole. The mat is then unwound and the wool carpet left to dry.
When the wool has dried the colors have partly “washed out” and the borders between them blur together and are less well defined — giving the designs and motifs — and the carpet as a whole — an individual and unique appearance. For this reason, the technique is popular for making “picture” panels.
Ala-Kiyiz and Shyrdak Making Recognized by UNESCO
In 2012 the art of making traditional Ala-Kiyiz and Shyrdak felt carpets was included in the UNESCO Representative List of Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity. According to UNESCO: “Traditional felt carpets are one of the foremost arts of the Kyrgyz people and an integral part of their cultural heritage. The Kyrgyz traditionally produce two types of felt carpets: Ala-kiyiz and Shyrdaks. Knowledge, skills, diversity, the semantics of ornamentation, and the ceremonies of creating carpets are all important cultural components, providing Kyrgyz people with a sense of identity and continuity. [Source: UNESCO]
The making of Kyrgyz felt carpets is inseparably linked to the everyday life of nomads, who used felt carpets to warm and decorate their homes. Creation of felt carpets demands unity among the community and fosters the transmission of traditional knowledge – as a rule by older women who are normally concentrated in rural and mountainous areas, to younger women within the family. The Ala-kiyiz and Shyrdak traditional art is in danger of disappearing, however. The number of practitioners is diminishing, with most over forty years of age. The lack of governmental safeguarding, the disinterest of the younger generation, the dominance of inexpensive synthetic carpets, and the poor quality and low availability of raw materials are exacerbating the situation. As a result, Ala-kiyiz carpets have practically disappeared from Kyrgyz homes and Shyrdaks are under serious threat of being lost.
According to UNESCO Ala-Kiyiz and Shyrdak was placed on the UNESCO Intangible Heritage list because: 1) The traditional felt carpets provide Kyrgyz people, and especially the female carpet makers, with a sense of identity and continuity linked to their nomadic lifestyle; 2)
Kyrgyz felt carpets face challenges such as a lack of interest in learning the craft among young people, the absence of adequate State policy for safeguarding the craft, the scarcity and decreasing quality of raw materials and the advent of inexpensive, industrial synthetic carpets that threaten the economic viability of the craft. A five-year safeguarding plan involves various activities including legislative and policy measures, improving the availability of raw materials, strengthening transmission and promoting greater awareness, at home and abroad, of the Kyrgyz carpet-making art. The ambitious safeguarding plan strongly focuses on economic promotion and encourages the Kyrgyzstan government to take into account funding sources and their sustainability. UNESCO encourages the Kyrgyzstan government to emphasize the transmission of know-how and techniques, and to ensure that practitioners are the primary beneficiaries of the safeguarding measures, particularly those aimed at promoting the carpet industry.
Text Sources: New York Times, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, Times of London, Lonely Planet Guides, Library of Congress, U.S. government, Compton’s Encyclopedia, The Guardian, National Geographic, Smithsonian magazine, The New Yorker, Time, Newsweek, Reuters, AP, AFP, Wall Street Journal, The Atlantic Monthly, The Economist, Foreign Policy, Wikipedia, BBC, CNN, and various books, websites and other publications.
© 2008 Jeffrey Hays
Last updated April 2016