Posts Tagged ‘felt’

Kyrgyz Felt DolliesWe have been selling felt dollies in our shop for a few years, since we found them in the Grand Bazaar in Istanbul. Mohammed, a Kazakh trader has been sending them to us every now and then and we had assumed they were made in Kazakhstan. However we were wrong – they come from Kyrgyzstan and I have been keeping my eyes out for them all over the country. But in vain!

Now here we are in “Tsum” a great big department store in the middle of Bishkek, the capital, and finally here are the dollies. We’d like to find out where they are made and buy a pile. Easier said than done it seems, but then we find Mirgul (sounds more like “Miracle”) another very competent young woman. Mirgul has a little shop selling felty souvenirs to tourists and expats, and just the fact that she is helpful marks her out as unusual, and she speaks good English too.

Yes, they are made in Bishkek and yes, she can get us some, but we can’t visit as the woman who designs them and oversees the workshop is rather touchy about visitors.

Anyway suffice it to say, felt dollies are obtained and various other things too (Mirgul is a pretty good saleswoman) and now comes the hard part – sending them home.

With the searing memory of the Uzbek Postal System still so fresh we are rather dreading it. But come on, it has to be done. So we persuade Mirgul to come along with us to smooth the path and translate Russian officialese.

Everything is weighed and inspected and no great obstacles are put in our way apart from the necessity of finding a big enough box to squash everything into, and the rather eye watering amount of money it is going to cost!

Mirgul in her shopJim is dispatched to go in search of a box and tape and after several attempts we manage to get almost everything in. Meanwhile people are coming and going bringing in the things they want to send abroad, getting everything out for inspection and filling in the numerous forms. Each category of item has to be listed and weighed separately so it all takes quite a while!

At last our box is handed over and now a bag has to be made for it. White cotton fabric is first measured out and then it is sewn up on the sewing machine -oh so that’s why it’s there. Next the box is inserted into the bag and needle and thread fetched for the ends to be hand stitched – nobody is in a hurry and those waiting suppress their barely audible sighs and wait their turn.

Finally hot brown sealing wax is applied to the stitching – at least 15 blobs. But hang on, we’re still not finished, the Kyrgyz Postal System official stamp has to be cleaned and pressed into each of the 15 or so blobs to the postmistress’s complete satisfaction.

Everything is done at a slow and careful pace, there’s no point in getting impatient and finally we are out of there – hey it only took 3 hours.

Only the large sweating Russian lady who came in shortly after us and who I believe is trying to send her son’s stuff to him is still there, having to fill in another set of forms (I know exactly what she was sending as it was all inspected including a large silver pop up photographic screen which unfortunately popped up while being inspected and which we all struggled to manhandle back into its bag).

Hooray, our felt dollies, felt hats and felt rugs are off our hands and a great weight is lifted from us. I just hope our parcel has at least left Bishkek Post Office by now.


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A shyrdak from KochkorKochkor is a perfectly ordinary little Kyrgyz town. It has its fair share of picturesque, dusty, poplar lined streets, its open man holes, clapped out Ladas and “mountain” Audis, men in white felt hats and large women in flowery head scarves. It may have more than its fair share of men sitting on street corners playing cards, grocers shops with not many groceries but 65 different varieties of vodka and indeed plenty of members of the all-day VDC (Vodka Drinking Community).

Kochkor womenKochkor

Kochkor menVodka

However it does have some good home stays and it’s a centre for shyrdaks. What the hell are shyrdaks? I hear you ask. A few weeks ago I asked the same question, and now I can tell you the answer in perhaps too much detail. A shyrdak is a felt rug and you will find several of them in every Kyrgyz house or yurt you visit. Every Kyrgyz woman makes a large shyrdak and a large alagi’iz (that’s another kind of felt rug) for each daughter she has and gives them to her when she gets married. They are also a good way of using up some of that surplus sheep’s wool and of generating some much needed income.

Jim in shyrdak shopKochkor is a well-known centre for buying these rugs and so that’s why we’re here. We are lucky to meet Dinara (a very confident and competent 27) in the “Altyn Kol” (Golden Hands) handicrafts shop. There are lots of shyrdaks on sale made by thirty or so different women who live in Kochkor and the surrounding area.

First of all Dinara takes us to meet an elderly lady who is one of her best shyrdak makers. She is working in the back yard at her home and she makes all her rugs herself from start to finish.

This involves

  1. preparing the wool
  2. making the felt (you are already an expert in how felt is made – if not, read my last post)
  3. drawing the design and cutting out the felt
  4. spinning the yarn used for the edging
  5. sewing the pieces together
  6. quilting the top felt onto its felt backing.

Here’s some pictures of some of that…

Making shyrdaksMaking shyrdaksMaking shyrdaks
After all that we have to buy some. Most of the colours are just a little too bright for our subdued British tastes, so we go for the ones in natural wool colours. However we can also order rugs and that way we get to choose the colours and designs we’d like, and even better news, Dinara will ship them to us when they are ready!

So there we are all ready to leave Kochkor with six shyrdaks and full rucksacks to carry and now we just need to find a shared taxi. The price is right and there are already two passengers, so all is well – the only problem is that there’s a quarter of a dead cow in the boot and its bloody carcass is leaking through the totally inadequate bit of cardboard it’s sitting on. There is no way we are going to allow our precious rugs anywhere near that!

No problem! Passenger transporting said carcass to his friend in the city is despatched to fetch plastic bags to cover it up a bit and we gingerly allow our bags in the boot. Honestly fussy bloody tourists! It’s just another typical Kyrgyz moment.

ShyrdakMaking a shyrdak

Making shyrdaks can be communal work and baby- sitting may also be incorporated. Here the felt backing layer is being quilted onto a very large rug.

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Yurt among the treesMany country people make their own yurts from wood and wool but if you don’t have the time or the amazing skills in woodwork and felt making needed to make one, you will have to order one from a professional yurt maker. We met one such in Barskoön – a village on the southern shores of Lake Issyk Kul.

Mekenbek Osmonaliev got interested in yurt making when he was an art student in Bishkek in the 1970s. While he was there he helped to make a yurt for the Kyrgyzstan pavilion in an important Soviet exhibition. He hasn’t looked back since and has been all over the world with his yurts (including London) – mostly teaching the museums who have bought them how to put them up. He looks the part too dressed in his Kyrgyz hat

A yurt takes about 2 or 3 months to make and his small workforce can make about 4 a year – a medium sized (5 metre diameter) yurt will set you back around £3,000 (plus more for the felt and the interior decoration)

Poplar wood is used for the framework as its strong and light and can be steamed and formed in to the right shape for the lattice-work walls (kerege) and for the 75 or so roof struts which go up to the tunduk or roof dome. In the daytime you can stare through this to the blue sky. At night if it’s warm enough to leave open, you can see the stars. The yurt tunduk holds such a special place in the Kyrgyz heart that it features as the centrepiece in their flag. I find it quite endearing that such a domestic symbol is used to show national identity.

Yurt images

Mekenbek says he has never known a properly erected yurt blow down no matter how bad the weather and the wooden structure should last a lifetime as long as you take care when putting it up and when transporting and storing it, although the felt may need replacing or at least patching every 8 years.

When we visited the yurt factory there was no order on, so the wood workshop was quiet but the felting ladies were busy making big sheets of felt. Twenty five sheets of felt are sewn together to make the large pieces which cover the yurt roof, walls, top cover and door – and all together they will weigh around 250 kilos! They start with double that – 500 kilos.

Anyway here’s how the felt sheets are made – white wool is used for yurts and dark brown for felt rugs.

2. A couple of women pick out the twigs, burrs and bits of this and that still sticking to the wool and pull the fibres apart.

1. The wool, fresh from the sheep, is tipped onto a bed frame with a metal grill base and a woman sits beating the hell out of it with a couple of metal sticks. The dirt drops through the grill onto the floor.

4. Two women are working next door on a large wooden slatted platform which has a reed mat on it (about 5’ x 15’) They lay four separate thin layers of the processed wool onto the matting and very carefully spread and patch each layer so that it’s even.

3. This wool is fed into an amazing Heath Robinson type machine which passes the wool through a series of rollers. These comb and card it to produce a nice soft fluffy roll of fine wool ready for felting.

6. The three of them roll the wool up tightly along with the reed matting. More buckets of hot water are brought and poured onto the wool through the matting as they go.

5. When they are happy with this nice bed of wool, one woman begins to ladle very hot water over the wool. They now call in a third woman to help.

7. The long bundle is tied up tightly and then it is rolled into the pummelling machine. This noisy machine takes just 20 minutes of squashing, turning and pummelling to turn the wool into felt.

The felt sheets are sewn together to make large pieces and then finished by sewing a thick cord round the edges. Thick woven straps will keep them in place on the wooden frame.

Various woven, felted and embroidered decorations will also be needed to make the outside and the inside of your yurt beautiful. These include embroidered dividing screens, woven bags in various sizes, and of course thick felt rugs for the floor. There are also painted wooden or metal chests and always piles of thin mattresses and quilts which can be used for sitting and sleeping on. In a yurt, the furniture is almost all made from textiles.

Without a pummelling machine, this part is usually done by human feet or by tying it to the back of a horse and dragging it over rocky mountain paths!

Another essential is the reed screen which is rolled between the trellis and the felt. This keeps cold winds out or lets air through when the weather is hot and the felt is raised.

This screen (called a chiy) is made from reeds. Each reed is individually decorated by wrapping it with unspun dyed wool. When the reeds are joined together, they make a sometimes quite complex design. I have only just discovered the existence of these amazing textile treasures and now I notice them everywhere!

A fully furnished yurt needs a lot of time and skill to complete.

Let me know if you want one – I know a very nice man who will make you one!

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Diane next to a YurtAt last I’ve done it – my life’s ambition has been accomplished and now I can die happy – I have stayed the night in a proper felt yurt (and I wasn’t even at a Festival).

Unlike most dreams it was even better than I had imagined. I’ve had this romantic yearning to stay up in the “summer pastures” since the times Jim and I used to go to Turkey when the kids were small and we got to know some semi nomadic people in the Toros Mountains. They were always urging us to come to the “yayla” where they decamp to in the summer months. It always sounded very tempting – even if it really just meant getting in the back of their truck with them as they moved a few miles up the mountains to their Riversummer home. But we were never there at the right time of year.

Lonely Planet keeps going on about the delights of the Kyrgyz yurtstay but we are here right at the end of the season, it’s getting very cold at night in the mountains and many people are packing up and going back down to lower altitudes for the winter.

Anyway we’ve got to give it a go so we trek up from the Seven Bulls rocks early in the morning with an overnight bag, just in case. If we go early enough we have time to get back to town if there’s no sign of the yurts, and anyway the scenery is wonderful. As the track crosses the river for the fifth time the mountains open out into flat pasture land and we are in luck!

Three yurtsThere is one camp still operating and we negotiate ourselves a bed for the night – and discover that the good thing about being late in the season is that we can have a yurt all to ourselves.

It’s hard to work out who’s who at the camp because there are at least three different families milling about. A sheep is also being butchered. Luckily we have missed the grisliest parts but we’re in time to see the head being singed over a fire – chap with blackened sheep’s head on a stick – nice!

Two nomad women preparing sheep-based delicacies

Gulmira and Reyha, my new best friends. Reyha attractively posed holding on to the sheep’s windpipe.

And two grannies (I will be careful not to call them old ladies as they’re about the same age as me) are carefully pouring milk into the windpipe and lungs of said sheep for a special Kyrgyz delicacy which I am hoping I am not going to be offered.

We take ourselves off for a walk around the pastures and woods and when we get back some of the sheep has been cooked and large plates of potatoes and lamb’s liver, boiled meat, slabs of white fat and what I can only describe as “mutton water” are pressed on us. Kyrgyzstan is a wonderful country but if you are a vegetarian (or even if you don’t want meat for every meal) you have a lot of explaining to do.

Finally all the uncooked meat (including the head and those milk filled lungs) is put into plastic bags and the family start saying their goodbyes. So all 6 adults and 4 or 5 little ones (I didn’t count properly, they were a bit of blur) get in the one car and they’re off back to the capital, Bishkek tonight. We reckon they came out from the city for a weekend in the country and brought their own sheep to have a meat feast.

Yurt interiorAnyway we are now left with just two people -our lovely hosts Bakit and his wife who has such a long name we call her Mrs Bakit. They live up here from May to September and at the end of this week they will be packing everything up and going back to their village to do “potato business” over the winter.

They have 3 yurts, 20 sheep, 3 cows, 2 calves, a cat, a dog and 4 teenage children. We have a fantastic night – dinner in their cosy yurt with stove and then back to ours where we wear all our clothes including hats and get under two quilts and fleecy blankets with tigers on.*

Up there the stars are even bigger and brighter than on a Shropshire hillside and the sound of the river rushing down from the mountains is the only sound until morning.

Next morning after a breakfast of pancakes, clotted cream and thick white honey, we set off back down the track in the sunshine with enormous great smiles on our faces.

Stoking up the samovar

Stoking up the samovar. The Kyrgyz like their tea as much as we do.

Yurt with painted wooden door and a thick felt door cover

Painted wooden door and a thick felt door cover keep out the cold winds.

A summer pasture

A lovely summer pasture – a yayla in Turkish, or a jai-loo in Kyrgyz. It’s enough to make a nomad’s heart sing!

* Toilet Note

Long drop in little wooden shed on a hillock accessed over the stream. Torch definitely needed.

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