Felt carpets and yurts
Kyrgyz village women have throughout history invested a great deal of time and effort in making beautiful and elaborate felt carpets (shirdaks). The work on a single carpet is time-consuming and can take several months if one single woman does the whole job. The pattern normally follows the Kyrgyz decorative tradition. The colours are sharp, but vary somewhat according to which area the producer comes from. A shirdak has been a normal dowry for women on entering into marriage and has therefore had great sentimental value for its owner. These carpets were to be inherited or given away, not sold.
Since the dissolution of the Soviet Union, and in connection with the transition to a free market economy, these carpets have to an increasing extent been put on display for sale in markets and bazaars. This has led to their changing form, colour and social significance. From being carpets of consistently high quality, above matters of price and with great sentimental value, they have become objects for sale of varying quality that are practically given away at markets and bazaars around the country.
These changes are opening the way for an industry in which women can produce carpets for sale and through this activity contribute money to the household at a time when unemployment is high and lack of money considerable. A problem in this connection is the fact that the competition among Kyrgyz artisans is sharp and that buyers around the world are fussy about what they buy. Many skilful artisans therefore fail the “quality control” and cannot sell what they produce. Often it is buyers in the West who in the final analysis decide what form and colour shall apply for the local artisans. For example, the world market does not to any great extent accept "false" colours. In the 20th century Kyrgyz carpet producers normally made use of artificial dye. Among the Kyrgyz a shirdak with strong colours is therefore often preferred to carpets with subdued natural colours. How one extracts dyes from natural sources has in the course of the last hundred years faded into oblivion and must be learnt again.
In order to make any money the individual producer must sell to tourists and not make things for a small local group of customers who pay far less than the tourists. Producers must therefore make efforts to create products that the market wants. Tourists prefer to buy small, naturally dyed carpets that can be easily transported and easily placed in a living room or hall. An obvious question now is whether these changes will lead to these carpets’ losing their local distinctiveness.
In the “West” it is emphasised in many quarters that the genuine and authentic among other ethnic groups must be preserved. Several paradoxes can be seen in this. The market, consisting of tourists from the “West”, buys small, naturally dyed carpets at the same time as it wants to cultivate the “authentic”, which turns out to be large carpets with strong artificial colours. Perhaps it can be said that the genuine and authentic have thus become a modern construct and that the western buyers are promoting the production of non-authentic goods in order to preserve the authentic.
The pattern on the felt carpets nearly always follows the Kyrgyz decorative tradition. Here there is a certain amount of experimentation, but within quite clear limits. However, it is possible that we shall see a development in the direction of new combinations of patterns as the interest in the carpets increases and the categories of buyer are extended.
The production of shirdaks has traditionally been a private matter and something a housewife has done alone. In recent times we can see that it has become more and more usual to make the carpets together with neighbours and relatives. Gradually there have come into being communities of women workers where they meet to make felt carpets and other felt objects for sale. Those who have been so fortunate as to get a contract with a sales outlet that is visited by tourists or sees to the forwarding of carpets to the capital, can sometimes provide for themselves and the family through this work. Since unemployment for men in the countryside is roughly 100%, these communities of women workers are becoming extremely important. Only exceptionally do men take part in the production of carpets.
In Kyrgyzstan in addition to felt we also find a good deal of woven material, some embroidery and a lot of patchwork. The last-mentioned technique is used in the production of sitting mats (toshoks). To make sitting mats it was normal to patch together remnants from other work of this kind and the mats therefore became somewhat irregular with respect to the combinations of colours and patterns. In the winter sitting mats made of sheepskin are used. Woven material is used in the ropes that hold the roof beams of the yurt together. On stately white yurts woven borders are also used around doors and in the section between the roof and the wall. We find embroidery on women’s bags and on tapestries (tush kijiz).
The Kyrgyz tent is an extraordinarily practical and pleasant dwelling. The interior is always cosy and inviting, one is constantly surrounded by pure, fresh air, one breathes more easily and the whole day long enjoys seeing a glimpse of the sky through the smoke outlet. Of an evening the stars come twinkling through the rising smoke, and the moon too peeps into our airy dwelling. I enjoyed myself in one word splendidly in these tents and would not have chosen to exchange them for Persia’s best chaparkhaneh (Hedin 1893: 395).
The nomad tent is both beautiful and practical. It keeps the heat out in the summer and the cold out in the winter. It does not like damp areas but can stand up to rain in moderate quantities. Yurts come in different sizes and they can be up to 10 to 12 metres in diameter. The colours vary between almost completely white to different shades of grey. The wealthiest individuals often have white yurts with beautiful woven bands at the upper edge and around the doors. These yurts are used mostly as decorative objects in that they are put up on the occasion of important visits, in connection with rituals or during festivals. They grey yurts on the other hand are utility objects that are used for example by herdsmen in the high mountains.
Despite the fact that during the last hundred years the yurt has only partly been used as a dwelling, the nomad tent has a central place in the lives of many Kyrgyz. The felt tent is a natural element at festivals and in connection with various rituals. At festivals the tent can be used as a showroom for Kyrgyz arts and crafts, as an eating place or accommodation for those taking part in the festival. The yurt is also an important element in the burial ritual. Before the actual funeral the deceased lies for three full days on a lit de parade in the tent. It is expected that family and friends will in the course of these days call in to tender their condolences and pay their last respects to the deceased. It is usual for deceased inhabitants of the capital to be transported to their family’s village. Not until then are they placed in a yurt for three days before being buried in the family grave. If the deceased has no family ties in the countryside, a yurt may be placed in the courtyard or backyard of the tenement complex where the deceased lived.
Seen from the door the left side of the yurt is the man’s and the right side is the woman’s. In the woman’s half we find the kitchen department where food is prepared and kitchen utensils stored. On the man’s side are placed weapons, equestrian equipment and other things that belong to men.