June is the most beautiful time of year in this country. Emerging from endless fields filled with flowers and sheep, the traveller is greeted by the vista of a shimmering lake. Located in Central Asia, the Kyrgyz Republic is landlocked, bordered by several countries, and home to multiple ethnicities with strong Russian cultural influences. With around 40% of the country situated at an altitude over 3,000 metres, Kyrgyzstan is known as the Alps of Central Asia for its rich natural beauty, comfortable climate, and lack of deserts.
The families living in the scattered villages near Lake Issyk-Kul, which is said to have been part of the Silk Road, have been making living through nomadic pastoralism and the production of wool felt since ancient times.
The MUJI and Kyrgyzstan revitalisation project, which began at the end of 2010, is celebrating its 10th anniversary of collaboration in bringing Kyrgyz goods to the market. In Found MUJI Kyrgyzstan, we look closely at the wisdom found in the traditional nomadic life and feature the handcrafted felt items produced here.
Animals and Nomads
The nomads of Kyrgyzstan always live with sheep. They eat the meat, and use the fat of these sheep. Each year when the warm weather arrives, it is sheep shearing time. The wool is used in clothing, yurta walls, rugs, and children’s toys. Felt is an integral part of daily life here.
Situated 1600 metres above sea level, the Lake Issyk-Kul area, although it is bitterly cold in winter, it has little annual rainfall and many sunny days. This pleasant climate is suitable for the living of sheep and other types of animals as well.
Petroglyph rock paintings of animal images are found throughout Kyrgyzstan. Believed to date from around 2000 BC to 7th century AD, the petroglyphs depict an array of animals, including sheep, camels, dogs, goats, argalis and yaks. Besides animals, the paintings also feature warriors and dancers, indicating that people here have been living with animals since ancient times.
Local animals and petroglyphs also inspire the felt crafts made in this region. All of the wool used, including the soft Merino wool, comes from Kyrgyz sheep.
There are two techniques for felting wool. The first technique is needle felting. Using this technique, the wool is poked with the serrated tip of a needle until the fibres bond together to form felt. The second technique is wet felting. Heat, pressure and an alkaline solution create felt when wool is soaked in soapy water and rubbed by hands. Remarkably, these handcraft techniques bond the wool fibres together so well that no sewing is needed to create such strong, durable wool felt.
Living with Felt
Most felt artisans in the region are women. Each village is home to its own felt workshop, which rings with lively conversation all day. These workshops are both a place of work and a place of community.
The felt making process takes much time, and the meticulous steps are carefully divided into individual tasks in an assembly line. The finished products are precise in their size, texture, and strength, reflecting the master craftsmanship of these women who support their families with these skills. These women enjoy their handcrafting so much that their passion makes these workshops lively places.
Felt can be formed into any shape, whether flat or three-dimensional, and tailored to specific purposes. This material is also used for daily goods such as cushions and rugs, as well as hats, slippers, and accessories — even for the walls of the portable yurta in which nomadic people live. The felt from Kyrgyzstan may be left with its natural colour or dyed using local plant materials. A wide variety of plant-based dyes are used, including walnut, madder, woad, onion, and holy clover.
In the evenings, with only felt seat cushions left behind by the craftsmen, the workshops return to silence. After a day of handcrafting, the women return home to prepare dinner for their families. The workshops will be filled with laughter again in the morning.
The Kyrgyz yurta is light and well suited for transport. Larger homes here can be up to 9 metres in diameter, but even these can be assembled in about 2 hours without the use of nails. The outer wall coverings and interior flooring are made of felt, keeping the yurta cool in the summer and warm in the winter. The door, floor, and ropes that hold it together are adorned with traditional patterns called oimo. These patterns symbolises prosperity for the family and divine blessings.
Nomads herd their animals from place to place as the weather changes through the rainy season, the summer, and the cold winter. Although fewer and fewer Kyrgyz lead nomadic lives today, the wisdom that comes from a lifestyle in harmony with nature and animals still has much to teach us.
The large rug inside the yurta is called a shyrdak. These are covered in oimo patterns unique to each tribe and family. The shyrdak is still in use today in farmhouses and other dwellings in Kyrgyzstan, and the interconnected pieces of thick felt create flooring that is strong and durable enough to last for many years.
Oimo patterns also adorn the traditional felt hat worn by men, the karpak. According to custom, passing your karpak to another person or placing it on the floor is considered poor manners. For this reason, these hats are carefully hung on the inner frame of the yurta wall. It is said that the shape of the karpak is inspired by the mountain ranges in Kyrgyzstan.
Hospitality at the Table
In Kyrgyzstan, inviting people into one’s home and showing hospitality with food is considered a virtue. Guests are served with colourful dishes influenced by Russian and Uzbek cuisines. The traditional style of sitting on the floor for a meal is still followed in many homes today. Not just a vestige of traditional nomadic life, floor dining culture continues to be popular as it is more convenient than a table for accommodating the changing number of people who dine together.
In multi-ethnic Kyrgyzstan, gatherings of relatives and friends include people from many different backgrounds. At any given time, people of Russian, Uzbek, and Dungan descent may be invited to share a meal.
A distinctive feature of Kyrgyz dining is the glassware. Etched in glittering patterns, glass is prevalent in every home and is a symbol of hospitality. With its long, severe winters, fruits harvested in the summer here are made into jam and preserved for winter meals. The Kyrgyz table features any number of dessert glasses filled with apricot, raspberry, and sea buckthorn berry jams, as well as homemade juices, butter, and honey.
At festivals, celebrations, and gatherings of relatives and friends, a small loaf of bread is laid directly on the tablecloth. This bread, called boorsok, symbolises abundant blessings. It is made from flour, yeast, water, salt, margarine, eggs, and milk. For sweet boorsok, sugar is added. The dough is kneaded, cut into diamond shapes in 5mm thick, and deep fried. This bread has a gentle, mild taste.
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