Kazakh carpets – History and tradition

Translated article from here



In the economy of the Kazakhs, along with cattle breeding, low commodity farming (based on the primitive methods of land cultivation and tools), fishing, and, to some extent, hunting, big importance was attached to traditional crafts associated with the processing of wool and leather, wicker-work, weaving, bone inlay work, wood engraving, and jeweller’s art. “Such a unique steppe culture had ancient traditions and deep roots but is less known to us than the culture of settled countries. The reason for that, of course, is not that the Turks and other Nomadic tribes were less endowed than their neighbors but because the remains of their material culture – felt, leather, wood, and fur – are stored worse,” Gumilyov wrote. Hides and leather are the oldest materials for making clothes. Even ancient writers paid attention to that fact. The Kazakhs usually drip-dry freshly taken hide, then smear it with aschyayran (fermented sour milk mixed with flour), roll it up with the inner side of a hide down for 2-3 days, then wash it and put into salty water. After keeping the hide in this state for some time, they dry it again and scrape off the inner side of the hide with a knife. They knead hide manually, perform tanning and painting with natural dyes. The color of the tanned leather was either yellow, dark crimson, orange or maroon, depending on the properties of plant roots used as a dye.

In the past, felting prevailed in the Kazakh folk crafts. It was their ancient heritage associated with moving cattle. Felt was used to cover a yurt and its floor, to harden walls. It was used to make abdrekap – box covers, ayak-cap – wall bags for tableware, kebenek – felt cloaks, cal-pack – felt hats, buy-pack – felt stockings, zhabu -horse clothes, terlik and tokym – bedding, tebenga – side sweat clothes for saddles, and other goods. The most traditional goods in Kazakh felting are kiiz – smooth felt usually made of white or gray wool, which was used to cover yurts as well as for economic needs; tekemets – floorcloth, which was produced by placing pictures made from painted but non-spun wool on a half-prepared base, then by rolling it together with a mat, repeatedly pouring that roll with hot water and rolling it using legs and arms; syrmaki or syrdamal – floorcloth usually made by sewing two multicolored but identical patterns, which were previously cut out of thin felt, on the base; syrdak – felt floorcloth embroidered in colored woolen threads; tuskiiz – felt wall carpets. An overlay of velvet on felt was made in the form of ornamental patterns of two colors. As a background for the first pattern, the remains of the second one are used, and vice versa. As mentioned above, the Kazakhs sewed some types of clothing and headdress from felt as well but mostly a white wool was used in its manufacture. In order to achieve that color, wool was thoroughly cleaned and fluffed up with the help of sticks (or sabau). For that matter, sticks were specifically cut of tamarisk, meadowsweet or other steppe shrubs. Then that wool was used to make thin felt.

post15big3Kazakhs powdered wet felt with chalk in order to make it perfectly white. Such a complex type of handicraft as weaving mats from chia (steppe cane) is also typical for the Kazakh applied art. First, each reed was individually entwined in accordance to a given pattern with colored fibers of non-spun wool. Then, by weaving them together, a gorgeous carpet pattern was shaped. A cloth weaved in such a manner – shym shea (or zhez shea as it was common in the south of Kazakhstan) – was used to edge latticed walls of a yurt – kerege, as well as an inner side of the door curtain. In Kazakhstan, carpet weaving also has deep roots. Mostly women were doing it. Secrets of weaving using ormeke – horizontal lathe (for such manufacture as alasha, baskury – carpet strips, tangysh, bau – carpet ribbons, shekpen – homespun cloth made of camel’s wool) were handed down from generation to generation. Kazakh carpets, both pile and non-pile, have a pretty simple hem – kirgan, korshau (literally curbs) with dividing strips – su (literally – water) that frame the central field of the carpet, or kyol (kol, literally – a lake). In the central field, the same type of geometric or natural pattern with a complex combination of curls and other symbols (which are called “rosette”) usually is repeated several times in a strict order. Rosettes of the central field of a carpet have different names in different regions of Kazakhstan: kumbez (a dome), tobe (a circle) – in the near Syr Darya steppes, tabak (a plate), zhuldyz (a star) – in the South of Kazakhstan, tur (a pattern) – in Sary-Arka, oyu (an ornament) – in Semirechye, and so on. Non-pile carpet weaving, which was widely spread in the steppes of Sary-Arka and West Kazakhstan, was due to the nomadic way of life of inhabitants of the steppes. Those inhabitants always preferred carpets sewn from the individual bands (alasha) and palas-type carpets as alty aul clem, araby, aday clem and etc.

In general, the practice of non-pile carpet weaving is carried on in these areas until now. Pile carpets, which require a lot of time and labor of a few women, not just one, were woven and are woven now mainly in the South of Kazakhstan, in Semirechye. Perhaps this is due to the settled and semi-settled way of life prevailed among the majority of the population in these places. An important role in the development of this type of craft was played, apparently, by contacts with the areas of developed carpet weaving (particularly with Iran, Eastern Turkestan), which took place in the past. The existence of a pile carpet calyclem (whose name comes from the Persian “gala” – carpet) both among the Kazakhs and the Turkmens indicates this possibility. A nominal “clem” (meaning “carpet” in the Kazakh language) apparently was also borrowed from the Persians, who use this word to describe palas goods. Calyclem was the most common type of carpets among the Kazakh pile carpets. Traditionally, its pattern was composed by identical rosettes placed in strict rows and a complex multi-lane hem. It was the key object in the bride’s dowry, in the process of exchanging gifts among people. It was served as a sign of the highest honors to those who deserved universal respect. Also, it was used as a prize in the most important horse racing – baige. By presenting a calyclem, people often purged an offense. Later, the name calyclem was used to describe various high-quality pile carpets with multiband hems. Little by little, the initial name of the carpet was passed out of use and replaced by a nominal noun “clem”. The Kazakh carpet weaving is characterized by its specific manufacturing technology, the manner of execution, the balance of background, sharp-cut pictures and the strict symmetry in their arrangement.

Meanwhile, in pile carpets ghoul kumbezdi (“floral”), the border between the central field consisting of three or four large rosettes, which in the fine arts literature are known as kumbez (dome) or zhuldyz (star), and a hem sometimes can be very relative. In palace-type carpets such as tykyr clem taz clem, ornamental patterns can be placed in random order or in sections, separated by strips filled with zigzags. In the composition of such palace carpets as araby, aday clem, alta aul clem, on the contrary, the patterns of the central field are cut-out and strict. As is well-known, in pre-revolutionary Kazakhstan, there were no region that was a center of carpet production working for the market, except for the area of Turkestan where, according to old residents, craftsmen unsuccessfully tried to establish artel carpet production. The lack of commercial carpet production was due to the low level of commodity-money relations in the Kazakh steppes where carpets were taken for sale only in times of poverty or acute need. Due to this circumstance we can’t single out a historical center of this craft. Still, we can try to classify woven carpets by places of their original sample production (for example, jetysu – Semirechye, torgai turi – Turgai); tribal affiliation (konyrat clem – Konyratovsky, aday clem – adaev, kerey ulgi – Kereevsky, najmam nuska – Naymanovsky); the patterns of the central field (shugyla (a ray), ghoul kumbezdi – floral, torkoz clem – sectional), and etc. This classification is rightful also since that stunning decorative ornamentation of carpets could be achieved only when complying with a pattern that was composed long time ago.

post15big6As is well-known, Kazakh craftswomen, while working on one pattern or another, always strictly followed compositional techniques prevailing for centuries trying to use variations of the original element – a pattern. In addition to the actual pile and non-pile carpets, so-called akbaskury can also be attributed to carpets. Akbaskury are woven strips with pile patterns made on the smooth white background, which were used to decorate a joint of the cylindrical part of the yurt – kerege with a dome. As a frieze, they are located under the felt inside the yurt around its perimeter, from eight to fifteen meters long and from thirty to forty centimeters wide, depending on yurt’s size. Patterns included in the repeating system throughout the akbaskur’s length represent a finished composition. Similar in its function but non-pile woven strips with the same koshkaraty (literally – a ram) pattern of the central field are called just baskury. In the past, such names as biz keste, tue keste, tue clem (wall carpets embroidered with tambour on velvet, suede, or thin cloth) were in use. For some reason, a few modern researchers confuse them with a nominal “tuskiiz” (wall felt cloth). The compositions of these carpets are composed of a wide ham framed by stripes where the central field, the lower half of the square, is not embroidered. It was made due to the function of the carpet. Tue keste, tue clem were bedside carpets, the lower part of which was always covered by bedding. Unique examples of such cloth are stored in the Central State Museum of Kazakhstan, the Museum of Architectural complex of the Mausoleum-mosque of Ahmed Yasawi in Turkestan, and in the State Art Museum. The composition of these carpets include motifs of the tree of life, leaves, and buds.

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