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The Kyrgyz carpet - shyrdak

The colourful felt carpets that is usually rectangular in shape known as shyrdaks and seen all over Kyrgyzstan, are deeply rooted in nomadic culture and date back thousands of years. Portable, practical and light, they serve a wide range of purposes from floor coverings and wall hangings to seat and table covers, and more than any other domestic object, it is shyrdaks that characterise a typical Kyrgyz home, whether it is an isolated yurt on a lonely jailoo or a two-bedroom Soviet apartment in town.

Today, carpets made from thick, appliqued felt (shyrdaks) and pressed felt (ala-kiyiz) offer the most tangible aspect of Kyrgyz culture. Whereas silverwork has disappeared, leatherwork is practised by only a minority, and traditional Kyrgyz embroidery designs have been pushed aside by Uzbek, Ukrainian and Russian motifs, shyrdaks and ala-kiyiz are still found in every home, just as they were 2,000 years ago.

A shyrdak is made from panels of felt, each with a stylized motif, sewn together and edged with braid. Traditionally just two colours were used but artificial dyes introduced in the 1960s have led to bold, vibrant, multicoloured shyrdaks. In the past, the motifs used (usually stylized representations of animals or plants) held symbolic meaning, although it is likely that interpretations varied from region to region. For example, meanings given for the kochkor mujaz, or ram's horn motif, include male potency and wealth (because a rich man has many sheep), while ram's horns used all the way around the carpet signifies a protection against evil. A bird's foot design is said to indicate a wish for happiness. Today, however, symbolic meanings have mostly been lost and people use traditional designs because their grandmothers did, not for their symbolic value.

To appeal to that sector of the tourist market that prefers 'natural', organically produced handicrafts, there has been a revival of the older, monochromatic tradition in recent years but, in catering for all tastes, these are produced alongside gaudily-coloured pieces that would rarely have had a place in a traditional Kyrgyz home in the past. Kyrgyzstan produces a range of different patterns and styles of shyrdak according to geographical region but, as a rule, those made in the Naryn area are widely considered to be among the finest.

The process of making a shyrdak is laborious so groups of women work together. The first stage is to clean the wool by spreading it over a wire mesh. Two women crouch on either side and beat the wool with long thin poles so that dirt falls to the ground; this takes at least one full day.

Layers of wool, which may have already been dyed, are then spread out on a reed mat woven from a local grass, chiy, and boiling water is poured over it. The wool is then rolled up tightly inside the mat and this is rolled and trodden for several hours to ensure that the wool strands have fused into a single layer. The mat is unrolled, boiling water is poured over the wool a second time, and the mat is rolled up for a second time. This time, the women kneel in a row and roll the mat with their arms for about half an hour; many shyrdak- makers have friction burns on their arms during the summer months when shyrdaks are made. Finally, the mat is unrolled and the wool left to dry.

Patterns are drawn on the felt using chalk or soap and then cut out. These are stitched together in a stiff applique style and attached to a piece of backing felt. No felt is wasted; the pattern's 'shadow' image will be used in another carpet, resulting in two carpets that are mirror images of each other. Larger shyrdaks are made by joining several smaller pieces together. Finally, a border is added - often of black and white triangles - and another piece of felt is added as a backing to give extra thickness.