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Kyrgyz crafts

Kyrgyzstan has a thriving craft tradition that mostly utilises raw materials that are produced by the livestock central to the Kyrgyz nomadic way of life - wool and leather. The handicrafts they produce reflect the ancient traditions of their nomadic way of life in both their design and the function that they serve. As a consequence, Kyrgyz handicrafts are essentially portable items that are produced without the need for complex tools or machinery. The most well-known of these handicrafts is undoubtedly the applique felt object that is known as a shyrdak.

Ala-kiyiz Ala-kiyiz are felt carpets that are produced in a similar way to shyrdaks but without the use of stitching. Instead of sewing applique motifs to a backing, ala-kiyiz are created by pressing different coloured wools together on a felt background and then wetting and rolling on a reed mat in the same way that the felt for shyrdaks is made. The wool that is used is not spun into threads but kept loose. One colour is chosen as the background and this is spread on a background of felt on a chiy mat. Clumps of other colours are then laid down to create a pattern. This is covered with a cloth and sprayed with hot water before being rolled inside the mat as in the making of a shyrdak. Repetition of this process ensures that the wool fibres become firmly melded together and the multi-coloured felt created remains whole after it is dried in the sun.

As no stitching is used to hold these carpets together the end result tends not to be quite as strong as a shyrdak, but the advantage is that they can be manufactured more quickly. Also, because of the inevitable imprecision of their design, ala- kiyiz tend on the whole to be more individualistic than most shyrdaks. Some contemporary ala-kiyiz designs, instead of having a symmetrical pattern, use "the differing colours to create an image - typically a landscape scene - that can serve as a wall hanging.

Tush kiyiz Tush kiyiz are wall hangings made from embroidered cloth in which chain stitching is used to create a montage of stylised natural shapes. Traditionally, tush kiyiz are sewn by grandmothers for young married couples and they often have the names of the couple sewn into the design. Tush kiyiz can sometimes be large enough to cover a wall, while most are smaller and are often used to decorate the headboard of a bed.

Kurak Another typical Kyrgyz embroidered handicraft is kurak or patchwork. This utilises scraps and oddments of material to create objects such as head coverings and other items of clothing, babies' blankets, crib covers and saddle bags. The patchworks follow two basic styles: either an assemblage of squares and triangles or one made up of a selection of long strips of material.

In Kyrgyzstan, kurak is associated with magical powers and patchwork pieces are thought to bring luck and guard against evil. Sometimes special rituals are connected with patchwork pieces, such as the gown that newborn babies traditionally wear after 40 days, which is created from 40 pieces of material collected by the mother from the yurts of the ail - a sort of collective village blessing in the form of a garment. Dowries, too, usually contain items of kurak, which are made from scraps of material collected from the family and community and arc intended to pass on good fortune to the newly wedded couple.

Other crafts In the past, weaving was an important Kyrgyz craft, but with the ready availability of inexpensive factory-made goods the tradition is far less common these days. Weaving used to be a summer, fair weather activity that took place outdoors and involved only women. The wool was collected, cleaned and sorted before being spun into yarn. Natural dyes were used to colour the yarn before it was woven on a horizontal loom to produce a long, narrow strip of fabric. Sometimes, woven strips were sewn together to make rugs and coverings.

Carpet-making takes place mostly in the south of the country, in the Osh region. It usually uses woollen yarn (often from a camel), but sometimes cotton - in plentiful supply in the Fergana Valley - is used to weave the piles.

Leatherwork was a well-developed craft in the past and superb examples may be seen in some of Kyrgyzstan's cultural museums. The leather used would come either from the skins of nomads' livestock - cattle, goats, sheep, horses - or from animals that had been caught on hunting expeditions, like ibex and gazelle. Because of the Kyrgyz nomadic lifestyle most of the objects produced would have a practical use, like harnesses, whips, footwear and clothing. In addition, everyday objects such as kumys containers, with their distinctive anchor form that has two upturned compartments at the base, would also be produced from leather. Unlike the majority of craft activities, leatherworking was carried out by men and women alike.

Woodcarving was also important in the past, particularly in relation to jailoo life, in whic h the yurt would require a number of wooden chests for the storage of clothes and linen, as well as a pishpek (churn) for making ktimys, fermented mare's milk, and wooden implements for cooking. Kyrgyz musical instruments such as komuz also require woodcarving skills in their manufacture.