Sunday, July 28, 2013

Ala Ki'iz and Shyrdak, Felts of the Kirghiz

Hello all.
Today I will talk about one particular textile tradition of the Kirghiz people, floor felts.
The Kyrghyz speak a Kipchak Turkish language, and mostly live in the independent nation of Kyrghystan. They also inhabit areas across the borders, mostly in Uyguristan, which is currently part of the Chinese Empire, but small groups are also found in Tajikistan, Afghanistan, and other neighboring nations. Here is a map of Kyrgyzstan and its neighbors.

This following map shows the location of the ethnic populations in this region, The Kyrgyz are shown in brown, Kazakh in lavender, Uygur in sage green, Uzbek in yellow, and Tadzhik in fuchsia.

 For more information on the Kyrghyz, see this article.  
The capitol of the Kirghiz is Bishkek, and this is their flag.

 The object shown in the middle of the flag, inside the aureole, is a tündük, the crown or roof ring of the traditional felt covered dwelling, which is English is usually called a yurt, but in Kirghiz is called boz üy. [It is interesting that the term yurt is not used by any of the peoples who live in these dwellings.]

This dwelling is found all through Central Asia, from the Caucuses to Mongolia.  The yurt consists of a door with a frame, collapsible trellises for the walls, the tündük, and poles which form the roof. These are all lashed together, and various textiles are used to cover the frame. Most of the work of raising the boz üy is done by women, except the raising of the tündük. Here is a quick illustration of how to raise this structure. I will talking more about this amazing dwelling in other posts.


The interior of the yurt is decorated with bags, reed screens, hangings, bedclothes, furniture, etc. Each of which deserves an article of its own. Today I will be talking about two types of patterned felt, ala ki'iz and shyrdak. These are used as floor coverings, and sometimes as decorations of the wall and roof. In these photos, you can see patterned felts on the floor and through the roof slats.

Felt is a very old material which is based on the natural property of wool to shrink and matt together under the influence of water, heat and pressure/agitation. True felt is made without any sort of spinning, looping, braiding  or weaving. It is very rare in European folk costume except for hats. Pants, coats, mantles, etc which form parts of European folk costumes are almost always actually woven, and then subjected to fulling [felting] afterwards.

Ala ki'iz is the easier of these two to make. The wool is prepared by beating, thus fluffing it up so to eliminate clumps and shaking out dirt and foreign objects. Traditionally this is done on a piece of canvas or old felt, but today is often done on a steel bed frame.

Then a reed mat, chiy, is rolled out.

A base layer of dark wool is spread over the mat. This is often followed by a second layer of mixed white and dark wool.

Then the patterned layer is laid out in dyed wool. This is done by eye without any sort of guide. Natural dark wool is sometimes used to separate colored areas.

 Hot water, sometimes with soap is poured over the wool, the mat is then rolled up, often covered with a cloth,and the roll is subjected to kicking, pummeling, rolling and other types of impact. This causes the wool to felt together.

 Not uncommonly, a stick is placed in the center, and the bundle is rolled along the ground, pulled by a donkey, horse, camel, or yak. Young boys are often eager to do this work.

The bundle is then unrolled, and the incipient felt rolled up by itself. More hot water is poured over it, and the final felting is usually done by women pressing and rolling it with their forearms.

The finished ala ki'iz is colorful and useful, is usually 2 or more inches thick and will last 4 to 5 years. The edges of the motifs are blurred and usually somewhat distorted because it is laid  out by eye and shrinks during the felting process. They are still striking, and exhibit the typical curvilinear Kirghiz ornament. They are used strictly as floor/ground covers.

Shyrdak last much longer, but also take quite a bit more time to make. 
To make shyrdaks, relatively thin single layer felts of uniform color are made using the same process as shown above.  Two square or rectangular pieces of felt of complementary colors are basted together, then a design is cut out of both pieces, either by eye or by following a chalked line. The two are then swapped and stitched together. 

Various panels are assembled into a composition, then stitched to a single felt backing. The seams are trimmed with contrasting braid, and the whole piece is quilted together, following the contours of the design.

This technique results in compositions with sharp edges. One consequence of this technique is that the positive and negative parts of the composition have equal weight. This is part of the distinctive effect of this ornamentation. Both panels are used, either in the same composition,

or in two separate pieces. which then become 'sisters'.

These are only two of many techniques for working in felt. The shyrdak technique is also used for wall and ceiling hangings as well as bags and other articles.

Here are several photos of various examples of Shyrdaks.

Thank you for reading, I hope that you have found this interesting and perhaps inspiring.

Some of these images are from the collection of the British Museum.

Feel free to contact me with requests for research. I hope to eventually cover all of Europe and the Former Russian Empire/Soviet Union. I also gratefully accept tips on source materials which i may not have. I also accept commissions to research/design, sew, and/or embroider costumes or other items for groups or individuals. I also choreograph and teach folk dance.
Roman K.

Source material:
Stephanie Bunn, 'Nomadic Felts', London, 2010
V. Maksymov et al, 'The Kirghiz Pattern', Frunze, 1986
Vladimir Basilov, 'Nomads of Eurasia', Los Angeles, 1989
Tatyana Razina, et al, 'Folk Art in the Soviet Union', Leningrad, 1990
Janet Harvey, 'Traditional Textiles of Central Asia', London, 1996


  1. Wonderful post, thank you!

  2. Always wanted to see this form of traditional felting up close. These people are masters of the discipline. Thanks for a great post!

  3. more photos of felt in BOKONBAEVO (Kyrgyzstan)on my FB page(RIT MAES)in the album "felt-vilten"

  4. If you are interested in Shyrdak and Kyrgyz handicrafts is for you.