Items of everyday use manufactured by craftsmen of sedentary and nomadic nations have always had similarities and differences. Proportions characteristic of nomadic culture can only be observed in the pieces of art they create. Felt, the most ancient material used by nomadic herdsmen migrating from yailag to gyshlak (wintering stations), is common among Turkic nations leading the life of nomads.
It is believed that felt-making technology appeared much earlier than the technology for manufacturing fleece-free and pile carpets. Although the exact date of its appearance is unknown, felt items discovered during archaeological excavations in the mounds in Altai suggest that Turkic-speaking peoples were using felt items already in the 6-4 centuries B.C.
Chinese sources testify to the importance of felt in the social life of ancient Turks. For instance, the chosen kagan was seated upon white felt and symbolically carried around the sun seven times, after which he became the undisputed ruler. According to another custom, the country’s authoritative persons wrapped the chosen leader in felt and carried him to his new domain (2, pp. 300, 302). Ancient rituals also influenced the ceremony of enthroning a Mongol ruler who mounted his horse, rode it and then ascended the throne, the flooring of which was made of festively decorated felt.
Italian traveller Marco Polo who visited Mongolia in the 13th century reported that Tatars (Turks) used felt to make “convertible” covers for tents and wagons, which protected them from the cold and rain.
According to the Russian historian V. Y. Vladimirtsev, in the 13th century, the heyday of nomadic roaming, wagons and tents covered with felt were extensively used. In his studies he noted that in the 16th century Persians admired the splendour of the tent-palaces on wheels used by Turks. In the 16th century a Persian historian Razbehani (3, p. 79) wrote that these tents were made of felt decorated with expensive leather on the outside, could house up to 20 people, and were drawn by many camels. These tents were homes to sultans and aristocracy. Windows and doors were decorated with finest felt designs. Without a doubt, these luxury tents were considered the pinnacle of nomadic architecture.
Felt was used to make mats, sacks, cloaks, boots, hats, and covers for the tents and wagons. Felt was indispensable for people who led nomadic lifestyle. It protected them from the scorching sun and torrential rains. In olden times, tents made of black felt were called “black tents”. To produce this colour, black wool was added in the process of manufacturing. The mentioning of the “black tents” occurs in ancient Turkic epic tales “Dede Gorgud”. A phrase “agba evler”, or “white homes”, referred to tents made of white felt.
Felt-making craft occupies a prominent place in the culture of Azerbaijani people. Felt was widely used in the weaving centres located in Azerbaijan highlands and had a great significance for herdsmen leading semi-nomadic life. Garabah, Nakhichevan and Gazakh were famous for felt-making. Despite the fact that these territories were known as main centres of felt production, on the entire territory of Azerbaijan it was an integral part of nomads’ everyday life. Throughout the year, roaming herdsmen lived in elongated, rectangular tents, and even covered their wagons with felt. Usually, the wool of sheep sheared in wintering stations was washed in a yailag, combed and sorted by quality.
Lower-quality wool was used to make mattresses and felt, while better quality wool was used to manufacture pile and fleece-free carpets and to spin yarn for different carpet items. Depending on the purpose, masters used ordinary felt, or felt decorated with beautiful designs, which could be called a synthesis of traditions that evolved over thousands of years. These remained unchanged under any socio-economic or political order, were never forgotten, but only slightly modified. Over the years, the workmanship, the technique and colour palette improved. Patterns decorating felt items are connected with the worldview of ancient people and their understanding of the world around. There are also felt ornaments containing signs and symbols, which identify different tribes and kin. For centuries these patterns represented material and spiritual values of the entire nation.
System of felt patterns developed in both static and dynamic form. The static system of patterns is the earliest specimen of textile art, which preserved traces of ancient culture in abstract designs, whereas dynamism is explained by the evolution of this art form, that is, by new creative exploration. Abstract geometric elements originally prevalent in felt patterns have a ring of floral ornaments, which were extensively used during later period, and of contemporary subjects.
Felt-making craft is still popular in the art of people living in Uzbekistan, Kazakhstan, Turkmenistan and Kyrgyzstan. Felt patterns created by these Turkic nations share common features with the items of traditional applied art wrought by Azerbaijani masters. There are similarities in the names of ornaments too. Some popular ones are “The Wheel of Fortune”, “The Sun”, “Bird’s Wing”, “Ram’s Horns”, “The Umai Bird”, “Flower Petal”, “Amulet”, “Goose Neck”, “Dog’s Tail”, and others.
Today some ancient and modern ornaments are regarded as precious jewels of museum stocks. Some felt specimens can still be found in the L. Kerimov Museum of Azerbaijani Carpet and Applied Art. These include felt items created in Gazah and Karabakh by professional artists in the 1970s-1980s, as well as in the early years of the 20th century.
One felt item created at the beginning of the 20th century by Garabakh masters is rich in ornamentation. Its surface is made of brown wool decorated with red and yellow woollen threads. The artistic design of this felt resembles a carpet composition: it consists of a central field, borders, main and auxiliary ornaments. The main elements are performed in buta ornament. This ornament symbolizing the sacred fire and other associated elements is large in size because of the dense texture of the felt.
A felt article from Gazakh is decorated with a system of ornaments in the shape of green intersecting lines made of felt, and hook-like elements in each corner on a purple field. This composition can be attributed to symbolism and is very similar to compositions found in felt articles produced in Kyrgyzstan.
Another specimen of felt is an item wrought by M. Akhmedova in 1979. An elongated geometrical pattern decorating the item is an abstraction, the fruit of the artist’s imagination. The composition is based on a combination of archaic and modern. Ornaments in the shape of diamonds, triangles, rectangles and circles reflect the worldview of our ancient ancestors during the era of fetishism. Even the colour range of the rug makes it look antique. A felt item made by artist R. Gelashvili in 1989 is wrought in the same artistic key. Mystical ideas are embodied in designs that appear to be trees.
The National Museum of History of Azerbaijan keeps ethnographically and historically valuable specimens of traditional art, and a collection of felt items that includes saddles, herdsman’s yapyncha, and a variety of felt boots. Many of them are not in use anymore.
According to information received by the present author during a field trip to Garabaglar village in Sharur district of the Nakhichevan Autonomous Republic, in the house of Tugan Akperova, the village resident, there is a felt made of sheep’s wool shorn in autumn. By tradition, local people use felt only as floor rugs. These rugs are decorated with stylized geometric designs in the shape of flowers and other elements popularly named “Spinning Wheel”, “Camel’s Neck”, and the like. The ornaments decorating felt produced in this area are similar to the ornaments of jejim (pile-free carpets) and tufted carpets of Nakhichevan. Floral designs represent rich vegetation of this region and are performed in realistic style.
In Nakhichevan felt is decorated with yarn dyed only with natural pigments. For example, pale-yellow color is obtained from dried ears of wheat, brown and red from red bulb onion, yellow from yellow onion, green and brown from walnut shell, and shades of pistachio from rose stem.
Unfortunately, felt is no longer in big demand, and the trade continues mostly through the effort of artists and craftsmen. Nowadays, felt is used mostly in gift ornamentation, as a decorative element.
Presently, along with long-term academic studies of felt-making craft, Azerbaijan has worthy followers of the business. Socio-economic centres engaged in the development of applied arts in Baku provide strong support to felt-making industry.
Over the recent years, the “Eco-Sphere” socio-economic centre (an NGO) has implemented a program called “Sustainable Development of Caspian Coastal Communities” funded by the European Union (European Bank for Reconstruction and Development). Under the program, the city of Baku and its suburb – Kala village, were selected as base sites. During 15 days a master-class was delivered by an expert from Kyrgyzstan who trained the Centre staff in various felt-making techniques. In the second phase of the project, 8 people from the Centre – the Kala village residents, and 10 people from Baku, having made all necessary preparations, started making felt products and souvenirs. It should be noted that yarns used to embroider felt items with traditional ornaments were dyed only with natural pigments. Among the manufactured felt products were eyeglass cases, purses, wallets, armlets, cell-phone holders, coats, hats, etc. They also published a catalogue of finished items, making it possible to have souvenirs made to order. Felt was eagerly purchased by members of the International Women’s Club and souvenir shops. Every original item is protected by copyright.
We hope that cherishing ancient heritage will help preserve felt-making craft and promote it among our contemporaries.
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2. Тюркская мифология. Бахеддин Огел. Т. 1; 2-е изд. Баку, 2006 (на азерб. Языке.)
3. Искусство стран Востока. М., 1986.
Khadija Asadova (Azerbaijan)