Feeling for Felt


Every felt shyrdak rug tells one Kyrgyz clan’s unique history

Imagine a rug that tells one family’s unique history and you have the story of shyrdak, the wool felt rugs of the nomadic people of Kyrgyzstan.

For tribes in the Tien Shan and Pamir Mountains of Central Asia, who migrate from lowland pastures in winter to mountain meadows in summer, shyrdak have for thousands of years served as a central feature of their daily lives. Nomads lived in yurts—circular, collapsible tent-like dwellings made of a wood frame and covered in thick layers of felt. Felt serves as a barrier to severe cold and extreme wind, as well as decoration for the yurt’s interior. In addition to their insulating qualities, shyrdak are also an indication of a family’s wealth and considered symbols of family’s prosperity.

Part mosaic, part quilt, the shyrdak’s interlocking patterns and distinctive borders combine to create a rich tapestry. The designs incorporate images of sacred myths and symbols, with colors reflecting the balance in nature, and the cyclical rhythm of the nomad’s world. The designer of the shryrdak decides how to combine the varied motifs of each rug.

Shyrdaks hold deep communal and spiritual significance, and are traditionally made as part of a girl’s dowry and to memorialize other important family and community events. Creating the elaborate rugs was one of the primary activities of women in nomadic life and it was customary for females in the household—and community—to work together.

During Soviet times, all forms of religious and mystical belief were suppressed or banned, and the practice of traditional crafts continued only clandestinely. With the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991, independence came to Kyrgyzstan abruptly; no longer under Soviet control and suddenly responsible for their own destiny, the Kyrgyz entered into a process of nation-building and cultural revival that included a resurgence of treasured handicraft traditions. As the craft of shyrdak was once again openly practiced, the rugs were discovered by travelers who came to Kyrgyzstan to experience the magnificent mountain scenery and became enchanted by local culture. An international market for Kyrgyz handicrafts was born.

Crafts in Kyrgyzstan were traditionally made for a family’s own use, not for economic activity, and the concept that women’s handicrafts could turn into an income-generating activity was new to Kyrgyz.  But in the context of wide unemployment and economic pressure, the idea took root and developed. Hundreds of families joined handicraft cooperatives; by contributing just a few rugs each year for sale, a family will double their annual income.

In modern times, tradition evolves at a modern pace. One of the strengths of Kyrgyzstan’s crafts market is that it goes beyond mere revival: makers also seek new creativity, new innovation, new ways of satisfying customers’ changing wants.

Shyrdak are still very rarely seen in the West, due to the difficulty and expense of transporting them from the Tien Shan Mountains, and the remoteness of the area. However, appreciation for shyrdak is growing, particularly in Europe, for both traditional designs and contemporary interpretations.

Visit lavivahome.com to look at author Laura Aviva’s selection of shyrdak rugs from Kyrgyzstan.