LIFE

Zhansara Bolegenova, Felt maker: "My craft is in my blood."

A wide variety of traditional crafts, from making felt to weaving and making household items, were an integral part of everyday life for people throughout Central Asia. Why is it important to preserve traditional techniques, revive lost skills and pass on folk heritage to future generations? At Manshuq we’re exploring these questions within the framework of the Silk Road project implemented by UNESCO and sponsored by the European Union.
Manshuq

November 5th, 2020

The felt carpet is a world of colorful mosaics, exotic ornamentation, and stunning patterns that evoke bleeding watercolors. Working with felt is an ancient traditional craft of the Kazakh people, dating to the times when they practiced a nomadic way of life. In this story, we’d like to tell you about a woman who has been working all her life to preserve the secrets of her people’s craftspeople and to pass on her knowledge to future generations.

Zhansara Bolegenova, who lives in Kyzylorda Province, is one of the most famous felt masters in Kazakhstan. Zhansara was born in 1961 at the Koksu State Farm in the region of Shymkent, graduated from high school in 1978, got married in September of 1979 and has lived ever since in the village of Kyzylkayin in Kyzylorda. According to her, they have a small family - four sons, one daughter and seven grandchildren.

Zhansara Bolegenova:

“My craftwork is in my blood - my mother was a craftswoman, making tekemet and other items from felt. One of my fondest memories from when I was a kid is how we would get together and spend hours working on our crafts together. My little sisters and I (there were six girls in our family) made our first tekemet when I was in the first grade.


Decorating the carpet with patterns we made out of wool was one of the most interesting parts. I liked that particular process, and thanks to that in particular I fell in love with the craft."

The traditional technique for creating a felt carpet is laborious. The first stage is preparing the wool - men helped with shearing the sheep, and the rest of the work went to the women.

Wool is sheared from young sheep in the fall, because it rolls better and is stronger than in the spring
Then the wool is washed, dried out, beaten and fluffed. Using special sticks, women rhythmically beat the wool, alternating blows from right and left, until it’s uniformly fluffy. After that the wool is laid out evenly, pressed down slightly , sprinkled with hot water and then rolled up together with the rest. The production of felt then begins, and almost all techniques for processing felt have been preserved.


Products made from felt have certain advantages: they’re exceptionally dense, have a low thermal conductivity, and are pleasant to touch. Felt not only protected nomads from the cold and piercing wind of the steppe and kept in the heat from the hearth at the center of the yurt, it also kept them cool in hot weather while being exceptionally waterproof, preventing dampness and moisture from spreading inside the home.

Making felt carpets was important for the entire village. Felt was used for both clothing and bedding; yurts were covered with it, and thin, patterned carpets (tus kıіz) hung inside the homes. Carpets were used in many rituals, such as at weddings and tusaý keser (a celebration of a child’s first steps). Even saddle pads, er-toqym, were made of felt.
Note:
A tekemet is a Kazakh felt carpet embedded with a colored pattern. The technique of making tekemets is included in the National List of Intangible Cultural Heritage of the Republic of Kazakhstan as part of the nomination "Kıіz basý, the felt making tradition."
Tekemet are entirely made by hand. The work in progress is soaked with hot soapy water and quickly wrapped up into a roll, pouring more of the soaпy water with every turn. After that, the carpet makers use their hands and elbows to press down the rolled up felt.

Zhansara Bolegenova: 

“When the carpet would almost be ready, my sisters and my mother would trim the edges of the tekemet with scissors and sing a special song - tekemet basý. And when the work is finished, there’s a beautiful Kazakh ritual where children are seated in the middle of the carpet and asked to make a wish. People believe that wishes made by children will definitely come true. When we would be about to finish the tekemet, I would always ask to sit in the center, which I always found interesting. Now, after finishing a tekemet, I put my own grandchildren in the middle and every time I remember how it felt."
In 2011, Zhansara Bolegenova learned that as part of the project of the UNESCO Cluster Office for Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan and Uzbekistan in Almaty, they were looking for people who practice ancient forms of arts and crafts, forgotten traditions and customs. That same year in December, she received free training in new methods, and her work was presented at the EXPO world’s fair. By 2012, Zhansara was displaying her works at a national exhibition and received her first award from the Union of Craftsmen of Kazakhstan from its chairman Aizhan Bekkulova. Since 2013, she’s been participating in competitions, receiving awards and certifications.

Zhansara Bolegenova: 

“My daughters-in-law help me with my work, as do some of my neighbors, who also study and earn money at the same time. There’s a lot of work to do - we get a lot of orders for felt slippers, for example. In general, we can custom make all sorts of things. It ends up being a combination of business and pleasure.


It’s very important for me to preserve our traditional crafts; it’s important for me to leave a legacy, to pass everything that I know and can do down to the next generation. I teach my grandchildren. In the future, I want to open a training center in our area, and I would also conduct free workshops. I still run a lot of classes for any girls who want to learn. But, unfortunately, even in rural areas there aren’t many people like that."

This material was prepared within the framework of the project "Silk Road Heritage Corridors in Afghanistan, Central Asia and Iran - International Dimension of the European Year of Cultural Heritage", implemented by UNESCO with financial support from the European Union
Illustrations by Roman Zakharov

Translation by Dennis Keen

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