Sewing, Embroidery and Felt Making

In Kalmykia, sewing, embroidery and felt-making are regarded as women’s crafts. Traditionally, women sewed and decorated clothes, hats, bedding, bags and cushions for domestic use. Depending on the final product, the materials used varied, ranging from silk and textiles to skin, felt and furs. Aside from cotton, silk and woolen threads, the Kalmyks also used threads made from various animal fibres, including tendon, veins, and intestines. End-products that were intended to reflect the status and craftsmanship of the family and its female members such as festive dresses, hats, bags, and cushions were decorated with ornaments painstakingly sewed using gold, silver and other vivid threads. Traditional ornaments called zeg, which were produced separately, were also used widely for dresses and other items.

Products made of felt were particularly popular among the Kalmyks. Felt of various widths and refinement was widely used for all kinds of coverings and containers, including the outer cover of the nomadic tent, rugs, mats and bags. For example, the outer cover of the tent was made of thick and dense felt layers, whereas those used for clothes were finer and lighter. Often, felt products were decorated with traditional embroidery, zeg ornaments in particular. Felt-making is a long and labor-intensive process. Firstly, sheep wool has to be sorted according to colour, then combed, cleaned, and beaten with a long stick until it turns into a light, fluffy mass. Afterwards it is sprinkled with warm water, rolled up, and pressed. The felt roll is lifted and dropped by several people more than a thousand times to give it the required density and durability.

Alena Lidzhieva, About Felt Making and Felt Yurts

Alena talks about how felt was processed in the past. Women gathered together, spread out sheep’s wool on the floor and beat it continuously with sticks. Afterwards the wool was sprinkled with water and rolled up. The roll was left for several days and the whole process was repeated several times. When the felt was ready, it was decorated with ornaments.

The yurt had a two-layered door. In the winter the door was covered with felt in order to keep the dwelling warm. The roof of the yurt was also covered with felt. In order to render it stable in the wind, the yurt was tied to sticks, which were nailed into the ground around the yurt. In the summer the felt on the wall was rolled up to allow the yurt to be ventilated. In the rain the yurt did not get wet.