With livestock breeding being their main economic activity, the Kalmyks always had enough raw material at hand to undertake leatherwork. Traditionally, pelts were processed either in summer or autumn when the livestock was slaughtered. The technology of pelt-processing differed for various livestock depending on their size. The pelt of large animals was processed as follows. At first the pelt was cleaned of impurities, such as fat layers, and dried in the open air. Then it was left in salty liquid with sour whey for several days. After that, the skin was cleaned again, dried, and softened manually or by beating it with a stick. By contrast, the pelt of small animals such as sheep was first salted and then smeared several times with a mix of brine and whey. Once dried, the skin was cleaned and softened by using a knife-shaped wooden instrument. Finally, the skin was smeared with a special home-made powder. In the past, no part of an animal skin was left unused. For example, the belly and leg parts of large livestock, including horses, cows, and camels, were used for the production of belts, stirrups, whips, as well as various bags and large containers such as for keeping or transporting liquid. The head skin was usually used for the production of bortkha, a traditional container to keep milk vodka or water. The skin of small livestock, by contrast, was used mainly to sew clothing such as winter coats, hats, gloves, or used as a bedspread.
Aleksandr Koshevoi, Bortkha
Aleksandr says that usually it takes up to a month and a half for him to produce a single bortkha, which is a vessel to keep alcohol or milk products such as liquid yoghurt. In the past when it was used widely, a bortkha also served as an object to indicate the wealth and social status of its owner.
Aleksandr shows various sketches of bortkha and ornaments that go with it. He explains that a bortkha is produced as follows. Two pieces of soft pelt are sewed together to make a vessel. In order to give it the required shape, the bortkha is filled with a mix of soil and sand. Decorations are also applied when the pelt is still soft. The bortkha is then dried and smoked on a fire for a day. The neck of the bortkha is made from a white metal such as silver, and rarely from copper or brass. The cork is made from wood. Finally, the bortkha is smeared with a mix of several ingredients, including sheep's fat.
As an example, Aleksandr shows one of his bortkhas. He says that he knows how to make a dozen different types. He has produced more than 30 so far.