2021  N3-4(192-193)
Felt mat – koshma (keche) – has for many centuries been an integral household item, an indispensable element of Turkmen holidays and folk rituals. It was part of brides’ dowry and used as floor covering in a dwelling (yurt). Nowadays, a felt mat claims a place in the UNESCO Intangible Cultural Heritage List.
...Early in the morning, when the hot Turkmen sun has not yet reached its highest point, four women would gather in the courtyard of one of the houses where piles of sheep wool presorted by color were prepared. Having combed the wool with a special comb and making it soft and fluffy, the craftswomen would lay out the base on the reed mat and a pattern of woolen plaits on top and would start rolling the felt. This is how a felt mat or, as Turkmens say, keche is born.
With all its seeming simplicity, the process of making a felt mat is not easy at all. It takes hard and focused work. A roll of colored wool inside the reed mat is rolled back and forth. Very hot water is periodically poured on the roll so that the wool layers stick and connect more tightly to each other. By the end of the day, one can see the result of this work – a ready-made felt mat that keeps the warmth of human hands.
As for the amount of required wool, it can be very different depending on the purpose of the felt product. For example, it takes 150 sheep to shear to get enough wool to make felt mats for one yurt alone. One can imagine all the laboriousness of such work!
Hundreds of years ago, a felt mat (koshma) became firmly rooted in the life of Turkmens, and they still use it during holidays, religious ceremonies and weddings. Being much older than a woven carpet, keche is easier and cheaper to make. That is why even poor people could afford it in ancient times.
Felt mats have always been widely used in everyday life. They were used to cover yurts (white keche were used for newlyweds). Felt mats also covered the floor and even were used to cover a chimney hole in a dwelling when it rained or snowed. People would rest on keche under the trees in the summer heat. There were special felt blankets to cover Turkmen hounds (tazy) that traditionally lived in a yurt with their masters. In winter, a hound would be stripped off such cloth only during hunting. Turkmens also have a khalyk (a camel blanket made of felt) and an ichirgi (a similar blanket for horses). There are felt cloaks for shepherds, hats and felt boots.
A dear guest would be seated on the most beautiful and colorful felt mat, and a special white keche would be used as prayer rugs –namazlik. By the way, felt mats are made only of sheep wool. It is forbidden to use camel wool. Turkmens do not use camel wool out of respect for the patron saint of camel breeding – Veis-Baba. One cannot walk on products made of wool of “the ship of the desert.” Prayer rugs are the only exception. It is allowed to use small inserts of camel wool in those places of the rug that a praying person touches with his forehead during a prayer.
There are many nuances in making a felt mat. If one uses sheep wool that was sheared in spring (longer one), the raw material must be thoroughly rinsed before use, while rinsing of the “autumn” wool is not necessary. There are keche combining both types of wool. Such felt products are the most durable and lasting. Double-sided felt mats are particularly difficult to make, as they sometimes come with different patterns on both sides. We will return to the patterns on the Turkmen keche a little later.
Other than serving a purely practical purpose – keeping warmth in a dwelling, saving it from the cold in winter, protecting the backs of camels and horses from saddle chafing and so on – the Turkmen felt mat is also considered a remedy. It is believed that keche, especially of lamb wool, has a very positive effect on human health. Frequent walking barefoot on the hard nap of the felt is an effective foot massage that stimulates blood circulation and prevents back and spine diseases, as well as joint pain.
The Turkmen people have a legend about the miraculous healing of a dying young beauty that came back to life wrapped in a warm felt blanket made by her mother’s hands. And nowadays, sheep wool felt mats reliably protect even the smallest children from cold.
It should be noted that Turkmen felt mats have another very useful property – a thermal effect. The thick hard nap of a felt mat does not allow karakurt spiders, scorpions, phalanges, snakes and other dangerous inhabitants of Turkmenistan’s fauna to get into a yurt or a place where a shepherd sleeps.
Patterns (gel in Turkmen) on a felt mat are not as clear-cut as on traditional Turkmen woven carpets. They look slightly blurred. Rhombuses and their lines, triangles, jagged stripes, stylized images of ram’s horns, figures in the “S” form are the main motives of a felt mat patterns.
Sary Ic'yan or “yellow scorpion” is one of the most popular keche patterns. This is a circle of yellow or red color with swirling rays diverging around it in all directions. Experts believe that the pattern owes its origin to the ancient cult of the sun, and its name resembles a scorpion that raised and bent its poisonous tail.
No less recognizable is “daragt” (tree), a pattern whose branches cross a felt mat along its entire length. It is believed that Turkmens associated this pattern with the tree of life.
A stylized image of ram’s horns – “gocak” – can be found not only on felt mats but also on Turkmen woven carpets, on the walls of houses and clay ovens (tamdyrs) for baking Turkmen bread (chorek).
As for the namazlik felt mats for prayers (namaz), there are all the same patterns of the tree of life and occasional images of snakes.
Now that we are surrounded by all kinds of devices and electronics, talk via video communication with relatives living on the other side of the globe and fly from one country to another in a matter of hours, the felt mat-keche is still relevant in the stormy ocean of modern life. A warm sheep felt mat made by similarly warm human hands still takes care of home comfort and health of our beloved ones. Moreover, it takes on a new meaning, for example, as souvenirs and material for art works that occupy a worthy place in the museum expositions.
This February, the State Museum of the State Cultural Center of Turkmenistan hosted an exhibition titled “Felt products in the national heritage of the Turkmen people” that was organized by the museum’s department of ethnography.
Felt mat making as a kind of decorative and applied art of the Turkmen people was represented not only by unique felt mats of different historical periods from all the regions of Turkmenistan. The exhibition also featured the tools used in felt mat making and sheep wool processing.
Work is currently underway to include the amazing and original art of the Turkmen people – keche – in the UNESCO Intangible Cultural Heritage List. And there is no doubt that a felt mat deserves this recognition.