Adventures in Furniture introduces Yurta's stunning handmade Shyrdak rugs at the London Design Festival 2014. We find out from founder Astrid Bellamy about the artisans from the remote country of Kyrgyzstan and their traditional production techniques.
AIF: Your rugs embrace traditional and handmade craft, can you tell us about the people who make them?
AB: The rugs are made by local women who live in the mountains of Kyrgyzstan, a small land-locked country in Central Asia which borders Kazakhstan, Uzbekistan, Tajikistan and China. These women are members of a family-run co-operative based in the Kochkor region of this rural and remote country. The matriarch of the family of rug makers is a Kyrgyz artisan called Mairam, shown below. She’s the founding member of the co-operative and at 64, she is talkative and lively, and has many stories to tell. Here she speaks vividly about her family and the background to their craftsmanship -
"I live and grew up in a small town in central Kyrgyzstan. I had been teaching high school for 22 years when the Soviet Union collapsed in 1991. Our salaries stopped. My husband and I kept working our jobs, which we saw as essential to supporting the community, even when we didn't get paid. But now we had to figure out how to support six children as well. One day, two developmental aid volunteers came to our house. They wanted to look at our "shyrdaks" - the traditional felt carpets found in most Kyrgyz homes.
A bit of explanation: Kyrgyzstan is a nation of nomads. In the summers, we go to up into the mountain, raise sheep and live in yurt camps where shyrdaks serve as warm, decorative ground mats in each family's yurt. This way of life has always been meaningful to me.The Swiss visitors loved our carpets and suggested we make and sell them for money. Nothing sounded more ridiculous to my ears. Making shyrdaks is simply part of our culture. To me, the rugs have spiritual and functional (not financial) value. Making rugs is therapeutic. It's our way of life. That it was worth money.. that was an idea that required me to change my fundamental view of the world.”
AIF: What is the process from start to finish?
Each rug is unique, designed and prepared individually, using traditional Kyrgyz patterns, symbols, colouring and sewing techniques. Each is entirely hand-made using locally sourced Kyrgyz sheep's wool which is made into felt, and involves an intensive process of cleaning, pressing, dying, and stitching. This takes hundreds of hours and the combined effort of a community to create.
The process begins high in the Tien Shan Mountains, where the sheep are put out to pasture during the summer months. The sheep are then sold or traded at weekly animal bazaars, where they’re graded on the quality of their wool, size and breed. The sheep are then sheared of their wool, which is the material used to make the rugs.
The first step of the production process is the making of the felt. This is done by pressing, rolling and stamping the wool. During this process the artisans clean the wool of dirt and dust by laying it onto a reed mat and beating it with long, thin metal reeds. The women then pick through the wool to complete the cleaning process. Once the wool is laid out onto the mat, it is rolled up and boiling water is poured over it. The wool is then stepped on and pressed with people’s feet, arms and hands. This is known as "walking the wool". This process may last for a day or more, and is usually a family affair, as pressure is needed to press the wool and bound it together into felt. After the wool is ‘walked’ sufficiently, the newly created felt is laid out in the sun to dry.
Once dry, the felt is cut and dyed according to the chosen design. The pieces of felt are placed into a kazan (a large iron bowl typically used for cooking large meals) of boiling water, and placed over a fire. Here the pieces of felt are submerged and stirred, ensuring each piece receives even coverage. After they have been taken out and dried, the felt pieces are sewn together and then stitched onto a tough piece of brown felt which forms the underside of the rug. Once the final decorative stitching is in place, along with the yarn that outlines the rug and its designs, a label is applied, denoting its size, its creator and which village she is from.
AIF: Is there a particular meaning or relevance of the different patterns?
The patterns on Shyrdrak rugs are made up of a number of motifs, each of which has a symbolic meaning. Some of these motifs are believed to bestow blessings, or to describe nomadic life in the mountains. They are known to be stylised representations of different types of objects: parts of the landscape; celestial forms; plants; animals; household objects; and people. They range from the popular motif of a ram’s horn, which is traditionally associated with great wealth and fortune, to a double-crescented moon, which refers to the varying phases of the lunar cycle and is considered to offer the blessing of good sleep. It is these patterns that the mountain women have inherited from their nomad ancestors, and that they are now passing on to the next generation of rug makers.
AIF: What are you launching here at the London Design Festival 2014?
I’ll be launching the introductory collection from Yurta, a new company which sources these felt rugs direct from the mountains of Kyrgyzstan. The rugs are beautifully patterned pieces, handmade with loving attention to detail, and high-quality craftsmanship. They can be used as floor rugs or as wall hangings. This special first collection includes two ranges: the first of beautifully subtle colours in natural, earthy tones, and the second of striking and lustrous bright colours. Within this collection, customers can choose between a range of designs, colours and sizes.
To tie in with the event’s theme of the beauty of natural materials and the creative process, I’ll be exhibiting a visual story alongside the rugs to give the viewer an insight into how the rugs are made. I also want to give people a feel of life in the mountains of Kyrgyzstan, and an understanding of the significance that the rugs hold for the artisans – both within their culture and as a means of providing a livelihood.
AIF: “What do the artisans think of the launch of this new company?”
When the first order was placed, the women in the co-operative were really excited about it. After some initial discussions on the designs and colours, they immediately started making the rugs that have been specially designed for the LDF event. The women all share an aspiration that more and more people around the world will become aware of the beauty of the rugs, so they’re extra excited about this new partnership and the knowledge that people far away will be appreciating these rugs in their homes. And of course, the more rugs that are made, the more these local women and their families can benefit from the income that’s generated. We’re in agreement that the London Design Festival 2014 is a great place to start!
AIF: Do you have a secret London (or other) design destination that you’re willing to share?
I think the Geffrye Museum is a great design destination. I’m not convinced many things remain secret in London for long, so I’m sure the secret is already out on this one, but it’s certainly one of the more unknown museums in the city. It’s situated in a restored almshouse tucked away in the heart of Shoreditch, minutes away from Hoxton station, and is a fascinating place to visit if you’re interested in the history of design. There’s a permanent display on the history of English domestic interior design, as well as great design exhibitions. I visited the Museum for the first time this summer and was inspired by their exhibition on ‘contemporary design for the home’. Outside there are also beautifully landscaped herb and period gardens for a relaxing stroll afterwards.
AIF: Favourite London story?
One of my favourite London stories is ‘Bob the Cat’. A homeless busker called James Bowen became best friends with a beautiful tom cat who wouldn’t stop following him around his neighbourhood. As word has it, they even travelled on the bus together. The story caught on, and a book was written about their special friendship. Amazingly, the book sold thousands of copies and completely changed James’ life for the better. There’s now talk of the story being made into a film. I particularly like this inspiring tale as I often used to spot the loyal cat perched on the shoulder of his owner while out and about in Islington before the story hit the news.
Astrid Bellamy will present the Yurta collection at the Private View on Tuesday 16th September at Adventures in Furniture.