Kyrgyz are an ancient people that have, for many centuries, preserved a
traditional, nomadic, pastoral lifestyle in the Tien Shan Mountains of
Central Asia. Although most Kyrgyz now live in towns and villages and
the number of nomadic shepherd families is not as great as it used to
be there is a strong interest in their traditional culture and crafts.
To many people this is usually interpreted as "felt work" but the
nomadic family, often living alone in isolated mountain pastures for
long periods of time, had to be masters of many different crafts. Kurak
or patchwork was one such craft.
"Patchwork" is an age-old tradition which has been
practiced throughout the centuries by craftswomen from all over the
world. There is something satisfying about taking little scraps of
material and using them to create something "out of nothing" which is
not only useful, but also beautiful.
Kurak is the Kyrgyz name given to the art of and
the various articles made from patchwork. The name comes from the word
"kura" which means "to piece together to assemble from separate
The art of patchwork may be universal but Kurak is
particularly Kyrgyz and has a special place in the culture of this
formerly nomadic people, being derived from the practicalities of their
The life of the nomad could be difficult at the
best of times. Traveling with flocks pasture to pasture high in the
Tien Shan Mountains, there was little sense in transporting things that
could be of no practical use. Likewise, it was important to limit
waste. So even off-cuts of material would be saved up and put to use
combined with others to make something bigger.
of products made out patchwork include everyday articles such as:
head-dresses, children clothes, cradle blankets and covers, wedding
curtains, mattresses, cushions, saddle cloths and bags - even large,
quilted, carpets and blankets as well as purely decorative items such
as wall hangings. The only limit to the list is the imagination of the
However, Kurak represents not just a practical
art, economizing and maximizing the usefulness of lengths of material,
but also a aesthetic art form allowing for a wide variety of individual
expression although many of the designs involve geometric forms and
regularity, proportion and symmetry the use of colour, shape and
intricacy gave each seamstress the chance to demonstrate their skills.
Traditional patterns some of which can be traced
back to symbols found in the petroglyphs that litter this part of
Central Asia were created and repeated. There are many examples of
standard patterns with names such as boto coz "camel's eye",
turna-kurak "crane", tumarcha "amulet" and jyldyz "star". Amongst the
most popular, simple, patterns was a black triangle placed on a white
An individual item can be appreciated as simply an
aesthetically pleasing geometric pattern or, to the knowledgeable and
practiced eye, it can tell a story.
of Kurak were also ascribed magical properties bringing luck and
prosperity and guarding against evil spirits. There were often special
rituals associated with it. For example, the kyrk koinok a shirt for
newborn babies to wear after 40 days would be made from 40 pieces of
material collected by the mother from neighbouring yurts and sewn
A large set of patchwork items was provided in a
girl's dowry. The material patches would be collected at various family
functions. Black and white cotton patches were thought to be especially
effective. Other colours were also used especially red but the exact
combination depended on the available supply of scraps of material.
In addition, patchwork articles were often also
decorated with other techniques such as embroidery or crochet. The
combined effect of colour, shape, texture and decoration and an
appreciation of the hours of skilled work that goes into creating each
individual piece creates a pleasing impression and can also induce a
sense of awe and wonder.
An example of the continuing interest in
traditional Kyrgyz crafts can be found in the organization "Kyrgyz
Heritage", which was founded to help preserve and promote the
particular art form of Kurak. Some of the members of this organization
work from their workshop in Bishkek - a small group of craftswomen,
designers and seamstresses, but there are also many artisans working
from their homes in the provinces. The organization provides seminars
and workshops to help keep the traditions alive, flourishing, and
adapting the ages old traditions to the modern world.
Their range of products includes a varied
assortment of items which are of a high quality using a variety of
materials and techniques and exhibiting a high standard of workmanship.
The true value of "Kyrgyz Heritage", however, lies
somewhere between the fact that they are providing a work (and an
additional source of income) for artisans in the villages of rural
Kyrgyzstan, and their contribution in sustaining and developing this
most ancient and practical of traditional crafts in a rapidly changing