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Felting between East and West

Murray Lee Eiland III

When appreciating the art of a particular culture, one can be struck either by differences or the similarities. After even a cursory examination of modern felts made in Hungary and Turkmenistan, the similarities are overwhelming (Figs 1-2). Not only the arrangement of the main elements, but the “spirals and waves” leave little doubt of a connection. When considering the distances between these two areas, this observation may support parallel development in two separate areas. Yet even at first glance the designs are so similar as to warrant careful consideration. While the Hungarians have long ago given up a nomadic existence, and the Turkmen are rapidly doing so, these two peoples may share more than their different lineages suggest. This is all the more important as it is clear that Turks were an important part of the peoples who emigrated into the area of modern Hungary during the collapse of Byzantine power in the region (Horváth 1989: 27).


Whatever the case for particulars of ethnic identity , it is clear that the peoples of the steppes shared many aspects of material culture. Felting, unlike weaving, is relatively simple, and does not constrain the art enough to dictate the form of decorative patterns. In this case the natural environment may almost necessitate aspects of material culture which are important for survival.

A great distance - in the range of 1000 km - could be seen as a barrier, but when the geography and history of this vast region are taken into account, these two points at geographical extremes could reflect the ends of a conduit. From the Balkans to Eastern Central Asia stretched a vast plain that has, at various times, hosted nomads with a distinctive material culture. While the ethnic identities of these nomads have varied, they all shared the need for mobility, and all were concerned with animal husbandry. Their arts reflects these concerns. While nomads have traditionally been associated with animals, it is no surprise that they are also major suppliers of wool, which could be converted into fabrics. If a nomadic group moves from place to place, they may not use the highest technology (such a weaving) to produce the finest fabrics, but, instead, rely upon those skills required for survival in a continental environment of extremes. Felting may not be the ideal method for producing lavish fabrics for a court, but it has been a vital aspect of living a mobile life on the steppes.

Felt is quite probably the earliest fabric exploited by early humans. With the domestication of sheep - associated with the rise of farming communities during the so called agricultural revolution of c. 10,000 B.C. - animal skins were no doubt used for matting and clothing. Anyone who used skins would be familiar with matted hair from continued use, and even more convincing, during moulting (modern breeds no longer moult, but their hairs can still become matted) primitive sheep have hairs that intertwine naturally as the underwool and the outer hairs become entangled. In antiquity this trait was no doubt recognized, and soon there would have been some sense of economy. Unlike an animal that was hunted, sheep under one’s care would be worth considerably more if only renewable resources were obtained from the animal. Shearing sheep would lead to larger flocks and greater wealth. Leather would also be easier to use for a variety of products without hair. It is with these two observations in mind that one may appreciate the legends that are associated with felting. From the occident, Saint Clement is credited in the first century A.D. with ‘discovering’ felting after placing wool in his sandals during a journey. Afterwards, he noted that the fibres had become enmeshed. A similar story from a Near Eastern perspective is that Arab camel drivers used camel hair to cushion their feet (Ryder 1989: 45).

In both stories, felted fibres are clearly understood to result from moisture and motion. It is also interesting to note that legends of woven fabrics, when they are told in Eurasian societies, are usually focussed upon the more distant past. Felting, perhaps because there are at any given time few old felts in circulation, is in the popular imagination regarded as being a more recent invention than weaving.

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