As part of my doctoral research at SOAS, I conducted a year’s fieldwork (2004 - 2005) in western Mongolia.  The subject of my research was the learning processes and skill-based knowledge involved in Kazakh craftswomen’s domestic textile production.

Most of that year I lived with a Kazakh family in the village of Soghaq, about four hours drive from the main urban centre of the province, Ölgii. The intention was to do an ‘apprenticeship’ with a craftswoman, learning the techniques involved in making felt carpets (syrmaq) and embroidered pieces. In addition, I would conduct interviews with other local craftswomen, their families, museum curators, ethnographers and other experts. 

In fact, the ‘apprenticeship’ became more of a ‘live-in all-round learning process’ during which I learnt as much about making salty milk tea, collecting dried dung for fuel, chopping wood, and making home-made pasta for dinner, as I did about assembling and quilting syrmaq and using a hooked needle (biz) to create embroidered pieces.

That said, the family were always trying to make my time with them as comfortable as possible. They were fully resigned to the fact that I was terribly inept at milking cows, sheep or goats, that I took great lengths of time to prepare a simple meal of home-made pasta which was always cut too thick, and that I could not shape a decent dumpling.

They took me in for a year, fed me, tried to keep me warm, worried that I would get bored, that I would not like the food, and gave me the most duvets in the winter. They put up with my very slow learning curve in Kazakh and my persistent questions about a task (textile production) which they normally don’t talk about very much, but simply get on with.  

Kazakh domestic textiles are made as part of a daily routine in the home (not in a separate workshop setting).  A woman might find an hour or two to work on a felt carpet or embroidered piece between having done the dishes after breakfast and having cleaned the floor, and preparing lunch.

In the family where I lived, the table where all meals were shared was also the place where a carpet-in-the-making would be worked on. The sharpest knife in the house, used to cut out felt pieces for a carpet, was also naturally used to slaughter a sheep or goat once every two weeks or so. Textile production was very much part of the daily routine.

The ‘live-in apprenticeship’ taught me a number of things. It gave me a good understanding of the role of textile production in daily life. It also provided a good understanding of the teacher-learner relationship of others (and from a personal perspective), and the means by which techniques were demonstrated. It was also useful to work alongside others, observing how they dealt with difficult aspects and how they reacted to my own progress and the artefacts I made.

When I asked how I was progressing or whether I was doing a certain task correctly, my teacher usually commented that I was quite slow and overly meticulous. These were sturdy functional everyday textiles to be used on the floor. They were also to be made as part of a busy household routine. I would have made a poor Kazakh daugther-in-law. The one type of occasion when I got an unreserved compliment was when I prepared a meal of home-made pasta fried with meat: “Now you’re a real Kazakh girl!” Clearly, being able to make correctly stitched carpets was not going to get you far in life if you couldn’t prepare a good evening meal and keep the whole household ticking over.

Perhaps most usefully, learning to make these textiles was a way of ‘learning about learning’. As a result, it meant that I was able to relate to the activities of other craftswomen from a personal perspective through having undertaken similar tasks, and have better-informed conversations with them.

The exhibition is based on this period of research and a further trip to western Mongolia in 2008, during which I travelled together with Kristian and Marco. That summer we bought a 3-bed yurt (displayed on the lower ground floor at the Brunei Gallery, SOAS) from a family in the village where ‘my’ Kazakh family now live, and in between running around and negotiating to have it transported to Ulaanbaatar and from there to London, we sometimes had a rest and a cold drink in the Green Garden in Ölgii (the photo above).

Of course, you learn much more in the course of year than you can write about in a thesis or convey in an exhibition. It was my intention that something more than a ‘pretty’ and ‘colourful’ picture of Kazakh women’s domestic textile production was conveyed in the exhibition. I wanted to also give a sense of the hardship that characterizes these women’s lives.

These life conditions come through in little snippets in the exhibition: for instance the school teacher (interview shown on the TV inside the yurt) who talks about how people are making less felt carpets these days because they don’t have enough lamb’s wool. People are dependent for their food on domestic animals such as sheep, goats, horses and cattle.   If they don’t have enough lamb’s wool to make carpets, the likelihood is that the very basis of their subsistence livelihood (domestic animals) is not sufficient to sustain them.




Anna Portisch

The exhibition at the Brunei Gallery, SOAS will run from 9 July - 19 September 2009.

It is available for loan to galleries and museums after October 2009.