Bag O' Wool


Carpets stacked high, kilims by the meter, in Istanbul this wealth of colour, design, texture and tradition share a commonality of being made of wool.  Old and antique weavings or pieces right off of the loom all started out ‘on the hoof’, wool or hair on the backs of sheep or goats.

Hand Shearing a Sheep at the back of a Black Tent

I have a strong image of the first flock of sheep I saw grazing in the distance on a hillside in Cappadocia.  The shepherd was visible at the rear of the flock as they grazed against the surrealistic landscape that defines Cappadocia.  It seemed an ancient image to me.  In fact research would indicate that the practice of animal husbandry spans the past 8000 years in Anatolia.

On our travels in Eastern Turkey one day as we were driving across the Mesopotamian plain towards Mardin my colleague Mehmet noticed a group of people with their flocks of sheep and goats in a box canyon.  We stopped, Mehmet chatted and we were invited to join the villagers as they milked the flock.  I can remember looking around and seeing my husband Jack holding the head of a sheep and a village woman looking up with surprise as she milked the animal and realized it was ‘the foreigner’ who was helping her.  The forty or so people spanned all age groups, young and old.  All had a sense of their role in the procedure.  An elderly man in a pair of shalvar had climbed up a portion of the steep edge of the canyon to herd a couple of animals down from the heights where they were climbing above the rest of the flock.

Working together milking the flock and straining the milk

These same animals whose fleeces would provide the raw materials for the carpets, kilims, black tents and more also are a source of milk and meat for the villagers.  How many times have I been served yogurt that defies description with its creamy consistency and distinctive tangy flavor?  I have tasted cheeses throughout Turkey that any North American specialty cheese shop would love to have on hand for their clients.  The ubiquitous lamb kabob available in every corner of Turkey harkens back to these flocks.  The integration of the animals into the life and livelihood of these small rural communities reflect thousands of years of ongoing practices.

Pride in Ownership

This morning I wrote ‘milk’ onto my shopping list on the kitchen counter.  Milk, cheese, yogurt or meat; in our urban environment we are so removed from the realities of the source of these foods.  I sit typing at my computer on a snowy day here in Calgary wearing my wool sweater.  How often am I conscious that this garment started its life on the back of a sheep?

The carpets, kilims and textiles that have passed through my hands over the year to clients have all had their start on the back of an animal.  Prior to the era of industrialized weaving the start to finish labour for supplying wool to the hand weavers is consistent.  Caring for the flock, shearing the fiber from the animal, sorting, grading the wool, spinning the fibers, gathering dyestuff to colour the wool, dye baths for the wool and weaving the final product.  From start to finish carpet production of old was a hugely labor intensive process and most often included members of the community spanning all ages expert in their specific field.

When I reflect on the ‘route’ from the back of the beast to the floor of the house for carpets or kilims I am deeply aware of the care and management of the flocks, the shared skills of the shearers, sorters, dyers, and women who have designed and woven to produce the Art of Anatolia and beyond.

For those of you interested in weaving traditions I would like to recommend the book Women’s Work – The First 20,000 Years by Elizabeth Wayland Barber.   I found the book to be a comprehensive overview of the history of spun fibers and roles of women in the history of weaving.


3 Responses

  1. Mona says:

    Thanks for today’s blog. It is important to stop and reflect on the interaction and dependence btw. people and animals. It puts life into perspective. I appreciate you sharing your knowledge and experiences.

    • Catherine Mortensen says:

      I love the perspective that being in another culture gives me on my own life and what is really important in life. Looking forward to seeing you in person soon. xoxo

  2. […] friend asked me the other day after reading my blog ‘what is a kilim?’  I explained that the term refers to a flat woven (not knotted) textile, common in many […]

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