by Saul Yale Barodofsky
Folk art is a window into the consciousness of a people. The items nomads made for their personal
use thus yield genuine insight into their cultures and ways of life. Of course, the converse is true
as well: Knowledge about nomadic peoples gleaned from other sources help illuminate the uses and
meanings of their textiles.
In this article, I wish to focus on woven bags in the nomadic
societies of Western and Central Asia.
About Nomadic Life
Let us begin with some basic background about
these nomads. In this part of the world, roughly from Turkey to
the steppes of central Asia, much of the population consists of
pastoral nomads or settled people descended from them. The nomadic
way of life is essentially a thing of the past. Mass migrations of
hundreds of thousands of people moving their flocks across vast
plains and savannas, once the norm in western and central Asia,
now occur only in isolated pockets. Even these people are on the
verge of integration into the much larger sedentary nearby
societies. But this does not mean that nomadic cultural and
artistic traditions are relevant only for collectors and scholars.
Even among the sedentary peoples now living in this area, houses
and household goods frequently resemble those of the traditional
pastoral nomadic societies from which they arose.
A couple of features of nomadic life are
particularly relevant to an understanding of the role that
textiles played. First, wool was the commodity that was most
readily available to migratory shepherding peoples. Second, nomads
did not live in a money economy. That is, they did not shop in
markets or depend upon others to make the most of the items with
which (and in which) they lived. Instead, they made nearly all of
their utilitarian items themselves; their homes (tents), the bags
in which they kept all their possessions, and all the items they
used for decoration, warmth, and comfort. There were a few
exceptions to this generality. They usually sought out specialists
to supply their weapons, horse gear, and jewelry, and obtained
some items (and sometimes, slaves) by raiding villages in their
Happily, much nomadic weaving has been preserved.
Custom dictated the provision of a dowry with marriage and
donations to mosques. Since nomadic wealth consisted mostly of
textiles and animals, the dowry and the donations generally
included textiles. Many of these were preserved and, therefore,
can still be found in good condition.
Woven Bags and Their Functions
Nomads used textiles for a wide variety of
purposes: clothing and belts, animal trappings, furniture, and
dwellings. Given the migratory nature of nomadic life, it is not
at all surprising that many of the items they made for their own
use were containers made out of wool, i.e., woven bags. Seasonal
migrations with animals favored portable furniture and homes
rather than the permanent dwellings furnished with massive,
inflexible items. And woven containers were essential for storage
The function of woven bags in the nomadic
world bears some resemblance to that of the furniture found in
Western homes. Most furniture in western homes is used either as a
container or to provide comfortable support for a person's body.
Like Western furniture, woven bags serve both to store items and
to keep them out of view. But had the added feature of easy
Crates, wooden boxes, and the like were relatively
seldom used for storage and transport. First, it was awkward to
use them in migrations when pack animals carried the loads.
Second, they could break if they fell from an animal. Third, in
the high deserts in the part of the world where these peoples
lived, wood was not easy to get, especially wood sawed into boards
and the shapes that would be used to fabricate containers and
other kinds of furniture. Instead, the containers or bags were
made of textile.
Concealment and the "Evil Eye"
Bags not only served as repositories and
containers, they also concealed their contents. This is a very
important function, not widely appreciated in the West. Asian
pastoral nomads had a strong belief in the power of the "evil eye"
(a hold-over from Shamanistic times, noted in the Koran). The evil
eye refers to the envy, greed, and ill-will of the person's
neighbors and also inhabitants of unseen worlds. The practice of
covering one's possessions, which is a very ancient one in nomadic
societies and is virtually universal in western and central Asia,
marks an effort to shield oneself from the evil eye. By keeping
them hidden, others will not be incited to covetousness, nor will
the malevolent beings from unseen worlds have their attention
directed towards the owner. Even in the major cities of the
region, it is still considered very poor form for a shop owner not
to wrap a purchase to conceal its nature.
Placing important belongings in bags,
then, not only affords physical protection for the items, it
provides spiritual protection as well. We might well wonder which
is the more important. The significance of amulets in these
societies is that they offer protection from the evil eye -- the
envious looks of the unseen. Indeed, the word for amulets is
nazarlik, derived from the Arabic word, nazar, which means "evil
Nomads produced textiles using virtually every
technique: flat weaves, pile weaves, felts, embroideries,
appliques, and braided pieces. One way of classifying groups of
pastoral nomads is in the techniques they used to make their
textiles. Some were predominantly felt-makers, others mainly used
flat weaves, others mostly wove pile-faced bags (it was only the
most "primitive" nomads who used animal skins). This is not to
imply that any group used one technique to the exclusion of
others, but it's not difficult to notice, for example, that
Turkoman tribes made most of their bags in pile, Caucasian tribes
generally used flat weaves, nomads further east than Turkmenia
tended to use more felts.
In some groups, different
techniques were used to make bags for different purposes. In the
Taurus mountains above Fethiye, the nomads make spoon bags and
grain bags in soumakh, while Koran bags are usually weft-float
brocaded. The Bakhtiari often used mixed techniques, with most of
the bag surface being flat woven and the bottoms, which are
subject to the most abrasion, done in pile.
The End & Beginning
The functions and significance of bags in western
and central Asia is relatively unexplored territory, except for
scattered works on saddle bags, pillows, cargo bags, and salt
bags. This brief outline is not intended as the last word on the
subject. Rather, I hope that it marks the beginning of a
discussion that will lead to a better understanding of nomadic
peoples by those of us who are captivated by their textile art.