The tradition of Kazakh embroidery
in Western Mongolia

Walk into any Kazakh tent (ger) in Mongolia and your eyes are immediately hit with a feast of colours and designs running around the walls. In particular are the 5 to 7 foot long embroidered wall hangings which are not only there to hide the wooden lattice frame that make up the walls of the ger, nor just to add colour and warmth to the space, but are a very real reminder of family ties.

Kazakh embroidered beddingWhen people get married, it is tradition for the parents to provide the basic living needs for the new couple including bedding, mats and other house decorations such as a wall hanging. Therefore it is not uncommon for a mother to begin making a wall hanging for each of her children when they are young as an eventual wedding gift when they get married years later. These hangings are completely hand stitched with a design and colour scheme chosen by the mother and can take months or even years to painstakingly complete. Most commonly composed of decorated circles or squares, they are often influenced by local designs, latest fashions and thread. Indeed while today the availability of threads is much better with supplies coming from China, Russia or America, it was only 20 years ago or so that items of unneeded clothing such as jumpers or trousers would be painstakingly unravelled for their precious threads.  Take a look at the pictures to see some different examples in use.

Embroidery bradle The type of stitch used for embroidery is the chain stitch, in which a special bradle picks up a loop of thread from under the cloth, pulls it over a small space on the top and resends it to the rear where it is locked in by the next loop.  Most women in the family will traditionally have a small set of the tools hand crafted to their exact specifications. To watch an accomplished woman stitch with this technique reminds you just how nimble your fingers and how sharp your eyes have to be. 

While the central panel of a wall hanging can vary considerably, the outside is usually marked by a wide red border on three sides with the base of the panel left unfinished. The reasons given for doing this vary but two of the most plausible are that firstly, the lower section hangs out of sight so is not needed and secondly, being of Muslim faith, the Kazakhs believe only God produces perfect complete things.

embroidery signatureOnce finished most hangings are usually inscribed with a date, makers name or dedication.  Some may be further adorned with other meaningful items such as a wrapped up lock of the child’s first hair, buttons or a bunch of owl feathers which are considered a symbol of protection and good luck.  Walk into a Kazakh ger, and what you walk into is a wall of family memories and stories.