The earliest archaeological finds demonstrating skills in the processing of hides and furs on the territory of the country, namely in a number of areas of southern and central Kazakhstan, date back to the Palaeolithic period. Archaeological remains suggest that saiga, kulan, wild boar and others were the main game animals.
The ancients used knives, scrapers and scrapers to cut carcasses and process animal skins. Bone needles found here show that man was already skilled in sewing at that time. Gradual increase in hunting and the number of domestic animals gave rise to the improvement of such skills of ancient cattlemen. It is noteworthy that some animals and even wolf skins were removed from the whole (stocking). This method was especially widely practiced until the ethnographic present day, as practically every house had such a hunting trophy hanging in a prominent place. This gift was considered one of the most valuable in Kazakh culture.
Furs were used to make a variety of items, especially headdresses.
Specialists note that in the olden days, a headdress (in this case, a furry one) was used to identify a zhüz and the clan of its owner. The fur headdress is called tymaq/malaqai and was considered a sacred relic – it could not be exchanged, could not be twisted, stepped over, thrown, dropped, etc.
The outer garment made of foals’ skins was especially popular. There were several variants of this clothing: the zharğaq was made from the skin of foals of a week’s age, and the qūlyn zharğaq was considered the most expensive type of clothing. There were also coats made of foal skin of black colour called qara qūlyn zharğaq. The material, foal skins, was a valuable material that was known
for its elasticity and durability.
The fur coats made of raccoon fur were also popular, called janat ton. The coat made of black and brown fox fur (qara tülki ton) and clothes made of camel skin (bota ton) were especially valued. Goat skins fur coats were also not uncommon – qylqa zharğaq. To make such coats, long hairs were pulled out and only undercoat was left, which gave the coat a special softness and tenderness. Goat down was valued for its heat conductivity and durability. In general, Kazakhs ascribed healing properties to fur and skins.
In addition to raccoon and beaver, nomads used other kinds of fur-bearing animals – wolves, foxes and others. The fur jackets were made of them – qaptama and qamzolsha. Hides of domestic animals were also processed and made of them a variety of products. Hides of young animals were popular, which was used to make outerwear for children and women. Even each type of skin, depending on the age of the animal, had its own name, for example, the skin of a newborn lamb – eltiri (merlushka lamb), two or three month old lamb – däleki (still-born calf-skin), six-year old – señseñ (lamb’s wool).
Masters made shoes, crockery, horse harnesses, belts and many other items from different kinds of leather. The most commonly used leather was camel, horse or bull skin. The process of preparing the material – skin was very long and involved soaking it in a special solution of sour milk. The hides were used to make a variety of vessels, which were made by special craftsmen – smokers.
Embossing is one of the popular techniques of Kazakh leatherworkers. This technique was used to decorate tableware and other leather goods. The set of leather utensils includes a könek bucket designed for milking mares. For koumiss and shubat drinks, masters made such utensils as torsyq, which was usually taken on a journey. Its openwork decoration was especially refined.
Another type of leather crockery was the saba (bourduk), which was made from horse hide (leather). The saba had a volume of up to 100 litres. Another type of leather crockery was the mes. It was made of a whole goat skin and was used to store and carry liquid food – qymyz, shubat and ayran. As a rule, the process of making such utensils involved a complicated technological process, consisting of several stages.
The shoe makers were called etikshi. The most popular shoe was a pair of soft boots – mäsi, which were covered with special galoshes – kebis. The boots were decorated with dyed colored leather applications and embroidery. Unfortunately, we have not found any modern masters in this area.
Another important type of Kazakh craftsmanship associated with leather processing is the tradition of horse harness – yer-tūrman. Traditional Kazakh saddles are divided into five main types: eastern or nayman, central and north
Kazakhstan, western, semirechen and Syrdarya. Masters of art used niello, inlay, filigree, engraving, embossing, stamping and casting to decorate their pieces. Apart from the function of the horse harness, it was an obligatory element of a Kazakh
bride’s dowry. Ethnographers registered many cases where elements of horse harness – saddle, bridle and other elements of harness were used in various customs, ceremonies and healing practices.
The tradition of horse harness is alive today. However, it is not on the same scale as in the past.
These include Yergazy Isataev, Daulet Shokparov, Erkosai Abilov, Aidos Sadykov, Yerzhigit Toktarov, Dalabai Ospanov and many others. Many of the masters are hereditary and trace their skills back several generations.
Rakhymbergen Myrzakhmetov from Shiyeli district, Kyzylorda region, is a unique folk craftsman in the manufacture of Kazakh saddles. The master has mastered the technology of making various regional saddles.
For example, a composite saddle – qūrandy er – is most commonly found in Kyzylorda, Turkestan and Karaganda oblasts, and in the southern regions of Akmola, Kostanai and Almaty regions. Such a saddle is assembled by a craftsman with 18-20 wooden parts. Most often the master uses poplar, oleaster and sier-bed.
As the field research has shown, at present the leather craft in Kazakhstan is at high risk of losing its viability, as it is found only in fragments in the surveyed regions.
Masters mainly use finished dressed leather, which is used to produce various items, such as crockery, qamshy and souvenir items. The decline in demand for leather goods has both natural causes, once connected with changes in the way of life and their displacement from use by industrial products, and the current lack of craftsmen mastering the ancient technology of making rawhide.
At present, almost all domestic animal skins are discarded or given away for next to nothing, i.e. there are virtually no enterprises for processing domestic animal skins in the country.
According to our field research, traditional dressing of skins from domestic animal skins according to ancient Kazakh technology has been recorded only among single craftsmen (mainly from among Qandas). We consider the situation with this type of craft to be threatening.