Huge felt cloaks known as kepenek, worn by village goatherds and semi-nomadic shepherds are one of the most curious and engaging sights of rural Turkey. These stiff caps protect the wearer from the rain and cold of the Anatolian plateau and double as primitive. but very effective, sleeping bags. Synthetic and cotton garments have begun to replace one of the few products still made by village felt-makers according to a centuries-old tradition.
One of the oldest fabrics known to a man felt developed as an important element in the nomadic lifestyle of Central Asia, in an area which the Chinese once referred to as the “land of felt”. From the ninth century onwards, as Turkic tribes began to head west, they brought with them their felt-making traditions.
Felt-making grew up alongside the domestication of sheep, goats, and camels and predates the invention of spinning and weaving. Early Turco-Mongolian tribes used felt as a hardy tent covering, for shoes, saddle blankets and bags. Then as now, it was also made into warm cloaks, hats, gaiters and rugs.
Although clearly on the wane, traditional felt-making centers and markets can still be found in rural towns. In Afyon, 250 kilometers southwest of Ankara, a whole street in the old market area is occupied by felt-makers’ workshops. One of the ateliers is run by Cemalettin Ozcalisan a sad-eyed man in his late sixties. “My father and grandfather were felt-makers”, he explained, “but my sons have left Afyon for jobs in the cities.”
The last in a line of family craftsmen, Ozcalisan continues to make felt in the traditional manner. After shearing the sheep in late spring and again in high summer, the wool is cleaned and sorted by color and quality. The woolen fibers are then separated, or carded, traditionally with a special carding bow or wooden sticks or as is more usual today, by machine. When fully carded, a process which may be repeated several times, the fluffy wool is spread, 30-40 centimeters thick, onto a woven reed mat. The soft layer is then sprinkled with water, rolled up in the reed mat and tied very tightly.
The “hardening” process then begins. For half an hour, two or three men roll the wool/reed tube up and down the workshop applying pressure with their feet and hands to knit the woolen fibers together. A second layer may be added to the first and the whole rolled back into the mat, is hardened a second time.
After hardening, the material looks similar to the final felt product but still lacks strength. A further process known as fulling, which shrinks and tightens the felt, is needed to produce a tough, water-repellent fabric. Water and soap are splashed on the felt which again is given a heavy beating. Over the last 30 years, the felt makers’ task has been eased by the introduction of filling machines, but the manual filling is still carried out in some Turkish baths where the humidity and high temperatures help to produce top quality felt.
Fewer and fewer people are using felt and felt products today. Large amounts of the material were once required for covering the traditional nomadic tents known as yurts; 190 fleeces were needed for one tent alone. In Anatolia, such tents have disappeared, replaced by woven goat hair or white canvas tents among the semi-nomadic (yoruk) tribes. Felt rugs, while still produced, have lost their popularity. For those without their own sheep, felt rugs can be as expensive as factory-made ones. It is often only wealthy wool merchants who can afford to place orders.
Other felt products are now rare curiosities. Until the 1950s knee-length felt boots were worn by Turkish soldiers for walking on snow. Recently, however, the output of at least one felt product, the fez, has increased in response to a growing demand from tourists. In 1836 the English writer Julia Pardoe noted that “no traveler should leave Constantinople without a visit to the Fez Manufactory of Eyoub, where all the caps for the Sultan’s armies are now made “The factory no longer exists, and fezes are a symbol of the Ottoman rule. One felt-maker in Konya, however, still produces a tall conical fee for the whirling dervishes.
Although orders are sometimes placed for such things as protective gaiters in the aluminum industry or for coarse felt as insulation material, the felt makers’ chief products remain rugs and kepenek cloaks. The thick garment remains popular among herdsmen, their names can be imprinted in the cloak by forming letters in contrasting colors of wool.
Until a generation ago, traveling felt-makers were common in remote areas. Loading their basic equipment onto donkeys, the itinerant workers traveled from village to village during the summer months touting for business on market days. They had the advantage of serving isolated communities too small to support a felt-maker and of cutting the cost of transporting huge loads of wool to the nearest manufacturing base.
Since the 1950s, many of the smaller felt-making centers have closed while individual workshops have ceased working in the larger rural towns. This is partly due to the decrease in demand, but also because of the arrival of carding and pressing machines which tripled output overnight, squeezing unmechanized neighbors out of the market. The further decline of this age-old craft seems inevitable. Even the most traditional villagers believe that the kepenek will soon be replaced by the “coats of the townspeople.”