I love making stuff. This must be apparent by now, 11.5 months into my 12-month craft-making odyssey. Here’s the Mongolia update: first, I learned how to make felt with a contemporary felt artist, Bayanduuren. Here’s a couple of her beautiful creations, on display at the Zanabazar Museum of Fine Arts in Ulaanbaatar:
I covet this coat.
Bayanduuren’s studio is a cozy basement space in a Soviet-style apartment block with ceilings so low I kept banging my head on the water pipes. Here’s the carding machine for preparing the wool (wool from hybrid sheep, not pure native sheep).
You can’t make felt (or spin yarn) from wool that comes from a dead sheep. Wool has to come from a living, breathing animal, and Bayanduuren told me that to be a good felt artist, you must feel the energy of the felt and work with that energy.
“Congratulations!” she told me, when I finished my scarf. “How did it feel?”
“I loved it,” I told her. I do love it. Working with the wool is like working with something alive; I love that I need the heat generated by my hands and the friction of my movements to join the fibers.
“Because you love it, because your heart loves it and your hands love it, you are a good felt maker,” Bayanduuren told me.
Here are my creations! First the scarf, which is thin and soft and has a Mongolian cloud motif. Then the knot-topped traditional hat. The scarf took a bit more than three hours; the hat took five hours to complete.
Ready to join the Mongol horde, right?
After learning contemporary felt art with Bayanduuren, I ventured out into the countryside again to learn traditional Mongolian felt quilting. I spent the weekend in Altanbulag, with a woman named Tsendsuren who is in charge of two different traditional felt-quilting groups. Altanbulag is a little town in Tov Aimag, just an hour and a half south of Ulaanbaatar, but it already feels worlds away from the polluted, traffic-laden streets of the capital. The horizon is nothing but blue mountains, and cows wander around the dusty tracks between wood-fenced homes.
Tsendsuren is a powerful woman with imposingly excellent posture, who is always impeccably dressed in a printed dress, black patterned stockings, and black heels. Here she is at left, with quilters in the workshop:
They were hard at work on a carpet commissioned by the government, which will cover the floor of an enormous ger. Laying out the finished pieces:
To draw the quilted pattern on the felt, the quilters use a paper template with tiny pinholes marking the lines. They dust a red chalky powder over the template, leaving faint dotted lines that are then traced over in pencil, and finally stitched with wool yarn. The stitching is both decorative and functional; the quilting process strengthens the felt and helps the carpet last longer.
My little quilted square! It’s about 12 in. x 12 in.
And here’s my bed in her house!! Talk about a beautiful place to sleep.
Tonight I’m sleeping in Ulaanbaatar (in a not-as-lovely though perfectly comfortable hostel bed) and waking early tomorrow to board a little plane bound for Bayan-Ulgii, western Mongolia, where I will stay with a Kazakh family and learn traditional embroidery.
I’ll be back in the USA in 12 days. Here’s to 12 days of beauty and discovery and mutton noodle soup (ugh) and adventure and more Mongolian fun! I’m feeling bittersweet about the impending end already.