In nearly every village, farm and nomad settlement throughout the Middle East and South Asia, hand-woven items – other than floor coverings – fill important roles in daily life. These include storage bags, saddle bags, salt bags, spoon bags, food bags, horse bags, baby bags, animal trappings, tent bands, pillows/cushions and clothing. Rural women are proud of their weaving skills, so many of the products are both utilitarian and decorative. Woven and/or braided straps can be added to the bag for added strength and for use as shoulder straps or to facilitate attaching the bag to the saddle of a horse or donkey. Tassels, buttons, shells or other items are often added either as simple decorations or as amulets to ward off bad luck, or perhaps both. Our inventory of bags includes pieces of all ages from Turkey, Azerbaijan, Iran, Afghanistan and Pakistan.
Some of our antique bags are well-worn, but others are in excellent condition. One might wonder how a 100 year old grain sack could look nearly new, but if one considers the life of a village or nomadic woman, it is easily explained. The hands of these women are seldom, if ever, idle. Bags of all types are used, abused and worn out regularly, so it is important for the weaver to stay ahead of the game to avoid depleting her supply. Therefore, “idle” time is used to create a stock pile of “new” bags. It is not uncommon to find a stack of bags several feet high in a remote corner of a village house. The usual household practice is last on, first off, so the oldest, never used pieces can be found toward the bottom of the pile. Carpet dealers routinely try to convince owners to part with those old pieces, either for a small amount of cash or for new items, some of which might be machine made. In the late 1990’s, Turkish village weavers began to recognize the commercial value of their work and it did not take them long to refine their bartering skills. Since then it has become difficult for dealers to acquire genuinely old pieces in like-new condition for reasonable prices.
A chuval (sack) or ala chuval (colorful sack) is commonly called “grain sack” by Turkish dealers. While those bags are indeed used to transport grain, potatoes, apples, sugar beets and other farm products, they are also used to store and transport items such as clothing, pots and pans and other household items. The chuval is rectangular in shape with one of the short sides open. In practice they are normally stacked against one wall of a room or tent with the decorated side or edges out. Normally, chuvals are made in pairs.
A torba is woven in one flat rectangular piece, then the finished item is folded and the two shorter sides are stitched together. The long top side is left open for access and the bag is hung on the wall or tent poles. A torba is generally used to store clothing or other daily use items.
A mafrash is a chest-like bag. The four sides of a mafrash always have beautifully woven intricate designs, but the bottom of the bag is a simple striped plain weave. Many Turkish carpet dealers call a mafrash a “cradle.” While some may be used from time to time as baby beds, their main purpose is to store bedding. In the weaver’s small home or tent, rooms must satisfy multiple needs. The daytime “living” room becomes a nighttime bedroom. The next morning, bedding is folded, stored in the mafrash, and the bedroom is changed back to a living room. We had a teak wood box built to measure so we could display our mafrashes as shown. Another teak wood panel (not shown here) was cut to fit on top
A salt bag is just that – a bag for carrying rock salt. Most of the salt bags I’ve seen have been flat weave, but some are made with pile faces. All salt bags have a distinctive shape with a “chimney” or neck extending from the top edge. When the bag is being moved, the chimney is folded down to prevent spillage. Salt is a carried for family use, but shepherds also carry it to feed their sheep. Salt bags usually have a bright, attractive design and they are often ornately decorated with buttons, bangles, beads, tassels and other ornaments.
A food bag is the weaver’s version of a lunch box. Like most handmade utility bags, food bags are usually nicely decorated. All of the antique food bags I’ve seen have been washed, but some are permanently stained. Sometimes the weaver adds a shoulder strap, but usually they are made as shown.
A papuz is a triangular bag that can be strapped to a woman’s back and is used to carry a child The papuz shown was made by a Herki Kurd weaver in Hakkari Province in eastern Anatolia.
A chanta (chanteh) is a small bag that can be used as a purse. These are usually nicely decorated and all have a shoulder strap attached to the top edge. The chanta shown was made in the Haymana area of central Anatolia near the end or the 19th century.
Yastik is a Turkish word for a pile or flat weave piece that is used as a facing for a cushion or pillow. A yastik is normally made as a rectangle or square and its normal size is approximately 1.5’ X 3’. Once the yastik is off the loom, a cloth backing is attached to its reverse side, leaving one end open. The resulting bag is then filled with an amount of material appropriate for its intended use. A cushion made as a back rest is usually quite thick while one made as a seat cushion is only padded. If used for sitting, the yastik is called a minder or mindar, which is the root word in Turkish for “bench warmer.” The yastik shown was made in Cihanbeyli , a village in the Konya Province of Anatolia. This would be leaned against a wall as a back support or it could be placed on the floor as a seat.