The iconic cap of Central Asia was constitutionally recognized as a cultural symbol in 2016. Since then, every March 5th a sea of white hats fill the streets as men gather to celebrate the national pride and symbolism that is epitomized in the kalpak.
Traditionally these headpieces are called ak-kalpak, or White Felt Hat. With status as a national cultural symbol, ak-kalpak should be treated with respect. They should never be put on the ground or near dirty shoes, and they are to be worn only by men (women have their own traditional headpieces). Misuse or disrespectful actions can be considered illegal, with strong fines or up to a year in jail as a result.
As a cultural symbol, they must be made of pure wool, not synthetic materials. Felt has been used in Kyrgyz culture for centuries, and its use in the kalpak is intentional. During the winter it retains heat and keeps the head warm, and in the summer it maintains the body temperature while also pulling moisture away from the head.
Kalpaks are constructed with 4 sides, creating a tall and peaked shape that resembles the Tien Shan Mountains. Kalpaks for everyday wear have a black velvet lining, mirroring the dark foothills at the base of the mountains while the white felt on top is the perpetual snow. All-white kalpaks are reserved for special occasions. Some have a notch at the front, creating two small crests. These are usually worn by younger men, while kalpaks with a rounded brim are worn by older men.
With the 4-paneled construction, a kalpak can conveniently fold flat, making it easier to carry and transport when not being worn.
The embroidery on the kalpak will also carry traditional symbolism, similar to what is seen in the shyrdaks. The artistic shapes can also relate to the interests, status, and affiliations of the owner, especially if the kalpak was made specifically for them.
Due to their strong role as a cultural symbol, kalpaks are often gifted to visitors as a sign of respect and hospitality. They are also given to government officials when they are sworn in as a reminder of their duty to Kyrgyz culture and values.
by Ruby Mitchell, Online Content Editor @ White Leopard Travel Co.
Felt and Silk Designs
Innovative and impressive examples of Kyrgyz creativity can be seen at local craft fairs and in souvenir shops. In this example, the process of soaking, rolling and pressing the felt is combined with a fine layer of silk and dried leaves. The impression of the leaves remains in the silk, as the silk fuses with the felt.
Shyrdaks | Traditional Kyrgyz Rugs
Shyrdaks are the Turkish carpet of Central Asia. One large rug can take 8-12 months to complete, with a group of women working together to create the multilayered, intricately stitched, piece of art. These shyrdaks remain in a family over many generations, gently softening and blending in their designs with use and wear.
Embroidery and Stitching
Most often seen on clothing, bold, prominent stitching gracefully curves into a multitude of patterns, most of which reflect natural elements. Flowers, birds, the sun, rivers, and other animals will often be portrayed on jackets and vests, but also boots, hats, bags, and household linens. Like shyrdaks, this handiwork takes many hours of patient work, but remains in
Peering out from a doorway, the fierce resilience of Kyrgyz identity pierces from a young boys eyes. His weather worn cheeks reflect the harshness of winter winds countered by a warm home. From a young age kalpak is bestowed upon young boys, embedding a pride and sense of identity when they are worn.
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