Two products that derive from sheep that have played an essential role in many people’s lives in Central Asia are fleece and felt. Fleece is the skin of a sheep that still has the wool in place (unlike leather where it has been deliberately removed). Felt is made from the wool that is sheared from a (living) animal and then rolled, rubbed and processed until a thick, matted sheet is created.
Fleece skin clothing and goods have played an important role in Central Asia for a very long time, notably in the form of headgear and coats. The iconic, embroidered fleece skin coats of the 1960’s and 1970’s that were popular throughout the West, for example, were based on Afghan originals, although many were hastily produced in Turkey to satisfy the needs of Western fashion. Among Afghan and Turkmen men, various forms of headgear made of sheep skin have long been popular. Central Asians, and especially wealthy men, sometimes wear long narrow caps made out of astrakhan, which is the fleece of an unborn or just born lamb. As such, true astrakhan is very expensive and there are many copies. The former president of Afghanistan, Hamid Karzai, wore such a cap. A much cheaper form of headgear, but no less memorable, is the telpek of the Turkmen, which is a large deep cap made of a flat top and a wide band of fleece. The white versions are regarded as belonging to the more elite men (as it gets dirty much more quickly and needs to be cleaned and replaced on a more regular basis).
Felt has played an important role in the daily lives of many people in Central Asia for thousands of years. It is made using locally produced wool from hardy sheep (that sometimes look like goats). Yurts (the characteristic round tent-like structures) were and are important in Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Turkmenistan as well as Uzbekistan. They remain an important form of shelter and the outside and inside of such tents are normally covered with thick sheets of felt. The sheets are often decorated either during the felting process, or afterwards with embroidery and/or large, cotton appliqués that are sewn onto the felt itself. A related form are the smaller, rectangular felt wall and floor coverings that are decorated in a similar manner to the large tent pieces, namely with coloured felt, embroidery or applied cloth decoration.
In southern Afghanistan, among the nomadic Pashtuns, felt was used for a specific type of coat worn by men called a kosai, which has long sleeves. These coats were associated with shepherds and they formed a thick and warm tent in which the wearer could sleep at night while tending his flocks. These coats were often embroidered. Felt socks are worn in some parts of Central Asia during the winter months. These are made from a single piece of felt that is moulded by hand into shape. They are normally worn inside leather boots. In both Kazakhstan and Kyrgyzstan there has long been a tradition of men wearing tall felt hats that are decorated with embroidery. The examples worn at the beginning of the 21st century still have some embroidery, but they represent a considerably simpler form than those worn in the late 19th century.