Making the Caucasian burqa: a vanishing art

Burqas are made by the Andi people, an indigenous West Dagestanian group that lives near the Andi Koysu River.

Burqas are made by the Andi people, an indigenous West Dagestanian group that lives near the Andi Koysu River.

Vladimir Sevrinovsky
A burqa is not merely a warm outer garment. It can also be used as a cloak, a blanket and a tent. There is, however, only one manufacturer in Russia making this unique item of clothing.

Elizabeth Hurley posted a photograph on Instagram not so long ago, ostensibly in a (Queen) Catherine of Aragon costume. When inhabitants of the Russian North Caucasus saw it, they laughed. Under the guise of the queen’s dress, the British actress had slipped into something resembling the Circassian national costume.

For Circassians (a North Caucasian ethnic group) it’s all in a day’s work. Very different sets of people throughout the Caucasus and outside its borders have adopted their weapons and clothing. Tsar Nicholas II posed in a special “kaftan-cherkeska” (a Circassian coat), while the “shashka” (a Caucasian sabre) became the main cold weapon of the Russian Army. The Caucasian burqa has also been worn by Georgian ‘Chaban’ (mountain) shepherds and Russian Civil War generals. 

Tent, armour, medicine

This long felt cloak has served as clothing and as a tent for mountain dwellers for centuries. Strong and firm, it could stand without a person inside it. The burqa could replace a blanket and a bed at the same time. It did not matter what distance a mountain dweller had to travel because all he had to do was lay down his burqa to feel at home. Even today, shepherds still prefer burqas while herding cattle in distant areas to brand new sleeping bags.

Vladimir SevrinovskySource: Vladimir Sevrinovsky

It is said that Cossacks who had caught a cold would cover themselves up with a felt cloak similar to a burqa. They would permit their horse to gallop nearby which would create steam just like in a sauna, which would lead to a fast recovery, thus giving the garment something of a medicinal quality and purpose.

Once upon a time a warrior would hide his weapon under the burqa. The enemy would not notice their hand moving toward the ‘shashka’ and would be surprised by the lethal jab of the blade from under the felt garment. This is why the burqa was never given buttons. Fidel Castro, upon receiving one as a gift from a Soviet delegation in the 1970s tried in vain to find the buttons.

A firm coat would occasionally save a warrior from a bullet or a sabre stab. If the enemy prevailed, the wounded were often carried away from the battlefield in their own burqa.

Such an important object was considered magical. In the mountaineer’s perception, a burqa connected the real world with the hereafter. The deceased was wrapped in a burqa, a woman during delivery was covered with it, to alleviate pain, and the newborn was laid on it. Duels using burqas usually ended with the death of both participants because, according to the rules of combat, rivals could not step out of the way to avoid the stab of a dagger.

Vladimir SevrinovskySource: Vladimir Sevrinovsky

Alexandre Dumas, author of “The Three Musketeers,” wrote about the Caucasus: “A good burqa has enormous value, especially when it’s made of pelican’s feathers.”

It is possible that he mistook woollen braids of a certain sheep breed for a bird’s feathers, which are often used to decorate the best burqas.

There were also “rough” burqas made from the braids of wolf and bear fur. Only well-known hunters wore them; this type of burqa was considered dangerous as it attracted animals and enemies. The owner would attach trophies; tusks, claws and birds’ beaks; on the inside of the cloak.

How burqas are made

The highest quality and most beautiful felt cloaks were made by the Andi people, an indigenous group from West Dagestan who live near the Andi Koysu River. This is where the only burqa factory in Russia is located.

It opened in 1925 in the hamlet of Rakhata in the middle of a mountain valley on the border with Chechnya. During the Second Chechen War (1999-2000) the factory was bombed out. It was rebuilt with the help of other Russian regions, and is largely operating in a self-sufficient manner.

Vladimir SevrinovskySource: Vladimir Sevrinovsky

Fleece is combed on stands with nails. The fluff is picked with wooden bows no different from old-fashioned weapons. Experienced masters would then lay the material on the floor in the future burqa’s shape, but in a larger size; in the process of milling the cloth shrinks. Wool is layered three or four times. The best and the longest are placed on the outside for protection from the elements, while the lowest quality ones are fitted on the inside, with the shortest ones in between.

The future burqa is sprayed with boiling water using an ordinary whisk. Three or four women in black elbow pads wrap it in a fabric, put it on the table and mangle it, pressing it with their forearms while simultaneously patting it for one hour while the wool is still matted. Then they comb it one more time using wooden brushes with iron teeth. The unfinished burqa is then boiled with a dye. Black burqas are for ‘Chabans’, while white ones are ceremonial or for presents.

Dyed pieces of felt are carried out of the factory. Workers take them by the edges, dump them into water to lift the wool up on the outside, and then turn it over and spread it out over gravel.

Vladimir SevrinovskySource: Vladimir Sevrinovsky

There are so many pieces of wool that the whole courtyard is covered with them. A worker in a kerchief sprays boiling water mixed with bone glue over the protruding strands. In this way a long brush is formed to protect it from the rain. The “pelican’s feathers,” another name for the woollen braids, don’t need to be glued, but the process of making them is much harder. Not many masters take special orders to make them any more.

Dry pieces are brought to a cutter who sews together the upper edges and adds a short lining, after which the felt “house for a highlander” is ready.

The price of a burqa produced in Rakhata is 2,500 rubles (approximately $40). Masters earn around 500 rubles ($8) a day, which is considered good money in this hamlet.

Additionally, production starts early in the morning and is over by noon, so that leaves workers enough time to do some gardening. There were once more than 200 workers at the factory, but now there are only 17 registered employees. In fact, just 10 of them are actually working. The purchasing price of wool ranges from 5-15 rubles ($0.08-$0.22) per kilogram, therefore the local Andi sheep are mostly raised for meat and are, fortunately, exceptionally delicious.

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