Leather Mosaic Story

Decorated boot found in Pazyryk

Leather-working had been important part of nomadic peoples’ lives. The artefacts of ornamented leatherwork found in Pazyryk (Siberian Permafrost, Altai Mountains) date back to 4th century BCE (before common era) and exemplify the lifestyle and crafts of the people of the steppe (Huns, SarmatiansSaka/Scythians) who had roamed the vast territories of Eurasian steppe (modern Russia, Mongolia, the countries of Central Asia).

The semi-nomadic Tatars (amalgam of hunnic and turkic people) had settled by the banks of Volga and Kama rivers by the 7th century CE (common era) and had established a sovereign state of Volga Bulgaria. Volga Bulgars (ancestors of the modern Tatars) inherited the skillfulness, craftiness and creativity from the nomads of the steppe and got extremely proficient at all levels of leather crafting: from processing hides to producing exceptional footwear. They  became successful traders exchanging leather and other goods throughout Asia and Europe for many centuries. 

Written sources, dating back to the 13th century, mention beautiful boots made from the soft and aromatic leather called “bulgari”.  Historical documents state the popularity of the leather footwear and the large scale of the leather manufacturing in Kazan Khanate  (mid 15th-mid 16th centuries)– the state that had inherited the territory, traditions, customs of Volga Bulgaria and had incorporated cultural features of the Golden Horde that had become part of Volga Tatars’ lifestyle between mid 13th and 14th centuries. In 1552, Kazan Khanate was conquered and turned into Kazan province of Czardom of Russia. The leathercraft and other skill-sets of the Tatars had stagnated during colonisation and forceful christianisation of majority of muslim population of Kazan Khanate.

Yusupov in Tatar-inspired costume

By the 17th century, skills of producing quality leather and ornamented footwear inherited from the Volga Bulgars were slowly re-established and turned into profitable in-home business. Industrious Tatar craftsmen had opened up many successful production and shops outside of Kazan area: in the towns of Tsardom of Russia (Moscow, Torzhok, Novgorod, Orenburg, Tobolsk), of Central Asia, Middle East, the Caucasus. 

By the 19th century, the Tatar leather footwear production managed to expand and to blossom thanks to the successful operation of large leather processing plants located in Kazan. Heavily decorated schiteck (“soft leather sock-boot” in Tatar) were worn by Tatar Muslim intelligentsia and aristocracy in Kazan and many other regions of Russian Empire (becoming a part of well-recognized Russian costume) and neighboring Ottoman Empire populated by other turkic people (modern states of Uzbekistan, Kazakhstan, Tadjikistan, Turkmenistan, Azerbaijan, Crimea).

Meticulously crafted exceptional Tatar boots (also Kazan boots, Tartar boots, ichigi / ichitygi – the Russified version of Tatar word schitek ) of highest quality exemplified popular in early 20th century “Russian Asia” art, which became associated with richness of unique combination of “Asian” (Islamic) vegetative ornamentations and bright colored leather of the items created by Tatars. The beautiful Tatar boots became undeniable part of many fashionistas’ wardrobes after being displayed at famous World Fairs in London in 1851Chicago in 1893, Paris in 1925

With the establishment of the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics (USSR) and due to the industrialization, Tatar footwear manufacturing has declined rapidly. USSR officially sanctioned the process of assimilation of cultures, folk arts and traditions of all ethnic minorities in its territory that were inherited from Russian Empire and neighbouring then Ottoman Empire states. Induced sigma of irrelevance left non-Russian, minority folk arts unsupported by federal authorities, undesired and looked-down by the Russian-majority population.

The cultural boom of 1960s brought increased interest to folk traditions and cultures of 150+ ethnicities populating the vast territory of the USSR. Tatar leatherwork got its momentum back: Arsk National Footwear  state-owned company was established in the outskirts of Kazan-city to produce ethnic footwear primarily for dance companies.  European fashion, Yves Saint Laurent, in particular, got inspiration from the unique Tatar boot decorations in his 1976 collection

Currently, more than 30 years after the collapse of the Soviet Union, the art of Tatar Leather Mosaic is kept alive by the efforts of several individual craftsmen and designers, as well as couple of workshops located in the suburbs of Kazan. 

Sahtian’s team

“Sahtian” – a privately owned business that is operated by designers Ildus Gainutdinov and Alfiya Artemyeva. It continues the legacy of Arsk Footwear production that was established during 60ies of Soviet Union. “Sahtian” manufactures unique Tatar footwear of the highest artistic quality. It’s embroiderers and shoe-makers spend numerous hours stitching and assembling intricate design patterns by hand and with love. 

There are several other small workshops ( “Ay.Bulgari“, “Alsu Musavirova“, “Turan Art”, “Marianych”) that actively work in reviving and popularizing leather mosaic traditions. They use traditional ornamental patterns as well as experiment combining the old techniques with modern innovations.  Among the artists and professionals creating leather mosaics are Ms. Nailya Kumysnikova, Ms. Sofia Kuzminykh, Ms. Svetlana Garbuzova, Ms. Alfia Zamilova,  Ms.Tatiana Shilintseva, late Ms. Flyura Kalmurzina.  There are other several amateur  craftsmen working with leather mosaic in the Kazan metro area.

IMG_3514

new twist on traditional Tatar boot created by Maryanich

One comment on “Leather Mosaic Story

  1. Pingback: Unique Leather Mosaic

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