The Varieties of Tribal Bags and Panels Marla Mallett
Nomads in Western and Central Asia have made bags of many different types over the centuries. Their small formats offered endless design opportunities for creative weavers, making them collectors' favorites. On this page are some of the kinds of flat-woven bags made in Turkey, Persia, and the Caucasus. 
Probably the most familiar to Westerners are saddlebags with two decorated pouches. These were made in various sizes, with the smallest examples used on donkeys. Called heybe in Turkey, khorjin in Persia and the Caucasus, they appear in a wide variety of woven structures:  tapestry, soumak, brocading, knotted pile, weft substitution, and even occasionally warp substitution. 

In western Anatolian Turkey, saddlebags were commonly made with a long center bridge with a slit down the center (below).  Men sometimes slipped these over their heads to serve as convenient shopping bags when in the marketplace. 

   Yn slit-tapestry saddlebag.  Northwest Anatolian Turkey    Zili brocade saddlebag.
  Larger saddlebags were made for use on horses and camels.  Some examples, particularly from Eastern Anatolian Turkey and Northwest Persia, are huge. These are called hur, and most often have been brocaded or tapestry-woven. 
     Brocaded saddlebag.  Kars area, NE Turkey. Similar pieces were made
   across the border in NW Persia.

  Large soumak saddlebags from Western Iran often have knotted-pile sections along the bottom of each pouch.  Bakhtiari examples are the best known (below). Small versions, with combinations of soumak and knotted pile were also made in  this area. 
    Bakhtiari soumak saddlebag with a knotted-pile panel along
  the bottom of each pouch
Saddlebags were normally woven in one long piece:  first the face for one pouch was woven, then a long section that formed the back and center bridge, then the second pouch face. The bag was assembled by folding each end panel inward, then stitching along the sides. The example at the right is as it came from the loom. This piece simply was never stitched up to make a bag, but had it been finished, it would have been folded over as shown below.  Because of the construction sequence, the pile on knotted-pile saddlebags  lies in opposite directions on the two decorated pouch faces. 
Herke Kurd weaving as it came from the loom (right) and folded over to make a saddlebag (above).  Iraq 

With the earliest pieces, often only the saddlebag faces have survived, or just half a saddlebag--a single pouch with both face and back intact (left). These can be important collectors' pieces.  Occasionally, we find pairs of saddlebag faces. 

Because of the popularity and rarity of early  Shahsevan soumak saddlebag faces, and the high prices commanded by them, a market for carefully distressed Iranian fakes has developed in recent years.  One can often come across such pieces prominently displayed in dealers' shops, only to be disappointed by a close examination of them. 
Malatya/Sinan slit-tapestry saddlebag pouch. Turkey  
   Mafrash - Bedding Bags
In eastern Turkey, northwestern Persia, southern Persia, and the Caucasus, three-dimensional rectangular "boxy" bags have been made by nomads for storage of bedding in their tents, and for use as cargo bags. They were normally made in pairs which could be balanced over the backs of camels on migration.  In the marketplace, these are often dubbed beşik, or "cradles," but we have only limited evidence of this use. Mafrash have been made in the largest numbers by Shahsevan tribal people and other groups in NW Iran and across the border in Azerbaijan.  Others were made in Georgia and Armenia.  A majority are intricately woven soumak; others are slit-tapestry, sometimes with narrow contrasting soumak bands. 

Western collectors have found that these bags make striking small tables or ottomans when up-ended over wooden boxes or blocks of heavy foam rubber (below).  

Borchaliu Mafrash upended.  Georgia

  Kazak mafrash panel. Azerbaijan

  Kazak mafrash end panels
Mafrash were woven in three parts, and then assembled. The main piece (left) included two long decorated side panels, with a plain or striped center section which formed the bottom of the bag. Two small squarish decorated end panels (below left) were woven separately, normally side by side on the loom.

It has become difficult to find complete early mafrash in good condition, as these nomads' items were given heavy use.  With good 19th century natural-dye examples, we most often must settle for just panels:  the long sides, or short end panels.  Sometimes we find pairs of these, and occasionally a complete large panel (left) as it came from the loom.  These are sometimes sturdy enough to serve as small rugs.  The mafrash "set" of three pieces here displays slit tapestry, with small soumak bands.  

Most of the mafrash and mafrash panels that were available to us 25 or 30 years ago came from Iran--both soumak and tapestry examples.  In 1990 and shortly thereafter, when the borders of Azerbaijan, Georgia and Armenia opened, a good number of old  Caucasian soumak pieces appeared in the international markets.  Now these supplies have been nearly exhausted, and once again it has become difficult to locate good early examples.  

Fine early soumak mafrash panels--either side or end panels--are becoming truly rare, and are favorites of collectors.

   Shahsevan soumak mafrash panel.  Azerbaijan
One unfortunate market-place practice has resulted in the destruction of many Persian mafrash.  Iranian merchants, in an effort to make what they deemed more saleable products, have frequently cut and sewed together pairs of slit-tapestry mafrash side panels to make small square "rugs" (below).  Or they have sewed two end panels together. They are unsatisfactory both aesthetically and practically, as the center stitching is rarely strong enough to withstand use on the floor.  Most of these have been coarse, crude examples.


   Two Persian Shahsevan
   mafrash panels cut and joined
   in the center.  This practice is
   NOT recommended. 
  The term mafrash has been used differently by Turkmen weavers--to refer to very small, flat knotted-pile rectangular tent bags.  Uzbek and Kyrgyz nomads have made rectangular "box-like" mafrash, however, some of knotted pile, others embroidered, like the panel below.

Uzbek embroidered
mafrash side panel.
   Storage Sacks - Ala uval
Virtually all Middle Eastern and Central Asian nomads and villagers have woven storage sacks, but a majority are simple, plain, utilitarian bags. Among the most highly decorated and most "collectible" are those from Anatolian Turkey. 

Ala uval are decorated sacks  made in two major different kinds of formats in Turkey.  (This word, properly written with a cedilla under the c, is pronounced like a ch., i.e. "chuwal.")

The first type of ala uval has a decorated front--usually with horizontal bands of brocading, tapestry, or combination of the two. The backs were typically decorated with simpler bands. These were woven in one long piece, then folded over at the bottom and stitched up the sides.  Usually card-woven straps were sewed onto the sides to use as handles (right).  In some examples, the bottom corners were tucked in and stitched to make the piece stand up better (below right).  These pieces are often dubbed "grain sacks" but  they more often held clothing and other possessions.  In any case, they were given very hard use and so most have survived in quite ragged condition.

   Yagebedir ala uval.  Northwest

Kilaz ala uval, Bergama area of NW
Turkey.  Photo, Pinkwart and Steiner,
Bergama uvallari. 


    Yn ala uval. Northwest
  The second kind of Anatolian ala uval was made in a much different way.  A large flat panel was woven...usually a series of plain bands with two wide decorated panels in the center.  The two ends were then hemmed and stitched together to form a tube (below left). The piece was then stitched across the bottom so that one decorated panel appeared on each side of the bag. 

    Antep ala uval. SE Turkey
When these bags were were lined up along the back of a nomad's tent or in a winter house, the designs that wrapped around  the corners were all presented to the viewer, as in the photo below.  It was a clever and unique Anatolian design innovation.
  Village house in southeastern Turkey with a row of brocaded
uval.  Photo by Josephine Powell
When we encounter these bags, they have often been opened as they were when they came from the loom.  Some of these ala uval are among the loveliest and most sought after of antique Anatolian weavings.  They are wonderful as hangings, but also can sometimes serve as small rugs.   

                             Maras ala uval.  Southeast Turkey  
  Sometimes just the center decorated section of an old ala uval has survived. Exquisite examples can be important collectors' pieces.
    Maras ala uval fragment.  Reciprocal  brocading.  Southeastern
Salt Bags

These specialized bags appear in limited quantities, and were made in just a few areas--primarily Persia and Afghanistan.  They are tough, durable little bags made with a variety of techniques, but most often brocading, soumak or weft substitution.  With narrow necks that prevented their contents from spilling, they posed special design challenges for the weaver.  They were probably not all used for salt, but that label has stuck. Unfortunately, in recent years many imitations or "fakes" have been made in Iran, and have flooded the markets in Turkey.
    Karabagh salt bag.  Azerbaijan

Small bags for personal items have appeared erratically throughout the weaving areas. Virtually any structure  can appear in these: soumak, brocading, weft-substitution, tapestry, or combinations of these structures. 
      Raşvan brocaded anta.
    Eastern Turkey
Qashqai chanta.  S.Persia    
Woven pillow covers have been made by many groups. A long piece was woven, first the front and then the back. Once off the loom, it was  folded over in the center and the two long sides sewed up, leaving one end open.  A variety of techniques have been used--tapestry, brocading, knotted-pile, weft-substitution, and occasionally soumak.  The most well known are Turkish yastiks and Baluch balischt. 
    Baluch balischt.  Weft-substitution weave      Malatya slit-tapestry yastik face. 
   Eastern Turkey

For information on woven structures, go to:   

The Basic Tribal Weaves.

To see bags and bag faces for sale, go to:   

Bags and Bag Faces
  Unrestored Collectibles

For other Middle Eastern tribal weavings, go to:  

Tribal Textiles Main Page

For textiles from other parts of the world, go to: 

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