The first time I saw a photo of a Turkish shepherd wearing a floor-length kepenek over his shoulders, I thought of a toddler wearing a snowsuit, standing stiffly, barely able to move—it looked so bulky and cumbersome. I couldn’t begin to imagine a shepherd working while wearing such a garment. Surely there was more to the story.
Apparently there are more practical options. There are lighter kepeneks that are more flexible, easier to move in. But they are not as durable. The more common choice, usually worn during the day, are shorter mantles that allow unrestricted movement without compromising durability.
The kepenek is the Turkish shepherds’ traditional outer wear. Similar felted mantles were worn by herders of the Middle East, Afghanistan, Central Asia, the Caucasus, and Eastern Europe. Unlike other felted mantles in the region, the kepenek is sleeveless and sometimes sports a hood.
Felting a kepenek is a long process, which was extremely arduous in the past, before machines replaced humans in the more labor intensive steps. The felters lay a thick layer of wool in the shape of a T on a reed mat. The wider half of the T (the cross bar) will form the back of the mantle, and the slightly narrower half (the stem of the T) will form the front.
After patting the edges into shape, they sprinkle water on the wool, then roll up the mat, compressing the wool inside it. Next they place the roll in a kicking machine, which rolls and beats it until the T is loosely felted. After removing the pre-felted roll from the machine and unrolling it, the artisans fold it at the shoulders (where the stem of the T connects with the cross bar of the T), so that the back (the cross bar) is under the front (the stem).
The felters then peel apart the edges of the front, forming two flaps, as you would peel apart pages of a book that are stuck together, then fold the edges of the back in between the flaps—to form a seamless garment, instead of using needle and thread to join the edges, the artisans felt them together. (This is when the felters may add a hood.)
Next, the felters roll up the piece and place it in the beating machine. They prevent the front from sticking to the back by unrolling it every so often and separating the two layers. The end result is a hollow oblong bag with no opening. Once the felting is completed and the mantle is dry, they create an opening in the mantle by cutting along the hem and up the middle of the front.
Shepherds use floor-length kepeneks to sleep in at night. Like a snowsuit, a kepenek provides protection against the elements, they are water repellent and warm. In fact, the felt’s insulating properties protect the shepherd not only from cold but also from heat.
Nomadic Felts, by Stephanie Bunn, The British Museum Press
Felt, by Willow G. Mullins, Berg Publishers
Felt: New Directions for an Ancient Craft, Interweave Press
Traditional Feltmaking in Turkey: Kece, Kepenek, & Sikke, Production and Commentary by Janet Willoughby, Ends of the Earth Surviving Traditions Production.