Subsistence and Commercial Activities. The Balkars practice animal husbandry, raising Karachay sheep, mountain goats, cattle, horses, and donkeys. Winter pastures used to belong to the whole clan, whereas irrigated hay fields were owned by individual households. Livestock remained out of doors on the summer pasture grounds from May to October, but during the winter they were kept in temporary shelters; permanent structures were found only in the family's winter quarters.
These mountaineers used extraordinary care in preparing the land for cultivation. The plots, which had been won from a harsh nature, were heritable property. The price of this much-exploited soil was fabulously high. Such plots were measured in terms of the quantity of sheaves harvested. Renting of the land was practiced ( begenda), as was communal pasturage. The traditional branches of the economy still play the basic role today, but a large part of the population works on sovkhozy, kolkhozy, cooperatives, etc.
Clothing. The Turco-Caucasian tradition can be observed in the clothing of the Balkars. Quilted coats and Caucasian felt coats and cowls were traded with neighbors; these items, together with fur hats and cherkeskas (long collarless coats), constituted the military outfit of the Cossacks. Women's clothing, particularly the ceremonial apparel of young girls, was identical to that of the Kabardians and Ossetes. Wealthy women wore a large bib ( tyuyme), with long fastenings and large ornaments, and a decorative silver belt ( kyamar). The young woman's cap was in the form of a high or truncated cone, richly decorated with festoons and gold or silver stitching—the remnant of an ancient Turkic tradition.
Food. The Balkar cuisine is a synthesis of ancient Turko-Caucasian and contemporary cultures. The basic diet included meat: mutton, beef, goat, and horse meat; the meat of the roe deer, Caucasian mountain goat, and the stag were considered delicacies, as was boar meat before the Islamic period. When skinning and cutting up the carcasses of sheep and goats, they preserved the ancient Turko-Caucasian technique of separating the joints so that sixteen or twenty-four portions would result. Important components of the Balkar diet were sour boiled milk ( ayran ) and kefir.
Industrial Arts. Traditionally, Balkar women were known in the region as skillful seamstresses. They spun wool, made cloth, and fulled the large pieces of felt for which they are renowned; they then adorned this felt with rolled-in designs, encrusted ornaments, or appliqué work. The ornamentation of felt included various geometric and stylized animal, plant, and flower designs. Wool or fabric was tinted with plant dyes (and, since the end of the nineteenth century, artificial dyes). The Balkars have created a new economic base in the working of wool and down and the manufacture of formerly unknown products such as sweaters, jumpers, jackets, women's dresses, caps, scarves, socks, mittens, and so forth. The work of master seamstresses is in great demand in the resort markets of the Caucasus and in the North and the Far East. Since ancient times the Balkar mountaineers have extracted lead, cast bullets, made gunpowder from saltpeter, and smelted steel from iron ore. Gunsmiths made rifles for trade with neighbors. As in earlier times, Balkar women tend to be occupied with domestic work—family care, kitchen chores, needlework—while at the same time engaging actively in small trade involving the output of female arts and crafts.