Of Sheep and Wool: How Modern Artisans Revived the Kyrgyz Art of Felting

In Bishkek, felt artisans are utilizing ancient, nomadic techniques once almost lost under Soviet rule.

A Kyrgyz shepherd shears the wool from one of his sheep.

In Kyrgyzstan, so much depends upon sheep and their white, fluffy fleece.

Photo by Cam McLeod

On a slightly overcast day, felt artisan Chinara Makashova and I sit together in Restoran Pishpek, a bistro built to resemble a 19th-century fortress. We’re here to eat, but we’re also here to talk about the country’s storied history, which is intricately intertwined with shepherds, sheep, wool, and mutton. On the walls around us are large, framed, felted artworks. One depicts buzkashi, a Central Asian sport similar to polo, that involves men on horseback chasing after the headless corpse of a goat in place of a ball. On the table are beets, borscht, all manner of fried bread, and no shortage of meat.

We’re in the capital city of Kyrgyzstan, Bishkek, near the Kazakhstan border. Here, there are no ancient stone buildings or cobblestone streets or tourist-swarmed historic districts. Rather, Bishkek is characterized by cool, tree-lined boulevards, the scraggly rose bushes of its public parks, Soviet-era plazas, and imposing brutalist architecture. In the downtown district around the restaurant, soldiers in uniform stand on street corners next to young women in hijabs and older women in babushkas. Vendors sell shoro—a fermented barley and milk drink—out of blue coolers at little kiosks on almost every street corner.

Home to nearly 7 million people, Kyrgyzstan is a swath of green in the heart of arid Central Asia. About the size of Nebraska, the nation has long been coveted for its vast natural resources and abundant farmland—as a result, it’s seen its fair share of conquerors over the centuries from Ottoman Turks to Mongol hordes to Qing Dynasty imperialists. In 1876, it was annexed into the Russian Empire and served as a remote colonial outpost until the founding of the USSR in 1917. For 75 years, Kyrgyzstan struggled to maintain a separate national identity within the Soviet Union’s Byzantine system of republics and states, and it remained a part of the former superpower until its collapse in 1992.

Kyrgyz shepherd Baatyrbek Akmatov, owner of Jaichy Yurt Camp, poses with freshly shorn wool.

Conservationist and shepherd Baatyrbek Akmatov, owner of Jaichy Yurt Camp, holds a bundle of merino fleece, which he sheared by hand as generations of his family did before him.

Photo by Alexandra Marvar

Before all of this, the population was largely nomadic, and 40 different tribes (represented by 40 sun rays on the Kyrgyz flag) once shared the land. Today, very few people still live as their forebears once did. For thousands of years, communities of herders and their animals moved freely with the seasons across the western steppe, in the shadow of Kyrgyzstan’s massive Tian Shan Mountains. Many nomads raised sheep for mutton and one of the world’s most popular and useful fibers: wool. With a little warm water, soap, and some elbow grease, raw wool fibers could be kneaded into felt. From Siberia to Nepal, nomadic communities across Central Asia have used felt for clothing, warmth, animal husbandry, even housing. Felted wool carpets and wall paneling are used in yurts to this day.

Most modern Kyrgyz shepherds are no longer nomadic. But in the summers, many shepherds still drive their flocks from the Tian Shan’s valleys to high altitudes, where their fleece grows densely to protect them from the cold. Experiencing the extremes of peak and pasture every season makes their wool thick, strong, and luscious. Long, sturdy wool fibers lend themselves to high-quality felt, Makashova explains.

Nomadic life relied on the oral transfer of knowledge to survive. The tradition of felting, in particular, was passed from mother to daughter. But under Soviet rule, much of Kyrgyz culture was Russified. Many of the old ways were slowly forgotten to make way for the new. Crafts, like felting, were at risk of being completely lost in the name of progress.

When Makashova graduated from university in Bishkek in 1994, the world around her was in upheaval. The Soviet Union had fallen a few years prior and the economy along with it. Jobs that existed under communism had gone away. Chinara, her aunt Roza Makashova, and her sister-in-law Nazgul Esenbaeva—all young, ambitious, creative—sought sustainable career paths in an uncertain world.

There was pressure for everyone to earn income under the new capitalist system. Women faced unique challenges: They were expected to balance domestic responsibilities with a job, but their employment options were severely limited. (Even today, Kyrgyz women are barred from hundreds of “dangerous” jobs in professions that range from metalworking to wine making.) Some of the most readily available jobs for women were in textile factories.

Felting artisans Roza and Chinara Makashova pose together.

Roza (sitting) and Chinara Makashova turned to felting as a mean to support themselves after the fall of the USSR.

Photo by Cam McLeod

But factory work—where conditions were loud, harsh, and difficult—didn’t appeal to Chinara or the other Makashova women. They began seeking alternatives—like felting. The idea of working with their hands and honoring their history resonated deeply with these women. Felting was creative. It was interesting. It bound them to their heritage and to the rural places they had each grown up. It inspired them.

“If you didn’t have a job, you had to work with what you can do,” Makashova says. “For us, that was felting.”

Knowledge of felting was fading fast, but a few older women in their community still remembered the ancient art, knowledge that was passed to them from their mothers before the end of the Soviet era. The Makashovas looked to them to learn about traditional Kyrgyz felting patterns, motifs, and techniques. “Everything was experiments, and mistakes, and learning,” Roza Makashova says.

Soon, they were selling pieces like shyrdaks (the carpets used in yurts) in the city. Makashova would travel back and forth between her home in Bishkek and the village where Roza lived, fumbling through trial and error—and persistence. In 1998, the Makashova women founded Tumar Art Group, a felted wool artists’ co-op. (Subsequent mentions of the Tumar Art Group will refer to it as “Tumar.”)

“[We thought] ‘What will people look back at and study about our art in 100 years?’” Makshova says. “I wanted to do something modern, but of course it was all based on the traditional art.”

The factory

On Kiev Street, the Tumar showroom is flooded with light and full of color. Shoppers browse felted scarves and tote bags, pillow shams, shyrdaks, and children’s toys. On one shelf, a tiny felted tableau of two figures standing next to their wooly sheep and a miniature yurt is on display. These days, the Makashova family no longer work completely on their own—they now have a bustling production facility located across town, near Bishkek’s massive Osh Bazaar.

A worker at Tumar Art Group's production facility poses with a stack of slippers.

The Makashova family no longer works alone—they now have production facilities.

Photo by Cam McLeod

On the hot June day that I visit, the factory is a swirl of sounds and smells. The scent of wet sheep, rust, and rubber cement hang in the air. I listen to the whir of machines kneading and separating wool fibers, the swish and clack of wood against metal as vats of dye are stirred, and the smacking of hands as they form the felt around clog-shaped shoe molds. In one room, where freshly molded slippers are hung to dry, the walls are lined with insulation made from unused felt scrap: Tumar has a no-waste policy.

In the past three years, the company has almost doubled in size and has grown to 230 employees. Tumar now supports a network of some 1,500 independent family sheep farms and makes goods for companies and brands based in Finland, Germany, the United States, and elsewhere.

A large part of its recent growth can be attributed to a booming “house shoe” trend (its most popular product currently), sparked by the pandemic and consumers’ interest in comfort attire. Currently, around four-fifths of its business is focused on producing slippers for a small U.S. brand based in Richmond, Virginia, called Kyrgies. For Kyrgies, partnering with Tumar means their goods are carbon neutral, produced by a women-run, family-owned company that pays its workers a living wage, and made of high-quality materials sourced from local sheep farms. International buyers’ growing interest in ethically made, sustainable products has allowed the family business to expand in ways the Makashovas could never have imagined in the 1990s.

Aidai Asangulova and her family pose for a selfie while dressed in traditional Kyrgyz.

Fashion designer Aidai Asangulova (far left), her family, and colleagues, pose for a selfie. Asangulova helped secure UNESCO recognition for Kyrygz felting traditions.

Photo by Alexandra Marvar

As Tumar’s business has grown, the international reputation of Kyrygyz felt is rising along with it. In 2012, UNESCO added Kyrgyz felted carpet-making techniques to its list of “Intangible Cultural Heritages in Need of Urgent Safeguarding.” Then, in 2019, UNESCO also added the making of ak-kalpaks, Kyrgyz felted men’s hats, to the list as well. Makashova and her colleagues leading the charge at Tumar hope to elevate Kyrgyz-made goods from something that is seen as cheap (at least within the country) to an internationally regarded, high-quality product that bridges the gap between modernity and traditional heritage—something to take pride in. It’s working.

“Last year there was a survey that asked [locals] ‘What Kyrgyz brands are you proud of?’” Makshova says. “Many people named Tumar. I am proud of that impact. They see Kyrgyz culture in our products.”

The future

Demand for Tumar’s products is increasing at such a rate that the team recently decided to expand its production facilities. In an industrial area in the suburbs of the city, the construction of the company’s second felt-making factory is underway. Some operations are already running in this new space, which is outfitted with more modern equipment than at the Bishkek factory and provides much more room to work.

Some of this growth can be attributed to a grant from the U.S. Agency for International Development, which has worked in Central Asia since the fall of the Soviet Union to foster stability and support sustainable business practices in the region. With its help, the Makashovas’ ambitions to advance their business and uplift Kyrgyz communities is coming to fruition. Recently, the Tumar team installed a filtration system to remove dye from the facility’s wastewater. They’re also putting systems in place to clean dirty wool, something that has never before been possible in Kyrgyzstan.

A Kyrgyz shyrdak depicting a city scene with a car, bus, building, and rockets.

When Kyrgyzstan was a part of the USSR, ancient crafts collided with Soviet culture, like in this embroidery.

Photo by Alexandra Marvar

Before, households threw “dirty” wool away. But now, for sheep-farming families who primarily raise sheep for mutton, wool that was previously seen as unusable may soon be a new revenue stream for them—and Tumar will have access to more raw material (though it does plan to give some away to regional artisans). Chinara Makashova hopes that as more families learn to monetize wool, new businesses will spring up, and rural economies will continue to grow.

However, Makashova also knows that in order for felting to survive, people need more than raw materials: They need knowledge of the craft to continue the tradition. She often teaches workshops and master classes, sometimes driving a day and a half from Bishkek to remote villages deep in the mountains to train new felt makers.

“I dream to sit and sew.” She laughs. “Yes, I’m like that.”

Alexandra Marvar is a freelance writer and photographer based in New England. Her work has appeared in the New York Times, The Believer, and Vanity Fair.
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