This is an interview with Aidai Asangulova, one of the most well-known young felt-maker artisans in Kyrgyzstan, and a leader of Min Kyial (an artisan organization). The interview was translated from Kyrgyz into English by Aibek Samakov.
How did you learn the art of traditional felt-making?
I grew up in my grandparents’ house in Kyzyl-Tuu village of Ton district, Issyk-Kul province. When I was a child, almost every household in the countryside used to make felt carpets. So I can say that I grew up making felt. During the summer in my grandmother’s house, we would make ala-kyiz carpets (single layer felt rugs with colorful ornaments) and several pieces of regular kyiz (single color rugs) for shyrdaks (double-layered felt carpets: one layer serves as a background while the second one is used to cut out traditional ornaments).
Participation in the felt-making process was a lot of fun for me and other young girls in the neighborhood. We would make a game of fluffing up the wool by pulling it apart, an important step to do before felting it.
We would watch how our mothers and grandmothers washed and then beat the wool with a rod. We were also fascinated by the stories and fairytales the elderly women told us. They made us believe that when the pile of fluffed wool gets as high as your nose, a pearl would fall out of your nose. We were each eager to get a pearl this way.
What challenges inspired you to experiment with felt?
When I graduated from high school I applied to the designer-constructor program at the Kyrgyz Institute of Architecture and Building. At the end of my six years there, my final project was to make an outfit from felt.
For the project, my father, who was then working at Kyial Kyrgyz Traditional Crafts Union, brought me two types of hand-made felt and one piece made in a factory. All of them were meant for felt carpets and were so thick and tough that it was impossible to sew clothes out of them. My attempts to slice them thinner got me nowhere. My project was on the verge of failure and I wondered why it wasn’t possible to make a soft, thin felt suitable for sewing. I somehow finished the project but my question remained unanswered.
Shortly after graduation I got a job at Kyial Kyrgyz Traditional Crafts Union, where I worked with my sisters. One day my father brought us a pile of the highest quality wool. We decided to experiment with it, making some things we never had done before. We made small pieces of thin felt suitable for sewing clothes, small felt rugs with decorative holes, colorful scarves, and many other small things.
There are two ways of making felt things. In the first method, a craftsman uses ready-made pieces of felt to put together souvenirs or carpets such as shyrdak. In the second method, called the ala-kyiz method, a craftsman felts wool directly into a product. Whatever I saw I wanted to make out of felt using the ala-kyiz method. Was it possible to make a stone, an apple, or an apricot out of felt? My relatives joked about it, saying “Aidai looks at the world through felt eye-glasses.”
In 2002, we received a small grant from an international organization to support our felt-making experiments. At the time, none of us had a bank account to receive the money, so a woman named Chynara eje who ran the Tumar traditional crafts shop allowed us to use her bank account. We purchased 30-40 kilos of wool and various dyes, and made twelve types of scarves. We worked hard, and every day was filled with happiness.
At the end of the project I went to thank Chynara eje for helping us. I shyly gave her one of the scarves we made, assuming she would think little of our humble efforts. She immediately asked me to show her everything we had made, and then she suggested that we do an exhibition.
In your opinion, why it is important to preserve the felt tradition in Kyrgyzstan?
We need to preserve and further develop this tradition because Kyrgyzstan is “the heart of felt-making.” Diverse felt-making technologies have been preserved in Kyrgyzstan. Where there are only one or two felt-making techniques in most felt-making countries, almost all felt-making methods are present in Kyrgyzstan. And someone in every household in our country knows how to make felt.
If we fail to preserve and develop the felt-making tradition, we might lose much of it. When I was a child, almost every Kyrgyz family made felt carpets, and mothers and wives made kalpaks (mens felt hats) for their husbands and sons. Nowadays, fewer and fewer families observe this tradition. And this problem arises not only with felt carpets but with traditions and authentic handicrafts in general.
Was this why you decided to do the Kalpak project?
Yes. With the help of The Christensen Fund, we collected various types of kalpaks from all over the country and made an exhibition and book about them. We did this to showcase a tradition that was getting lost. I believe that the situation is much better now, but back then it was very poor.
Kalpak, as well as any other types of headress, occupies a significant place in traditional Kyrgyz culture. Kyrgyz people treat kalpak with great respect, and there are a lot of rituals and taboos related to it. For instance, a man is supposed to keep his kalpak off the ground or floor, and the kalpak is not usually given as a present but made for sons and husbands by mothers or wives.
When we started the project, the traditional culture surrounding the kalpak was sinking into oblivion. People had started wearing kalpaks in saunas and giving them as presents to random people. Moreover, authentic handmade felt kalpaks were supplanted by kalpaks made out of synthetic fabrics. These were produced using computer embroidery, machine sewing, and synthetic felt, and as a result they were very cheap.
Over the course of the project, we worked with many traditional knowledge-bearers from all over the country. We worked with ethnographers to research traditional values related to kalpaks and the meaning of the traditional patterns that they usually bear.
We met many elderly people who had unique kalpaks that had been made many years ago. Unfortunately, when we asked to use those kalpaks for the exhibition, most of the elders refused to give them to us. According to tradition, Kyrgyz people should not give kalpaks to anyone but their children or grandchildren. For instance, my son wears my father’s kalpak.
In order to restore the kalpak’s important place, we want to re-introduce a custom of presenting kalpaks to pupils at the age of 12, which is when young people are considered adults in our Kyrgyz culture. In 2010, we invited famous people such as Daniar Kobonov (a sportsman) and Ernest Abdyjaparov (a film director) to school #68, where the celebrities presented kalpaks to 12-year-old schoolboys. The students gave an oath when accepting the kalpaks. Receiving a kalpak from a famous member of society motivates the young people to think about who they want to be in the future. They also learn about the kalpak and appreciate its importance. In the coming years, we want to get kalpak added to the United Nations List of Intangible Cultural Heritage.
How can young people learn the traditional crafts that you practice?
It is relatively easy to learn these crafts in Kyrgyzstan. Even though there are now fewer people who know the tradition of felt-making than in the past, the tradition remains pretty strong. They say if there is a student, surely there is a master for him. We are seeing a recent revival of the felt-making tradition. There are more and more young designers and felt-makers producing exquisite things.
They will learn that is important to keep things slow. We produce felt things without hurrying because there is a big difference between felt and other types of fabric. Every step of felting—starting with washing and fluffing the wool and ending with trampling it on special mats—must be done very thoroughly. A piece of felt should be perfectly even. We check a piece of felt by holding it against the sun. If sunlight comes through some parts of it the entire piece is considered to be spoiled.
It is also important to use high-quality wool. Without fine wool it is impossible to make good felt. After the collapse of the Soviet Union, many farmers started switching from fine-fleeced to meat breeds of sheep. In order to have a strong felt-making tradition, we need to have a strong tradition of fine-fleeced sheep breeding.
The toughest decision for the young craftsmen is whether to make felt for money or for spiritual satisfaction. I made felt things because I liked them, and I grew angry when somebody would call it a business. However, now I realize that it is useful to employ small-business approaches to preserve and maintain the tradition. We take orders from customers and try to make the highest-quality things for them. At the same time, we preserve our traditional approaches.
For more information and to order some unique felt products, visit Aidai Design