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Silk road, silk scarves: Women scarf producers in Kyrgyzstan

10.07.2020

Small groups of women producers in Kyrgyzstan live on what was once the Silk Road - the network of trade routes that enabled cultural exchange between Asia and Europe for centuries. In the spirit of tradition, history and culture, these mountain women create silk scarves adorned with felt decorations.  

These women inherited their craft from their mothers and grandmothers; it is a generational tradition. The scarf producers see themselves as a family business, created with the desire to preserve the cultural traditions of working with natural silk and wool that is transformed into felt, considered to be the oldest known textile. 

The handwoven silk for the scarves comes from the Uzbek Republic and the wool comes from local sheep. Known for their fine and soft wool, their sheep was brought from Australia to Kyrgyzstan during the Soviet Era, and is still bred today. Felt is a sacred material in Kyrgyz culture. From ancient times, Kyrgyz people were born on felt blankets in felt yurts, and were clothed in felt. According to traditional beliefs, felt protected people from evil spirits and enemy forces, and from harsh temperatures. The scarves carry the warmth of the womens hands, and just touching the felt conjures nostalgic memories of Kyrgyz ancestors. 

The scarves integrate traditional Kyrgyz motifs with new designs, creating scarves for the modern world. For these scarves, the felt and silk are seamlessly fused using the traditional technique of wet felting, called Ala kiyiz, which has been handed down over centuries by Kyrgyz mountain peoples. The entire process takes place by hand, using only soapy water and skilful hands. The fibres are merged by pressing the wet wool on the silk and shrinking it to the desired shape. Being non-woven, felt can be shaped as easily as wet clay. The scarves are coloured using natural dyes made from mountain herbs and flowers, walnut, apricot and apple leaves, onion, pomegranate skin and spruce cones. 

Scarves are often given as gifts to thank hosts and relatives for their hospitality. Kyrgyz artisans have roots in a nomadic mountain culture that has a long tradition of felt production. By crafting felt decorations on these scarves, the womens groups keep their history and cultural heritage alive. 

Ten women from Barskoon, a small ancient village on Lake Issyk-Kul in eastern Kyrgyzstan, call themselves the Topchu” Art Group. Topchu, in Kyrgyz, means button; the women chose this name because, in the past, buttons were made of silver and only the wealthy could afford them, but today everyone wears buttons. It is part of Kyrgyz tradition for grandmothers to gift newborns a button from their jacket to keep as a talisman. 

A strong bond among the women is important because they are socially vulnerable. Seventy-percent of the women are single mothers. They say that having this art group has given them a big family on which they can rely. Over the past five years of scarf production, the business has helped the women pay for their daughters’ education. Their success has allowed them to extend their reach to young girls in the local community, helping those who need help paying for school.  

A couple hundred kilometres west, women in the Naryn region of Kyrgyzstan also promote Kyrgyz culture and history through scarf-making. In the Kara-Too Mountains of Kyrgyzstan lies Kulanak, a small village of less than 3 000 people. 

The women call themselves the Bai El, meaning wealthy people” in Kyrgyz. What began as a group of women focused on growing vegetables has evolved into a handicraft producers group. The ten women producers are from the village of Kulanak, whose name refers to the white onager, a wild equid that once roamed the area in which the community now lives. The women range in age, from 28 to 53 years old. The leader of the group is shayyr ezhe, the eldest of the women. All of the women have been trained in their skills and participate in various fairs and festivals where they exhibit and sell their products. 

The village sits at 2 000 metres, at the foot of the mountains. The harsh climate of the area limits inhabitants’ activities. The bitterly cold winters, with temperatures as low as -40 C, make it difficult for residents to leave their homes. The women work in a derelict room of the towns old cultural centre, which becomes inhabitable in these cold winters. As a result, the group is forced to cease their activities during winter, hampering their ability to fill orders on a year-round basis. The women produce the scarves mainly in spring and summer so that the scarves can dry in the warm air. 

The Bai El Self-Help Group is a member of the Agency of Development Initiatives (ADI), a network of community-based organizations. ADI supports its members in getting access to economic resources and in running effective income-generating activities in rural areas. The women of the Bai El Self-Help Group work in challenging conditions but are optimistic and hopeful, appreciating the teamwork and the opportunities the scarf-making creates for them to support their families. 

Producer Meerim Jakypova says, You dont have to leave your home and move to bigger cities to find work to feed your children. Working with the Village Fund gives us hope and confidence in the future.

Photo from the Topchu Art Group

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