Visiting the Kyrgyz village where traditional Shrydaks are made.
The workshop is in the home of a wonderful woman whose name I have difficulty in pronouncing and spelling (my fault)! I will come back to this post to give proper credit but Zhazgul said I could call her Eje which means grandmother.
She is seated on the left in the above image spinning wool yarn for the shyrdak trim. Eje has been making shyrdaks for over 40 years professionally. Here work has represented some of the most respected in the craft. Upon arrival Eje welcomed us into her home with tea, traditional Kyrgyz lunch complete with bread and sweet things. All spreads home made. It was lovely. I can’t express in writing how much I was touch by this woman. At this time I was stuck as how to combine into a viable product the exchange of Western and Central Asian material and making culture. She said it will come and when she finds need for inspiration she walks in nature, for Nature has all the answers for our needs. To me this typified the essence of Kyrgyz approach. Malcolm Gladwell has written about how our cultural history underpin future generation’s modern approaches. I feel this in the village.
Kalmbar, the TUMAR driver, surprised me on Day 4. He gave me a copy of this video filmed in 1979. It is of his grand father Nasyr Israilou and grandmother Sayra Israillova’s home. A nice insight into the rural Kyrgyzstan.
After seeing the production of the wool material and felt sheets we walk to quieter building, greeted at the door by prepared slippers, resting on a table before shrinking begins.
I did not realise before the trip good quality felt slippers are shrunk to be much smaller than the last size to then be stretched. Apparently this make the tangles dense, much stronger and in turn will ensure good quality in wear.
Quality, quality, quality… this is TUMAR’s approach.
Roughly six or so woman are felting around 10 or more pairs a day, with a well thought out system to suit their needs and efficiency. Including wood slatted stables where water is cause in the under table large funnel and reused best can. Reuse depending on colours. Wool is pre weighed per shoe size, laid up on plastic patterns, soaped and rolled. Interestingly the wool is laid up in cross directions for better strength. This should have been obvious to me having worked with plywood. Once the woman felt the shoes, the shoes are sent next door where men will really put some muscle into the felting and lasting of the shrunken felt. Hard work… but the staff at TUMAR have a strong work ethic as I am told most Kyrgyz people do. Machines are used for drying out and shrinking the rolled felt slippers but as for the felting – this is done by hand…and sweat! I know as I made the prototype slippers on Day 4 video…
Men’s work – heavy felting and lasting shrunken slippers…
Understanding Tumar production…including videos and images.
I resisted sleep upon my early arrival and Kalmbar our driver for the week and the lovely TUMAR marketing woman Zhazgul (image right) picked me up late morning to take me to TUMAR production. We had set a pre schedule for the trip and today was to be one filled with the production tour and discussion with Chinara, Roza (image left) and Vladimir the last maker. I did not realise then how important Zhazgul would be not just as a language interpreter as Russian was the common tongue but as someone to educate me on TUMAR and Kyrgyzstan.
TUMAR employs around 200 people. Production is set in around a courtyard full of creative activities. Along with the felt production is ceramics, cobblers for the slippers and innovation making including new design shrydaks and ala-kiyiz rugs, bags and home-wares. TUMAR Offices are off production site on the edge of the busy Osh Market. The building TUMAR offices are in was, when Kyrgyzstan was part of the Soviet Union, a Union supported centre for craftsman and artisans. The Soviets also aided in the regulation of trade between neighbouring countries. Since Kyrgyz independence in 1991, these artist and craftspeople have transferred to a more privatised model. I have immense respect for Chinara’s business vision and art direction for TUMAR. Herself, she comes from a family of felt making shrydaks and in committed to preserve the traditional skills in Central Asia.
The people who work at TUMAR and Chinara’s openness, creativity, commitment to the Central Asia crafts combined with her economic understanding and push for high quality standards, I believe is what makes TUMAR very special.
High standards are at the start of the production tour. Kyrgyz supplied ‘clean’ wool is cleaned again to bring the standards up to TUMAR expectation.
After ‘cleaning’ the wool is combed. This machine arranges the fibres and removes the shorter fibres so the fibres are longer therefore making better ‘tangles’ making the wool ultimately stronger.
From here the combed wool selected for longer fibres is laid up evenly…
For felt slippers and rolled felt products this prepared felt is used.
If making felt sheets, the wool is evenly laid up fibres are needle punched to make the felt sheets used for shrydaks rugs and sheet felt products.
From here the wool can be dyed. If small batches it might be boiled in pan or if larger a washing machine drum will be used. Dye can be natural with teas or synthetic to match a pantone colour.
Intention – Brief before the trip for the Uk market.
Initially, the intention of the project was to learn about the Kyrgyz material culture and use this approach applied to the Uk market to design woman’s wool felt, slipper like day shoes.
I envisioned I would understand better the properties and characteristics of the material, a bit of material history and production then apply this approach for a UK market. Part of the brief was to use the Kyrgyz nomadic approach of utility in modern context. To make relevant what was useful today in the UK and for woman as opposed to from a time long ago in Central Asia. I did consider pulling into the brief the Kyrgyz duality of contrast colours, of sky and earth but this was to be a more decorative consideration. I thought about on a simple level changing the Kyrgyz colour palette of the blue sky and the warm grey dry land to the British blue sky and the wet green land. But this will prove to be surface. More on this in later posts….
In my previous work in the Natural Selection work (see below), I aimed to exploit natural fibres to offer potential new constructions and design vision for a desirable future additive vision of production.
Ultimately, 3D printing natural fibres, or additively laminating up these natural fibres, then bounding the fibres with an organic, varied density material(s) and/ or varying the design structure to enable flexibility.
Part of what I saw in this project was an opportunity to understand the production and material culture of wool felt on a deeper level.
This simplification of old materials meets new processes I saw as the cure for modernising traditional nation productions and in turn modern industries could learn about raw material culture to inspire future more sustainable future productions. But what I discovered was not so simple….
A bit about Natural Selection…
In my pervious work I had designed felt shoes for woman. Before designing these shoes I had intended to address the economic and sustainable issues the footwear industry was facing by using additive production processes, meaning in this case 3D printing. I had been away from 3D print or stereolithography since the late 1990’s. In this time I was teaching design and designing fashion handbags, so coming back to this technology I assumed many advancements would have emerged. I intend to use soft, fluffy, natural materials. However this is not really available so I shifted my focus to materials which have the qualities of mass customisation and stumbled upon wool felt. From here I used a tubular construction steam formed around 3D printed moulds to suspend footbeds. The wool was impregnated with resins and shellacs to create three levels of densities.
Art group TUMAR,
was established in 1998 to preserve and develop the material culture of the Kyrgyz people through the creation and promotion of a modern, functional and high-quality craft products based on environmentally friendly, traditional and new technologies of production.
The company based in Bishkek (Kyrgyzstan), where more than 200 artists on felt, textiles and ceramics work. Art group TUMAR working closely with design studios and designers in the creation of their products. The combination of different techniques and styles, the use of natural materials, mostly felt, are the basis for the author’s implementation of creative ideas of artists and craftsmen.
TUMAR was started by the clever Chinara who directs the company. Roza Makashovna is the felt master and innovator and has been here from the start. And Chinara’s brother, the engineer, designs and customises machines to make the production run efficiently. May I note, even the German felt makers we impressed with TUMAR’s felting tables production solutions!
Tumar is a unique place, bridging the gap between new worlds and old, useful ways of making goods. Where craft was and is innovation.
As we face pressing sustainable solutions it is important to remember what we (collectively) already know about how to use our materials and resources with respect and efficiency. And this is what TUMAR is all about, evidenced in the refuse of bathtubs as sinks in the felting rooms and the beautiful felting tables with quality local hardwood slatted over a big belly funnel so water runs into buckets to be reused as needed, I could go on….
I feel TUMAR sits full circle close to the biofabication communities.
But there is a difference, TUMAR because their circumstances, quest, energy and intelligence have stayed connected to the land, to their vernacular. In turn this has kept alive a kind of spiritualism, respect and belief. Fitting the name has historical, nomadic significance…
TUMAR is a triangular-shaped amulet made of leather or felt, worn on the chest, which was sutured amulets, protecting the owner and blessing for many years. Our dream is that the art created by the people lived and prospered, and the products were stored not only the historical memory of the people, but also were “Tumar” for everyone. www.Tumar.com/en/about
Arriving in Kyrgyzstan
I left London sunday Morning and arrived early on Monday morning the 14th after roughly two flight, four hours each and a layover in Moscow.
Even at Moscow I spotted my first traditional felt hat, the Kalpak. To us this hat can look slightly comical in it’s unfamiliarity. But this older gentleman, seemed to wear it with such authenticity and even swagger as like a ‘cowboy’. Later I ask Zhazgul, who had lived in the US if my comparison had any accuracy. She said it is a conservative attire leaving me think it is more equivalent to a British flat cap. But of course with these things there are no exact comparisons.
So the magic of Kyrgyzstan begins….
Arriving with little sleep I was rolled out of arrivals greeted/mobbed by many young male taxi cab drivers with offers to take me to the hotel. None holding my name on a sign! After calling the hotel while a dozen cab drivers offered fares I was able to tell them I had a car coming. The were a bit annoying but very harmless and kind, offering me their phones to call the hotel during a prolonged wait for my taxi. A taxi I shared with an interesting Canadian woman here to moderate a conflict resolution workshop with Afghan political representatives. A very interesting woman with family originally from Lebanon. In the dawn light I started to realise I was in a very different place. A safe country full of warm, kind people with a lovely sense of humour; a young modern country of strong people with long, long nomadic history.
Their language was not written down until 1920’s! By this time the Soviets had arrived. Soviet style of governing was to Russianise the ‘Stans’ including making Russian the language of choice. Soviets drew messy boarders dividing up culture which may be down to lack of understanding or a Lenin strategy to prevent unified uprising. The result is a more diverse Kyrgyzstan with the south being more agricultural and the north more nomadic. Bishkek and Tumar are in the the north.
So imagine in the north a nomadic based culture then laid over the ‘civilisation’ of Russia and the result is the city, and architecture feels very Russian with many buildings left tired as the young Kyrgyz nation (1991) finds it’s feet. On left apartments near where I stayed and right the Natural History Museum build as the Lenin Museum in early 1980’s.
But the heart of Kyrgyz architecture is the Yurt… but more about that later.
First I need to learn how to cross the road in Bishkek as the driving and traffic are … foreign to a soft Londoner….
I would not be in Kyrgyzstan and Arts Council British Council/ Tumar project would have never happened without Liliya Serazetdinova.
Suzanne Lee of BioCouture introduced me to Liliya Serazetdinova. At the time there was only a vague idea of a project in my mind but Liliya’s cogs were turning. About a year later Liliya contacted me to see myself or any artist I knew would be interested in working on a felt project in Central Asia. I gave it a go thinking it probably would not come off as funding is always difficult. But I had no idea what a resourceful, calm and organised person Liliya was!
She did all the research into potential funding sources and suggested the Artist International Fund from The Arts Council and British Council. She sent me all the links but I was still hesitant to invest much time into writing the application. I have had so many misses and near misses with funding. Liliya kept patient, calm and BECAUSE she was so organised I slowly put in more effort.
Liliya is a rare find…she helped me with writing the application often sending me a suggested blurb of writing to make my own, to detail. She connected me with Tumar, facilitating all the sponsorship letters and took the time to research previous successful applicants to help structure what features would give the application best chance of success . She organised a potential budget and suggested research I could do once in Kyrgyzstan such as what museums to visit, how to work with Tumar to arrange visits to the nomadic villages and even best airlines to fly with.
When it came to project manager it was clear Liliya had been doing this from the start. It was a delight to hear in June out of the 189 applicants this project was one of the 34 successful ones. Liliya really listens to those of us ‘creative’ types who often don’t think in ways to secure funding and then with a calm level head makes it happen!
A collaborative footwear project with focus on Kyrgyz material culture
The Aim of the Project…
is to develop a new prototype of footwear made from felt informed by traditional felt manufacturing methods used in Kyrgyzstan for contemporary design and performance requirements in Western Europe. In other words learn about traditional Kyrgyz nomadic material culture and translate this approach for woman’s lifestyle shoes in the UK.