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In Kyrgyzstan, a Feeling for Felt

TOL video: Nomadic tradition makes a mark in haute couture, and in Kyrgyz women’s economic lives.

by Dina Tokbaeva 15 March 2012

For generations, felt has been woven into Kyrgyz life, used by nomadic women to make yurts, colorful carpets and embroideries, and everyday clothes for their families. In modern Kyrgyzstan, where the garment trade accounts for 60 percent of exports, traditional products of pressed and dyed wool have become big business, an economic driver whose impact is felt from rural villages to chic urban shops.


Wool production in the country doubled from 2006 to 2010, according to the national statistics office, and some 300,000 Kyrgyz women now work full- or part-time in the garment trade. Felt-making provides one of the few paths to economic independence for women outside major cities. With many men in such communities unable to find work unless they go abroad as migrants, felt increasingly provides a sole or primary source of income for rural families.


For thousands of women, the road begins with small-scale, home-made production – turning out several felt toys or small accessories a month, for example – with an eye to building up a business. Many find they are not cut out for entrepreneurship, but there are also numerous success stories. Bishkek and other cities have seen an explosion of felt workshops and salons, and Kyrgyz felt artists have begun making international waves. Three of them – Dilbar Ashymbaeva, Tatiana Vorotnikova, and Burul Mambetova – were invited to take part in the Ethical Fashion Show in Paris in September, the first time Kyrgyzstan has been represented at the event.


Such exposure added to the designers’ growing international cache. Ashymbaeva, who opened one of Bishkek’s first designer showrooms in 2004, counts American billionaire Christy Walton, co-owner of the Wal-Mart retail chain, among her customers, and Vorotnikova outfits the Russian opposition politician Irina Khakamada, helping create a fashionable global profile for a craft with deep Kyrgyz roots.


Dina Tokbaeva is a journalist in Bishkek.

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