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A woman wearing a patterned white blouse and lacey white headscarf works on a vertical loom with thread in one hand and a wooden tool in the other.

Mereke Aidarsha is one of ten artisans from Kazakhstan showcased in the Center’s Women Artisans of Central Asia: A Lookbook Journey.

Photo courtesy of Alexey Malchenko

  • Weaving Through Kazakhstan’s Cultural Heritage

    This article is part of a series that supports the Women Artisans of Central Asia: A Lookbook Journey project. Over the past year, the Center has collaborated with partners in Central Asia to document the craft practices of fifty women-run artisan enterprises across Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan, and Uzbekistan. Through the magazine series, we share the stories of the people and cultures that participated in the lookbook.

    Oftentimes, ordinary moments can sprout interests that lead to a life calling. This is the case for Kazakh textile artist Mereke Aidarsha, who smiles as she shares memories of watching her family weave when she was young.

    “I remember my mother and grandmother, when I was five years old, weaving a carpet in the village I grew up in,” Aidarsha says. “I had one of their carpets hanging above my bed. There were five other young girls in my family. All six of us were taught felt making and flat weaving.”

    Felting and weaving are traditions rooted in the nomadic lifestyle of Central Asian people, including Kazakhs, Tajiks, and Uzbeks. Though felting goes back thousands of years, it remains one of the most popular and recognized craft traditions in Kazakhstan and surrounding countries. Common Kazakh carpets include the tus kiiz, an embroidered wall hanging; tekemet, a felt rug using a technique of placing and pressing wool; and syrmak; a stitched felt rug with mosaic designs. One of Aidarsha’s specialties is the alasha, a flat carpet typically woven on a narrow loom that is used for both walls and floors.

    “Felting is a point of pride and interest for most citizens of Kazakhstan,” Aidarsha says. “Practiced by our ancestors, it’s part of our heritage.”

    An elaborate, larger-than-life carpet starts with one simple ingredient: wool. Tufts of wool, typically from sheep, are washed, prepared, and sometimes dyed. In felting, these fibers are laid on a mat, reflecting the artist’s vision and final product. Then, the wool is soaked with hot water or solution and rubbed together or rolled. Imagine how a wool sweater will shrink in a washing machine—this is similar to how wool fibers will shrink together during this stage. Then the felt dries flat. Sometimes the product may be finished with needle felting, using an unthreaded needle to poke and compact the fibers.

    A woman sits on the floor, unfolding a large gray and white patterned carpet, with other carpets in reds and blues beneath her and behind her on the wall. On either side stand large wooden looms with woven carpets in progress.
    Aidarsha lays out a large syrmak while surrounded by other pieces of her work. Hanging on the wall behind is a pile carpet, one of the oldest types of carpets in the world.
    Photo courtesy of Alexey Malchenko
    Close-up on a hand, wearing a large silver ring, leading a wooden shuttle through alternating white threads on a loom.
    Aidarsha learned how to weave from the women in her family. The tradition was passed down from generation to generation.
    Photo courtesy of Alexey Malchenko
    Close-up on a pair of hands adorned with silver jewelry stitching a white applique and light gray fabric with needle and thread.
    Here Aidarsha finishes a textile piece with a quilting technique.
    Photo courtesy of Alexey Malchenko

    Felt making is time consuming, requiring patience, creativity, and a keen eye. But authentic products from Kazakhstan made with local materials like wool are growing in demand.  

    “I feel good about the future because there is a growing interest for authentic art that represents a piece of Kazakhstan,” Aidarsha says. “People want things that show our culture, and they want products made with natural and simple resources. Only traditional craft can provide this type of connection.”

    Though other crafts—such as ceramics and woodworking—play an important role in Kazakhstan’s heritage, no other handicraft holds such a fundamental place in the country’s history as working with felt. It is linked to all corners of Kazakh life. Yurts, the traditional dwellings, are covered in felt. The interiors of these spaces are often layered with tekemets and decorated with baskurs—a patterned woven felt braid. For centuries, Kazakhs have incorporated felt into their homes, clothes, decorations, and livelihoods.

    But felt craft is one on a list of traditions that have come under threat due to historical and modern-day geopolitical strife. From 1936 to 1991, Kazakhstan was part of the Soviet Union, and many of its traditions were either banned or greatly restrained. Additionally, since the creation of modern technologies and the spread of globalization, most felt products have become decorative instead of necessary. But that has not lessened their importance in connecting the country’s population and global audience to its ancient heritage.

    “When I started, things were different,” Aidarsha says. “There wasn’t as much interest in investing in our craft. But today, many more people, especially the younger generation, understand the importance of keeping our way of life alive.”

    A woman sits on the floor, working on a large vertical loom. Skeins of yarn hang over her in natural shades of red, orange, brown, ochre, light green, and pale blue.
    Aidarsha sits on a rug as she begins weaving felt yarn on a large loom. Eventually, this will be a large, intricate felt carpet.
    Photo courtesy of Alexey Malchenko

    Aidarsha began her path as a textile artist when she attended the Khoja Akhmet Yassawi International Kazakh-Turkish University, a professional art school named after a Central Asian visionary and poet from the twelfth century. The school is located in Turkestan, a southern city in Kazakhstan and the capital of the country’s Turkestan Region.

    “I graduated college in 2003 and began teaching at a university. Sometimes, I would create projects for people who knew me. These orders eventually inspired me and gave me the confidence I needed to think, ‘I can do this. I can be a professional artist who creates and sells work.’”

    Turkestan has become a hub for multidisciplinary arts, and in recent years, local and central governments have created new resources for supporting craftworkers. In 2013, with the help of a government grant, Aidarsha took a leap in opening her own studio. By 2023, she had opened a larger studio and was invited to represent Kazakh felt traditions at the 2023 Smithsonian Folklife Festival, as part of the Soul of Tengri: Kazakh Traditions and Rituals program. This opportunity allowed her to showcase her wares while also supporting other artisans from Kazakhstan.

    By bringing together professional training and her family’s craft knowledge, Aidarsha has become a felt maker and weaver who takes part in every step of production. She processes local wool, hand-dyes yarn, and creates the final pieces found covering every inch of her workshop. She also supports lesser-known craft, such as chiy straw weaving.

    She pays attention to colors and patterns, ensuring her work is an accurate reflection, if a modern take, on authentic Kazakh symbolism.

    Two felt textiles hanging. On the left, a mandala design with floral and geometric shapes in bright colors. On the right, a horned animal like a deer in the center of a blue circle, with rays that radiate outward like the sun, toward four figures in the corners: another deer, a spiral, a hunter with a bow and arrow, and a human with a circle shape going through their head, all in cool pastel colors.
    Two examples of tekemets by Aidarsha
    Photo courtesy of Alexey Malchenko
    Two felt textiles hanging. On the left, a mandala design with floral and geometric shapes in bright colors. On the right, a horned animal like a deer in the center of a blue circle, with rays that radiate outward like the sun, toward four figures in the corners: another deer, a spiral, a hunter with a bow and arrow, and a human with a circle shape going through their head, all in cool pastel colors.
    An example of chiy made in collaboration with Aidarsha’s students. When it sells, the original artist will get a commission for the work.
    Photo courtesy of Mereke Aidarsha

    Aidarsha believes the interest in authentic Kazakhstan handicrafts has been growing not just because of tourism. Though many of her customers are foreigners—mainly Americans and Germans who find her on Instagram—she has seen an uptick in local customers and, more importantly, young artists looking for guidance.

    “I have always continued to teach students who are interested in weaving and craft work, but more and more, students are reaching out to me to collaborate. Sometimes, a student of mine will create something and put it in my studio. Other times, I provide more guidance on the creation. Still other times, someone has a completed product, and they want to discuss selling it for a commission. The important thing is to support the artists in whatever way they need.”

    Aidarsha notes that some of her success is due to the communities in Kentau, the city where she lives, and Turkestan. There are still several areas in Kazakhstan that do not have enough societal support nor global market access to create a thriving craft community.

    As a way of empowering and collaborating with female artisans across Central Asia, the Smithsonian’s Center for Folklife and Cultural Heritage created Women Artisans of Central Asia: A Lookbook Journey, a bilingual print and digital resource available in English and Russian that showcases the knowledge and skills of women craftworkers including Aidarsha. This project was implemented with support from the USAID Trade Central Asia Activity and the Commercial Law Development Program of the U.S. Department of Commerce.

    This effort was a complex undertaking that included engaging and training artisans from Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan, and Uzbekistan. Training included lessons on market-trend analysis, product development, social media marketing, and more, as well as building community among the participants.

    Hopefully, the lookbook can inspire a new generation of artisans to commit to their craft.

    “It’s hard when I spend hours of time helping someone who says, ‘I want to learn,’ only for them to quit after a few weeks. That time feels wasted. But the feeling of accomplishment when a student becomes exceptional cannot be replaced. I am proud that I became a good artist and someone who makes crafts that people desire and cherish. I am proud that I can represent Kazakhstan in this way.”

    A woman wearing an embroidered white blouse and white headwrap holds up a slender woven textile in white and muted red. Behind her hangs a carpet with animal design in red, blue, and white.
    Photo courtesy of Alexey Malchenko

    Kirby Ewald is the strategic communications coordinator for the Center’s Cultural Vitality Program. She manages project communications plans and supports Center-wide communication efforts.

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