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Two adults sit on the floor while holding each other and smiling at the camera. They are dressed in traditional outerwear from Kyrgyzstan.

Aidai Asangulova (left), an artisan from Kyrgyzstan, specializes in felt making and embroidery. She works to revive traditional Kyrgyz embroidery, particularly costume, headdresses, and nearly forgotten embroidery techniques.

Photo by Salkyn Adysheva

  • Craftswomen of Kyrgyzstan’s “Felt World” Lead a Cultural Revival

    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 series, we share the stories and cultures of the people who participated in the lookbook.

    “Kiyiz Duino—it’s really such a philosophical name,” said Aidai Asangulova from across the world in her studio in Bishkek, Kyrgyzstan. Asangulova, a felt artist and designer, was explaining the name of her public fund for Kyrgyz cultural preservation. “Kiyiz, this means felt. Duino means world. Felt world. This is because Kyrgyz people experience life and birth on felt. And when the Kyrgyz buried their dead, they would wrap them in white felt.”

    The Kyrgyz people are part of a Turkic ethnic group that makes up most of the population of Kyrgyzstan—the Central Asian nation bordered by Kazakhstan, Uzbekistan, Tajikistan, and China. For centuries, the people of Kyrgyzstan have believed that felt possesses supernatural powers. Nomadic Kyrgyz women, for example, would put felt rugs under the feet of returning warriors to bring them peace after battle. Today, it is no question that modern artisans share their ancestors’ reverence for the material. Tenderly holding up a small tuft of white wool to the camera, Asangulova expressed her own respect for this special fabric.

    “Much of Kyrgyz life is connected with felt, which is why our fund’s name honors this cultural aspect of the Kyrgyz traditional livelihood.”

    The multipurpose nature of felt also makes it an efficient material for everyday use. Since the Iron Age, Kyrgyz nomads have employed felt to insulate and protect their circular mobile dwellings called yurts. Like felt, yurts transcend their utilitarian function: Dinara Chochunbaeva, a craft expert from Kyrgyzstan, writes that the yurt is “not just a physical object of aesthetic value but … a part of a sacral environment, a model of the universe.” Ultimately, felt provides physical protection from the harsh mountainous elements and spiritual protection from evil.

    An adult stands in traditional outerwear from Kyrgyzstan. The outerlayer is made of felt. The top is red and it blends into dark colors near the bottom.
    A model wears felt outerwear by Farzana Sharshenbieva, an artisan from Kyrgyzstan who uses a combination of silk and felt to create uniquely textured surfaces. Her family has nine UNESCO certificates, a record in Central Asia.
    Photo courtesy of Salkyn Adysheva

    Around 130 BCE, felt took on yet another function—an economic one. Felt products were one of the main goods traded on the Silk Road, and later during the Russian Empire, to sustain the livelihood of Kyrgyz nomads. Today, the spiritual, material, and economic importance of felt make it a symbol of national pride in Kyrgyzstan and an art form of international acclaim: the ala-kiyiz and shyrdak rugs, two forms of traditional felt carpets, were inscribed into the UNESCO List of Intangible Cultural Heritage in 2012. The Smithsonian’s new publication Women Artisans of Central Asia: A Lookbook Journey features more examples of felting, weaving, and craft making from Kyrgyzstan.

    As a felt designer and community organizer, Asangulova exemplifies Kyrgyzstan’s recent cultural roots revival. She was born in 1978 in the Issyk-Kul region, just a few years after Soviet authorities chose her home village, Kyzyl-Tuu, to become a production center for boy uz (yurts).

    “Almost every house made boy uz,” she recalled. “If a small schoolboy started cleaning the wood, then a wife would help with some kind of weaving, then someone else would be felting something, and all of the sudden everyone would be taken up with yurt preparation.”

    A row of mulitcolored felt rugs. A few of the rugs have white backgrounds with designs of red, blue, or brown.
    Shyrdak rugs made by craftswoman Burul Zhakypova from the region of Naryn, Kyrgyzstan.
    Photo courtesy of Salkyn Adysheva

    Asangulova grew up among a vibrant community of women artisans whose skills in felting, weaving, sewing, and embroidery were integral for yurt production. As a child, her first passion was embroidering patterns on small scraps of felt that her father brought home from nearby wool factories. Traditional Kyrgyz embroidery, almost exclusively done by women, includes an array of meaningful patterns. For instance, the embroidery on an ak-kalpak, a national Kyrgyz men’s hat made of white felt, often signifies the wearer’s age. The ak-kalpak embroiderer also transmits her wishes and dreams for her son or husband through her patterns. Some of the most popular designs include the sun and the moon (for life and fertility), kochkor muyuz (ram’s horns for prosperity and bravery), and tumar (a triangular amulet for protection against evil).

    Tumar is also the name of a well-known art salon in Bishkek, the capital city of Kyrgyzstan, which serves as a hub for felt design and craft making. Craftswoman Asyl Kasymbekova, featured in the lookbook, works at Tumar to produce ala-kiyiz rugs with experimental felt techniques. 

    A woman leans over a felt piece on a table as she looks at the camer and smiles softly.
    Asyl Kasymbekova works at Tumar to produce ala-kiyiz rugs with experimental felt techniques.
    Photo courtesy of Salkyn Adysheva

    Many designers, including Asangulova, frequently engage with these artistic, cooperative spaces because of a natural integration between the economic, artistic, and personal lives of women artisans. The culture of community support has been necessary for Kyrgyz people throughout their difficult history. For centuries, they maintained a nomadic lifestyle, even after their colonization into the Russian Empire in 1876. Yet after the 1917 Russian Revolution, the Soviet Union embarked on large-scale land reforms in Central Asia, which resettled the population of the newly formed Kyrgyz Soviet Socialist Republic onto collective farms. From then on, the lifestyle of Kyrgyz people shifted from nomadic to sedentary. 

    In 1991, Kyrgyzstan gained independence in the dissolution of the Soviet Union. During this time of uncertainty, traditional artisans had to adapt to completely new economic conditions that came with the transition to a market economy. When Asangulova moved to Bishkek in the late 1990s for art school, her network of fellow craftswomen, and organizations like Tumar, helped her achieve recognition as an artist. In 2002, she attended a workshop where she met craft expert Dinara Chochunbaeva, who recommended her for an international grant to support her design work. The women at Tumar helped her open a bank account to receive the grant money, which she used to purchase new supplies and pay her seamstresses a sufficient salary. 

    Chochunbaeva encouraged Asangulova to showcase her innovative silk scarves at national exhibitions. Through the force of this support, and with the opportunities provided by a growing international interest in art from Kyrgyzstan, Asangulova’s work expanded into her high-fashion brand, AIDAI design, and her local organization, Studio Bukon. She named this studio after her grandmother, Bukon, who also worked as an embroiderer and craftswoman.

    Three women look at the camera and smile in orange felt outerwear. There are light green scarves on their arms.
    Jackets and scarves designed by Asangulova in 2007. The felt jackets use a pattern reminiscent of kochkor muyuz (ram’s horns).
    Photo by Aidai Asangulova
    An arm reaches over a light blue felt piece. The piece is flat and divided into blue squares. Each blue square has a yellow marking outlined by a black square. The arm is wrapped in some of the material.
    One of Asangulova’s earlier designs from 2004 depicts her unique blend of silk and felt fabrics.
    Photo by Aidai Asangulova
    An adult walks down a runway while wearing outerwear by AIDAI designs. The long garment is green. The model also wears a blue scarf.
    Felt designs from Asangulova’s high-fashion brand, AIDAI designs, exhibited at Kyrgyzstan fashion week in 2017.
    Photo by Aidai Asangulova

    Today, Asangulova focuses on the preservation and revival of Kyrgyzstan’s traditional culture—specifically traditional costumes. In 2009, with support from an American NGO, she launched an official project to increase international recognition of the ak-kalpak. Made specifically by women artisans, the white felt of the ak-kalpak represents the snowy peak of a mountain. By wearing this sacred hat, a man embodies the purity, sacredness, and power of the mountains and his nomadic ancestors. 

    As Asangulova spoke to me about the project, her expression conveyed an unshakeable admiration for the cultural tradition of her people: “The most important thing is respect for the ak-kalpak headdress, because if a person respects himself, he wears the headdress in a different way. It’s not just a headdress—it’s a whole ritual, a whole culture, a whole craft connected to it.” 

    In 2010, Asangulova founded her public fund for cultural preservation, Kiyiz Duino—felt world. She realized the dire necessity of cultural preservation when organizing a festival honoring felt-making traditions in her hometown. Ideally, she wanted the villagers to model their own traditional costumes that had been passed down through the family. But it turned out there were no such costumes to wear. 

    As Asangulova explains, people from Kyrgyzstan had no chance to preserve their traditions under the harsh hand of the Soviet state. Forced collectivization and the push for mass productivity required a switch to clothing that was compatible with manual labor and sedentary agriculture, instead of nomadic life. Most traditional cultural attire lost its purpose, while some jewelry and all traditional braids were forbidden. Even if the villagers remembered the traditional costumes of their youth, there were hardly any practitioners to recreate them.

    In 2019, Asangulova’s Kiyiz Duino fund successfully initiated the ak-kalpak into the UNESCO List of Intangible Cultural Heritage. The recognition of the elechek female headdress followed in 2023. I asked Asangulova about the importance of this accomplishment. 

    “We have a great Epic of Manas, you know? It’s the longest one on planet Earth, and we have living narrators of the epic. And people from other countries—if they know that there is such a country, Kyrgyzstan, with such a cultural heritage, that they have Manas, a male and female headdress, and so on, they see that this is the identity of our people.”

    An adult and two young children are dressed in traditional garments from Kyrgyzstan. They smile at the camera against a black background.
    Traditional Kyrgyz attire, featuring Asangulova in the center wearing an elechek headdress.
    Photo courtesy of Tabyldy Kadyrbekov

    For the future, Asangulova imagines a grand ethnographic museum featuring the culture of Kyrgyzstan built on the very soil of the nation. It must, she says, “preserve traditional knowledge as it was in olden days—work only in the roots.” She believes that this museum and its ethnographers must not only theorize culture but be practitioners of it. It would immortalize tradition and reinvigorate it. Asangulova is now assembling a team of young researchers to stand by her side, incorporating the next generation into her networks of artisans. 

    However, new and old obstacles continue to challenge the path toward Kyrgyzstan’s traditional cultural revival. On one hand, globalization and transnational art markets have increased the visibility of traditional art and elevated demand for modern iterations on traditional fashion, like Asangulova’s silk-and-felt designs. Artisans use these opportunities for greater income to build local and sustainable businesses and to empower their communities. However, the post-Soviet state of Kyrgyzstan provides no support for cultural heritage or preservation, which makes it difficult for organizations and designers to maintain their grassroots work without international funding.

    Furthermore, Asangulova says it is difficult to get younger generations interested in their cultural heritage. Because of the longtime cultural repression, outward migration, and lack of government initiatives for cultural education, not enough young people are committed to staying and learning about tradition. Kiyiz Duino sustains itself mostly through craft workshops, but Asangulova says that most of the attendees are over forty years old. This generation is usually “Soviet kids, Soviet people, who seek some kind of reminder of the past.” To bridge the generational gap, Asangulova’s work aims to bring traditional culture into the present.

    According to Asangulova, the situation is critical: “A lot of things … have been lost, and we are about to break the thread of our connection with the carriers of traditional knowledge.” The uncertainty of Kyrgyzstan’s cultural future recalls the very beginning of Asangulova’s journey, when she was a twenty-one-year-old woman who had just moved away to the capital. “I didn’t even know where I was going to go or what was going to happen to me, but God took pity on me, guided me, made sure I met the right people, that I went to the right place.” 

    Twenty years later, she holds her faith as close as ever, saying on the phone that even now, there must have been some higher reason for the two of us to meet.

    An adult who is dressed in traditional garments from Kyrgyzstan stands outside and looks past the camera. A group of adults stand on a hill in the background.
    Aidai Asangulova, featured in a short film called Taberik by Kyrgyz filmmaker Aibek Baiymbetov.
    Photo courtesy of Aibek Baiymbetov

    Spirit, artistry, and goodwill seem to be the elements which unite these women artists from Kyrgyzstan—they’re almost as powerful as their support for each other. Asangulova’s successes and challenges are the direct results of a complex network and history that intertwines her ancestors, her community, and her nation. 

    Summarizing her life’s work, Asangulova ended our conversation by saying, “If at least one person, one thing, is revived, then that is our purpose. And that’s the type of work we want to do.”

    Sofia Doroshenko is an intern at the Center for Folklife and Cultural Heritage and a student at Georgetown University with an interest in the culture and politics of Eastern Europe and Eurasia. 

    The interview for this article was conducted in Russian and translated into English. Special thank you to Aidai Asangulova.

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