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From overhead, a wooden table set with a wool runner in brown and cream and four  matching wool coasters, all embroidered with a vine pattern. In the center of the table, a wooden leaf-shaped dish holds yellow rock candy and white tablets.

Photo by Murat Ataev and the TMProduction team

  • Camel Craft: A Mother-Daughter Duo Revive Turkmen Textile Traditions

    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.

    The carpet traditions of Turkmenistan are so famous, they are enshrined in the country’s flag—a stunning design that boasts a rich green background with a vertical strip of five carpet guls, unique patterns that represent different tribes. When the Smithsonian Folklife Festival featured the Silk Road in 2002, it’s no wonder that Turkmen jewelry and carpets were a prominent display on the National Mall.

    But Turkmenistan cannot be defined by a single art form. Other singular crafts, including the dutar long-necked lute and decorations for the country’s Akhal-Teke horses, are inscribed on UNESCO’s Representative List of the Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity.

    Today, mother-daughter duo Shasenem and Jennet Garlyyeva of Unique Camel Wool are just two of many artisans actively engaged in craftwork intended to revitalize—and sustain—Turkmenistan’s cultural history.

    Since 2022, Unique Camel Wool has offered products and clothing made from the hair of the desert mammal. When Jennet answered my video call, she was surrounded by her family from the company’s Ashgabat-based showroom situated just below the French bakery they also operate. Behind her were racks and shelves of products, including embroidered clothing, bags, and pillows, and walls painted with images of sand dunes and camels.

    A woman works at a round wooden table, winding brown yarn around a spool. Draped on her shoulder is a wool scarf in brown and cream.
    Shasenem Garlyyeva, along with her daughter Jennet, is actively engaged in craftwork intended to revitalize Turkmenistan’s cultural history.
    Photo by Murat Ataev and the TMProduction team
    A woman poses a brown robe and white shawl over one shoulder.
    Jennet Garlyyeva, with her mother, operates Unique Camel Wool from their headquarters in Ashgabat, Turkmenistan.
    Photo by Murat Ataev and the TMProduction team

    The camels that historically populate Turkmenistan’s Karakum Desert have long provided fiber for craftwork. While many have relied on sheep’s wool, the practice of using camel wool traces its origins to at least the fifth century.

    “It’s a very ancient, quality, traditional craft,” Jennet explained. “But after many years, it’s almost died out now. Practically no one practices it. And so, we decided that you can’t forget your culture, you can’t forget your tradition, and we started to revitalize it.”

    Jennet attributes the decline in interest in such craftwork to its inherently intensive nature. Busy people don’t necessarily have time for the laborious work of camel shearing and wool processing. Jewelry and handmade keteni silk fabric are other traditional crafts of Turkmenistan that require immense amount of time and labor. Keshde embroidery, for example, requires the artisan to incorporate silk, gold, silver, pearls, semiprecious stones, coins, and even coral to decorate skullcaps, dresses, and other pieces of clothing.

    Taking inspiration from traditional practices and designs, the women artisans of Unique Camel Wool create products imbued with a modern twist, from clothing to pillowcases. It’s likely the brand’s methods trace back to the fifth century, as many of the staff use wooden hand looms.

    “And since this technique was already dying, we consider it recoveringand reviving,” Jennet said.

    Such loomsa common feature of homes in Shasenem’s childhoodwere used in tandem with sheep’s wool to make winter carpets. But that was not the case in the time of her daughter’s childhood. With a desire to save this craft, the duo sought out artisans in villages across Turkmenistan who had retained the knowledge of loom weaving. It was from these women that Shasenem, Jennet, and the brand’s team have gained knowledge of the practice. Currently, the fifteen-plus women employed by Unique Camel Wool weave, sew, and embroider productsall by hand.

    The company incorporates silk and cotton into products, but its namesake material offers some decidedly practical characteristics. Camel wool, while a little rough to the touch (Jennet coins it an “acupuncture effect”), is incredibly warming. The animal’s hair is known to withstand severe fluctuations in desert temperatures. According to Jennet, the material is unique due to the healing capabilities that have been recognized since ancient times, with associated benefits for circulation and metabolism. Likewise, when camel wool towels are used to cover bread, the thermoregulating properties of the fiber can keep it fresh for a month, she said.

    Unique Camel Wool’s designs often incorporate symbols and ancient imagery of Turkmenistan. On our video call, she held up a pillow embroidered with a centuries-old design that can be found imprinted on leather and stones.

    “You will say this is a flower,” she says. “But this is not. These are humans.”

    Two square pillows with wool covers in brown and cream, each with a pattern of a human stick figure.
    Unique Camel Wool’s designs often incorporate both symbols and ancient imagery of Turkmenistan. This designs on this pillow are ancient Turkmen depictions of humans.
    Photo by Murat Ataev and the TMProduction team
    A woman poses wearing a dark blue embroidered dress, blue  headscarf, and holding up a shoulder bag.
    Maya Kemjayevs is part of a mother-daughter team whose knowledge of national symbols and colors have brought their work to new audiences.
    Photo by Murat Ataev and the TMProduction team

    Unique Camel Wool is only one of many craft communities in Turkmenistan that incorporate the country’s cultural symbology into exceptional craft pieces. Oguljennet and Maya Kemjayevs, another mother-daughter team featured in the lookbook, create one-of-a-kind embroidered accessories. They use traditional techniques in creating a range of products, from handbags to hair accessories, keeping their heritage alive through modern products. Various artisans in Turkmenistan merge style, heritage, and utility into their craft, fusing the traditional with the modern.

    Yet Unique Camel Wool’s goals don’t stop there. Jennet also highlighted the overarching sustainability and environmental friendliness of Unique Camel Wool’s products, which are made from one hundred percent natural materials. The biodegradable wool is handwashed without chemicals before weaving. Silk fabrics are also washed by hand, and these fibers are colored with natural dyes, including those made from turmeric and walnut. Such a focus speaks again to the intensive labor of the work. Synthetic materials, easy to come by in the modern age, are machine-made and often used to make machine-made products. The character of time-intensive weaving and other craftwork is not only historically accurate and culturally significant but more sustainable for the environment.

    “Everyone’s speaking about sustainability,” Jennet said. “And now people start to think, what is sustainable fashion? What is sustainable development? What we and each artisan do is sustainable development.”

    An emphasis on sustainability isn’t difficult to find within the craft sphere of Turkmenistan. Artisan Leyli Khaidova, who specializes in keteni silk fabric and other textiles, takes an environmentally friendly approach to her work, employing natural dyes and waste-free practices. Similarly to the team behind Unique Camel Wool, her aim simultaneously embodies cultural heritage and the preservation of tradition; the clothing she produces incorporates traditional Turkmen methods and symbols.

    “Turkmenistan is quite a small country,” Jennet says. “We have just five to six million people, but with that, we have a really old, ancient, rich history.”

    While the company’s headquarters are based in the capital city of Ashgabat, Unique Camel Wool’s reach extends across Turkmenistan. Jennet considers Unique Camel Wool to be “a social project,” creating employment opportunities where they are most needed. “We want to create new jobs for the women in villagesfor the women who can’t go outside and work.”

    Currently, Unique Camel Wool employs artisans in the cities of Mary, Bayramaly, and Kum-Dag. Camels are usually abundant in these locales. The business provides women with all raw materials needed to weave products from their homes.

    Close-up on a pair of hands twisting a piece of brown yarn.
    Photo by Murat Ataev and the TMProduction team
    Close-up on a neat stack of woven textiles in shades of brown, cream, and red.
    Photo by Murat Ataev and the TMProduction team

    According to Jennet, current interest in Unique Camel Wool’s products is stronger outside the country, especially in Europe and the United States. She concedes that its popularity is still growing in Turkmenistan, but the company continues to create products for contemporary lifestyles while retaining the country’s cultural heritage.

    “Our designs are very modern but preserve ethnic cultureethno-design,” she explained. “I’m really happy that in our country, we really saved the culturenot like other countries, we did not switch to the European style of clothing,” Jennet said. “We all still wear our national, traditional clothing. We use the symbols every day.”

    Jennet and Shasenem, both members of the Association of Designers of Turkmenistan, are two of many vibrant threads in an elaborate carpet of artisans working to preserve Turkmenistan’s cultural heritage. As we talked, they were preparing to go to the Fajr International Handicrafts and Traditional Arts Festival, an event organized by the World Craft Center, in the capital of neighboring Iran. They have also participated in the Frankfurt Ambiente, Paris Design Week, and Milan’s Fuorisalone. Many artisans see these gatherings as collaborative opportunities.

    “We have to know each other,” Jennet said. “We have to share our experience, maybe learn new things, and maybe do some jobs together.”

    “This is tradition. This is culture,” she continued. “This is actually how we should live. Each country should save their traditions.”

    Should one be curious to learn about Turkmenistan, there’s a myriad of possibilities to explore, but Jennet offers one thing to keep in mind, regardless of the starting point. In her eyes, it all boils down to artisanship.

    “Of course, everything comes down to handcrafts,” she said with a laugh.

    Nadya Ellerhorst is an intern at the Center for Folklife and Cultural Heritage and senior at the University of Delaware.

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