Designers in Kyrgyzstan are doing wonderful things with felt these days. On a May afternoon in Bishkek, I visited the atelier of Aidai Asangulova, on the city’s outskirts. There, I was blown away by fluttering silk scarves, dramatically structured felt wraps, and a hum of activity in the modest workroom.
Colors here were subtle or bold, the feel of the fabrics soft or sturdy, the designs innovative. There were other items too: accessories fashioned from felty leftovers, floor mats made of felt rings, fingerless wrist warmers, and hats. Many items of Kyrgyz felt were already spoken for, destined for shoppers in North America or Europe. Others would find their way into high-end craft shops in Central Asian capitals.
Aidai introduced us to the specialist responsible for ensuring quality results for every batch of wool run through the dye process, and the two women posed before a clothesline draped with saffron-hued skeins of wool drying in the sun.
With the help of her assistants, Aidai also demonstrated how dyed wool is felted and worked into floral shapes, circles and other patterns. They showed us how they layer it with silk, preferably from Fergana, to achieve impressive results. The process is akin to Nuno felting, but as developed by Aida, is distinctively soft in texture, feather-light weight and precisely patterned.
After showing us around, Aidai served genuine espresso (not generally available in the places I’ve been in Central Asia) and cookies while we tried on hats and wrapped ourselves in silks. Shopping bliss.
Near the end of my stay in Kyrgyzstan, after learning more about the country’s centuries-long tradition of felt-making and needlework—and hearing more about silk weaving in the Fergana Valley, shared with Uzbekistan—I stopped in at Tumar’s Bishkek outlet.
More of Aidai’s work was on offer there, only these items were different and the prices higher than at the atelier: nifty shoulder wraps with ties, boldly patterned hand-bags, and felt pins to match. They fit right in with the wall hangings, lampshades and other up-market goods on display. There was serious fashion sense at play here.
I could not resist bringing home a spotted bag that somehow feels Swiss to me, along with a couple of the shoulder wraps. They have already proved perfect for summer evenings here.
To see more beautiful scarves available for ordering online, visit the website of AIDAI, a social enterprise venture spearheaded by Vista 360º, a US non-profit based in Jackson, Wyoming. Since 2004, the project has promoted social enterprises in mountain regions around the world.
Aidai herself gives back to her community of Kyrgyz artisans near Issy Kul Lake. In August, the foundation she created to develop arts-and-crafts tourism in her hometown of Kyzyl Tuu will hold the first ever “Kyiyz Duino” festival there. It will center on felt craft and the nomadic traditions central to Kyrgyz life.