Naryn Region - Of the 7 regions of the Kyrgyzstan, Naryn region is famous for its unique felt carpets, Issyk-Kul region - for the production of the best yurts (portable nomadic dwelling) in the country. It is the largest and at the same time the most sparsely populated province of Kyrgyzstan with a population of about 300 thousand people. Cold, long winters do not allow farming, but it is a favorable environment for cattle breeding. The Great Silk Road passed through the territory of the Naryn region: trade caravans went from Kashgar (in the present territory of China) to the Ferghana Valley (now - the territory of Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan and Uzbekistan).
The creation of felt products, mainly felt shyrdak and ala-kiyiz carpets, is the main type of craft activity in all five districts of the Naryn region. Alakiyiz is performed using the technique of lumping a patterned composition into the background of a carpet; Shyrdak is performed using the mosaic and applique technique, when patterns are cut from colored layers of felt, then stitched together, or sewn over the main background of the carpet. The traditional felt carpet Shyrdak has become the brand of Kyrgyzstan, which is in demand in the local and tourist markets, and exported to many countries of the world. Almost all artisans recognized as the best shyrdak makers are living in Naryn province.
The art of making the traditional Kyrgyz felt carpets ala-kiyiz and shyrdak was inscribed by UNESCO in 2012 into the List of Intangible Cultural Heritage in Need of Urgent Protection.
Although the Shyrdak, thanks to its unique quality and aesthetic characteristics, has received international recognition as an export commodity and cultural brand of Kyrgyzstan, there is a real danger of its disappearance due to the number of craftsmen who know how to produce the shyrdak is decreasing rapidly. The older generation is leaving, taking the culture of felt carpet production with them, in addition to the knowledge and skills of the creation and decoding the patterns.
For the Kyrgyz, the art of felt making has ancient roots, and is known to exist as early as the first millennium BC, when a range of products, processing methods and patterns evolved. The pinnacle of Kyrgyz felt art is the ornamental felt carpets Alakiyiz and Shyrdak. They were the important element in every household, with aesthetic and magical markings, but also indicated geographic regions and tribal clans. They symbolized the concept of well-being, prosperity and peace. As an art form, the felt carpets production in Kyrgyzstan has developed continuously over centuries.
In nomadic life, the process of making felt and felted carpets was a socializing event and unifying factor. It is labor intensive and involves many stages of meticulous preparation, requires time and effort. Production involved the entire family, and sometimes relatives and neighbors.
The technical process of felting was accompanied by ritual meals, as well as tales of legendary women whose experience and skills were recalled, while working together. Although men do partake in the process of shearing sheep and other work, women performed the initial processing of the wool and production of felt - dyeing, preparation of threads and yarns, the cutting of patterns from felt sheets and sewing them together. The creative component of the process: creation of the ornament, composition and color combinations was also the women’s prerogative. Historically, the Shyrdaks were not intended for sale, but were handed down from generation to generation, ensuring the sacred, ancestral memory of the mother. Therefore the distinct features and ornamentation of each original piece reflected the individuality of the women who created them. It was a matter of honor for every mother to make a shyrdak for each of her children. Also, according to tradition, the bride’s mother makes a shyrdak for her daughter’s dowry. Sometimes the bride herself is involved in the making process. During the wedding ceremony, the shyrdak is shown to the groom’s relatives, accompanied by an explanation of the wishes and blessings embedded in the patterns and solemnly presented to the bride and groom. The newlyweds are required to keep and use it in the course of their long and happy lives. Shyrdaks were also gifted on other special occasions such as house warming celebrations and birth of a child.
Pattern plays a key role in the Shyrdak. In addition to a decorative function, pattern holds encoded information and magical features. It’s function as a protective device is well known. One of the most common ornamental motifs, the triangle (tumar), as well as the black and white “suu-water” border motif, is widely considered to be a talisman that protects from the evil eye. Pattern is also a visualization of blessings and wishes for wellbeing by the artisan, which can be directed toward a specific person. For example, toward a daughter who is about to get married, other relatives, friends or offspring – children or grandchildren. Not every artisan has the knowledge and ability to create and read the patterns, but artisans who are able to do this enjoy particular respect and admiration. At times you can find such craftsmen among men as well. Artisans with this talent are recognized and often invited to create an exclusive designs. More often than not their patterns are copied by other craftsmen.
Felt (pressed sheep’s wool) is the basis of Kyrgyz life. From ancient times, the Kyrgyz were born on felt in felt yurts, wore felt clothes, used felt as a shroud for burial. Felt not only saved people from cold and heat, but, according to traditional ideas, protected it from evil spirits and enemy forces. On a white felt they raised a khan, proclaiming his reign.
Felt rugs are the byproduct of animal husbandry. Today shepherds may have as many as 500 sheep in one herd. The quality of the felt depends on the quality of the fleece, which in turn depends on the breed of sheep and condition of the pasture. Thus, the modern day Kyrgyz continues to be dependent on the state of the environment and the preservation of nature. The raw material for the manufacture of felt products is the wool of local Kyrgyz sheep, which is best suited for the production of carpet products. Fine wool (merino) and half-fine wool (mestizo) breeds are also used. This wool is used for the production of felt clothes and accessories, toys, souvenirs. In the manufacture of felt products, artisans use traditional technologies: felting, mosaic, applique. In recent years, the Kyrgyz artisans began to use relatively new techniques: flicking and nuno-felt.
Contemporary Kyrgyz craftsmen, producing the felt artisanal products for local, touristic and
international markets, work individually, within the family groups or in co-operatives. Felt
products manufactured by Naryn artisans are bought by local residents, tourists, and sales
agencies, which re-sell them through a retail and wholesale distribution network, as well as
through touristic organizations in Kyrgyzstan and abroad. Felt products are exported to
Kazakhstan, Turkey, European countries, USA, Australia. Recently, artisans and intermediaries have successfully mastered sales through social networks.
Accurate statistics on the artisans of the region and even Kyrgyzstan do not exist. According to rough estimates of crafts organizations, more than 700 artisans are engaged in the production of felt products in the Naryn region.
The transfer of traditional craft knowledge and skills from the older generation to the younger
takes place in the family. Craftsmen, as a rule, are trained in the primary processing of wool and the manufacture of felt, and also get acquainted with patterns from older family or community members. Young people also gain knowledge in specialized lyceums, as well as in the art departments of some universities. In addition, there are programs funded by international agencies, where supporting NGOs involve professional designers to train artisans for new design and marketing of felt products. Experienced artisans from the older generation are invited to train artisans in traditional felt technologies.
Trade in handicraft felt products is carried out by the artisans themselves from home, from the workshop, or in markets in places visited by tourists. Trading is usually carried out by leaders of craft groups or cooperatives, or their authorized members. Also, intermediary organizations: business or NGO.
Traditional crafts are an integral part of the tourism industry. Felt products: rugs for the interior and picnic, interior items, clothes and accessories, toys and souvenirs are readily bought by foreign tourists. Workshops on the manufacture of felt provided by craft groups are included in the program of almost all travel companies. Art of the local producers of the felt carpets and other items are demonstrated in the Naryn ethnographic museum and Art Gallery.
The artisans are mainly engaged in marketing of their products themselves, by participating in the annual international festival of traditional culture and crafts “Oimo” (since 2006), the annual national festival “Kyrgyz Shyrdagi” (since 2008), and other exhibitions and fairs outside of country. Also, they are exporting felt products all over the world. Many artisans and craftsmen, both independent and biased, work with artisans producing felt products.
The promotion of felt art is carried out by various organizations in support of traditional culture and crafts, craft associations and public foundations. There are projects in the country that support artisans and, in particular, manufacturers of felt products, implemented by local NGOs such as CACSARC-kg, ИСУР, ЦАСКИ and others. Projects are funded by international agencies GIZ, HELVETAS, USAID, UNDP etc.