Tumar, a modern Kyrgyz felt atelier, produces all manner of felt from ethnographic horse trappings to simple, contemporary shoes. Their motivation is as much cultural as it is economic. Tumar’s three co-founders sought to elevate the quality of Kyrgyz felt to its historic glory, while at the same time incorporate contemporary design, in order to create livelihoods in the wake of Soviet disintegration in 1991.
Art GroupTumar, a leader in contemporary design in Kyrgyzstan, has been a presence in Bishkek for almost 15 years. Last summer Chinara Makashova, the stalwart director and leading force of what has become a sizeable enterprise, opened a sleek new gallery in the center of the city that more than tripled their former space. Tumar’s beginnings, however, were humble.
The years following Kyrgyz independence in 1991 were difficult ones. No longer able to rely on the structure of the crumbling Soviet economy, many were suddenly unemployed. Without work or prospects for the future, Makashova, together with her mother and aunt, purchased the fleece of one sheep (a mere six kilos after washing and carding) and began to experiment with the production of colorfully patterned felt balls. Orders followed, as did hats and shoes, then carpets and clothing… coats, scarves and gloves. United by their love of traditional handiwork, they forged ahead and in 1999, opened the first shop, Tumar Art Salon in Bishkek.
Makashova relates: “We wanted to breathe new life into traditional felt products and refused to accept that despite having a centuries-old culture of producing felt products, a high quality felt manufacturing industry did not exist in Kyrgyzstan. So it was not a coincidence that Tumar started precisely with felt.”
The main purpose of the Art Group Tumar is the preservation and revival of Kyrgyz national applied art, and the development of a modern idiom through design and product development. The Art Group Tumar unifies artists, designers, craftsmen throughout the country, who create highly imaginative, well designed products based on the national crafts of Kyrgyzstan. This is accomplished in conjunction with the design studio “Temir kanat”, an offshoot of Art Group Tumar composed of architects and designers. Today the company employs 150 people, of which ninety per cent are women, in nineteen private production workshops, with high quality felt accounting for eighty per cent of all production. This year a large, new felt workshop was opened in a Bishkek suburb, where artisans make brilliant pieced and quilted shyrdak carpets for yurts and large rooms, expanding their production capability enormously.
Marketing Tumar’s high quality products can be challenging. When questioned about marketing practices, Makashova explained that they do little advertising but rather make themselves known through the internet, regional craft fairs, festivals and through successful retail operations in Bishkek and Almaty, Kazakhstan. When a serious query is received, an extensive catalogue is supplied. At present they have clients in France, Switzerland, Germany, Finland, Russia, Kazakhstan, Turkey, Israel and the U.S. The obstacles to greater success include: a lack of specialized workers (especially in design, as they now have a range of products in a variety of media); a scarcity of natural resources which means expensive importation of raw materials from abroad; and high bank interest rates (which can range from thirty to forty percent) even on shirt term loans to cover material purchasing for large orders.
Intense price pressure from other felt-producing countries like Nepal is one of the greatest stumbling blocks, despite the fact that felt is not native to Nepal. While they may find lower prices, designers from abroad who head to Nepal for production face numerous problems. They must be lucky enough to find a group with a sound track record, and often need to remain in-country to oversee initial orders. This is not the case with Tumar. Because contemporary design is understood, and technique is flawless, they are able to make samples independently (and to spec) and once approved, start production, complete orders and ship to their clients. Email and telephone are all you need, in most cases, to do business with Tumar. It’s also worth mentioning that Tumar goes to great effort to clean the fleece to avoid infestation, and to use colorfast dyes to avoid bleeding.
Design and innovation are at the forefront of the Tumar philosophy. They are constantly researching trends in European and US books and periodicals, both in home furnishings and fashion, as well as combing designer websites. According to Makashova, the next steps in their development would be collaboration with foreign designers and the organization of a wholesale business with art galleries and shops in Europe and the US.
Plans for the future include dividing all production into two divisions. The first will be the continuation of “art products” - handcrafted designs based on Kyrgyz traditional motifs. The second and newest direction will be contemporary design, based on simple forms with most of the technology mechanized. Makashova expects to release a catalogue of these products within the next year. With their keen contemporary aesthetic, coupled with flawless craftsmanship and rich traditions, we look forward to seeing Tumar’s future unfold.
Author Christine Martens is an independent scholar specializing in Central Asian textiles and their connections to oral traditions and rituals. For more information about Tumar, please visit www.tumar.com.