On a recent trip to Kyrgyzstan, I sat down with craft-entrepreneur and designer Chynara Makashova, co-founder of the TUMAR artisan group in Kyrgyzstan to discuss an initiative she started to help preserve an ancient Kyrgyz weaving technique called Gadjari.
Tumar is an amalgam of several small artisanal workshops that was started in 1998. Today it is a leading force of artisanal workmanship and production in Kyrgyzstan. This month their flagship Bishkek store is featuring a beautiful display of Gadjari weavings.
Concerned with the quickening pace of the disappearance of weaving in Kyrgyzstan, Chynara had long wanted to create a weaving workshop. The opportunity arose several years ago as Tumar was working on mastering the production of yurts (the traditional felt-based home of nomadic Kyrgyz). The felted and wooden portions of the yurt were being made, but the group was looking to develop the terme, the decorative fixings and woven bands, as well as carpets and cushions to decorate the yurt.
Chynara went out in search of weaving masters. She was told that the best weavers were the Kyrgyz from the Murgab region of Tajikistan in the high Pamir—these are Kyrgyz that are no longer living in Kyrgyzstan. Historically, many Kyrgyz herders roamed the high-mountainous territory of the Tajik and Afghan Pamir. With the fixing of nations, the Pamiri Kyrgyz ended up “stuck” in Tajikistan and Afghanistan.
However with the on-going Tajik civil war of the early 1990s, many Pamiri Kyrgyz fled Tajikistan and “returned” to Kyrgyzstan. Some of Chynara’s friends told her about the many Kyrgyz refugees who returned—entire villages moving together, and relocating to an area not far from the capital city of Bishkek—to Sokuluk.
Chynara asked some of the new refugees about traditional weaving techniques, and quickly met Aytbyubyu Apa and her family. Aytbyubyu Apa, an elderly woman who had deep traditional knowledge had mastered many of the techniques of plaiting and weaving. Aytbyubyu was teaching her skills to many of the other younger women refugees, as well as her children. She was a natural leader for Chynara’s weaving project.
Aytbyubyu and her family started to make all of the traditional yurt decorations—for Tumar’s yurts, as well as narrow bands for belts, bags, and ribbons. Chynara then worked with the family to develop some beautiful carpets, cushions and ottomans, and saddle rugs.
Chynara was adamant that they use the traditional Terme and Gadjari weaving. The Gadjari weaving also enabled the weavers to develop particularly complex geometric patterns, which are executed by hand above the weft—a technique known as weft-faced weave. Although the Gadjari and Terme weaving are done on the same loom, the Gadjari feels thinner and more delicate, with a more distinct pattern. The Gadjari weaving however requires a backing because the idle thread colors that are used in the patterning over the weft are left to dangle on the rug’s backside. (In the Termestyle, the pattern is thicker and forms a padding in the back of the weave so that the threads on the back do not sag).
Each geometric pattern has its name; many incorporate sacred marks or amulets. Some of the frequently used Gadjari patterns symbolize fidelity in friendship, perpetual motion, warmth, creativity and respect, beauty and grace. They are woven symbols, poems.
Gadjari weaving is done on a simple horizontal loom called ormok typical of nomadic weaving. The women squat on the ground and bend over the weft, rhythmically weaving their threads in a laborious, and slow process.The woven strips are usually around 20 cm wide, and can reach many meters in length. One woman can usually weave about 70 cm to 1.5 meters per day—depending on the complexity of the pattern.
The strips are made of merino semi-fine wool hand-spun into yarn. For contrasting black and white carpets, natural un-dyed wool is used. For the brighter colors however—the blues, reds, and yellows—Russian dyes are used. Kyrgyz artisans still living in Murghab also use yak wool for these weavings, but this makes for substantially thicker carpets.
After Aytbyubyu Apa’s recent death, the weaving work has been taken over by her children, with her eldest son Askar at the helm. However, despite these efforts and the Terme and Gadjari weaving traditions walk precariously on the edge of disappearance.
Chynara is trying to build demand, but it remains to be seen how much traction the weaving can gain. “Tradition among the population can thrive and grow if there is demand for that particular product,” says Chynara, “However, handmade products in the local Kyrgyz market in general can just not compete with commercial products, and I do not see a clear future for traditional Kyrgyz weaving crafts – they need special support for their on-going survival and development.”
Hopefully Tumar’s muscle can help in protecting the beautiful Gadjari and Terme weavings. This past winter, Craftspring brought some lovely Gadjari weavings to an exhibit in New York
Tumar was started in 1998 and today employs 176 permanent people as well as over 50 other independent artisans who work with Tumar on ad-hoc specialized projects. Tumar is agglomeration of about a dozen small craft workshops that combine forces to purchase raw materials, apply for funding and grants, and develop access to markets. Tumar’s beautiful flagship store is located in central Bishkek, and they have also recently opened a satellite store in Almaty, Kazakhstan. Tumar’s mission is the preservation and development of traditional and contemporary material culture of the Kyrgyz people and handicraft production. Learn more at www.tumar.com
Anne-Laure Py is the founder of Craftspring, which works with 12 different artisanal workshops in Kyrgyzstan—all founded and run by amazing women entrepreneurs. Craftspring works with each workshop to design and distribute a line of beautiful hand-felted holiday ornaments and home décor. Learn more at www.craftspring.com.