Tuesday, July 28, 2015

Kyrgyzstan - the Felted Dolls of Erkebu Djumagulova

kyrgyzstan art craft textiles, kyrgyzstan holidays tours, silk road tours
Lilya Kas'yanova
Lilya Kas'yanova, one of Kyrgyzstan's finest guides, is passionate about the history, art and craft of her country. She regularly contributes articles to this website. A graduate in Linguistics and Intercultural Communications from I. Arabaev Kyrgyz State University, she is also a keen photographer and hiker. 

Let me introduce you to a remarkably talented artisan Erkebu Djumagulova, who lives in Bishkek, Kyrgyzstan. She is the leader of a jewel-box workshop that produces felt dolls and felt accessories The workshop, which includes a team of eight handicraft workers, snuggles within a former Soviet industrial estate.

This is a story of a success-oriented, assiduous self-made woman, who has devoted her life to the research, revival, support and development of authentic Kyrgyz applied arts and handicrafts.

kyrgyzstan art craft textiles, kyrgyzstan holidays tours, silk road tours
"Happy Childhood" felted toy, winner of UNESCO award
A graduate of Frunze Arts College, Erkebu eje majored in textiles, fabric painting, weaving production practices and felt making technologies. In 1975, as the result of a postgraduate work assignment, Erkebu eje started work with Kiyal, the National Association of Folk Artistic Crafts.

During her three years with Kiyal, she focused on textile ornaments design, master pattern creation and textile printing. Then, the young specialist transferred to the scientific-research laboratory arm of Kiyal

There, she was involved in a new project aimed at researching traditional culture and folk crafts. This included a challenging two-month expedition to the Naryn and Osh provinces of the Kyrgyz Republic.  Accompanying the expedition were distinguished figures in art history such as E. K. Sorokin and A. Akmataliev. Careful surveys and systematic studies of saima (embroidery) shyrdaks (mosaic thick felt carpets), ala-kiyiz (motley felt carpets) resulted in the creation of one-of-a-kind art, drawing and sample book. It is a mine of information on handicraft processes and the interpretation of patterns and colours.

When her maternity leave was over, Erkebu eje left Kiyal, and embarked upon a career as a freelance artisan. That period was followed by bitter trials and hardships caused by the break-up of the Soviet Union; it was a time when Erkebu eje, like many others, was battling to survive.

kyrgyzstan art craft textiles, kyrgyzstan holidays tours, silk road tours
 Erkebu eje (centre), with two of her team members
She designed and produced a number of embroidered wall hangings of high artistic merit, some of which were purchased by the Museum of Fine Arts in Bishkek and exhibited there. Other pieces are now found in private collections.

These creative activities helped her to overcome many difficulties and challenges, keep her feet firmly on the ground, and motivated her to set up her own business.

In 2005, GIZ, the German development company, entered into an agreement with representatives of the “Ainur” electronic industry enterprise to lease a unit of its factory for five years as part of a business incubator project. Thus, Erkebu eje‘s workshop moved to new premises: ten years on, she and her close-knit team are still there.

Over the past eleven years, Erkebu eje has participated seven times in the International Folk Art Marketin Santa Fe, in the United States. Her first time there triggered a “second wind” and greatly enhanced the subsequent development of her small enterprise.

Erkebu eje’s work has garnered many awards. Among them, she was awarded the 2005 UNESCO Crafts Prize for an outstanding contribution to creativity in the making of felt dolls. In 2007 she was awarded the Seal of Excellence for Handicrafts, Central Asian Region for her “Summer” decorative felt cushions. In 2012 two further UNESCO awards were bestowed: Awards of Excellence for Handicrafts, Central Asian Region for “Happy Childhood” felt toy and “Heirs” felt toys composition.

kyrgyzstan art craft textiles, kyrgyzstan holidays tours, silk road tours
Kyrgyz mother wearing elechek headress
Now Erkebu eje is engaged in creating new styles, processing orders, quality control and the procurement of dyes, threads, glass beads, and felt in particular, as it is the basic material for doll making.

Felt is stocked up in advance for the upcoming winter season. (There are sayings in Kyrgyz culture such as “Repair your cart in December; in July your sledge remember” or “Make provision for a rainy day but in good time”).

Erkebu eje’s outstanding team consists of eight permanent staff at the workshop and a fluctuating number of “outworkers”, depending on the number of orders. Her younger sister is in charge of accountancy and executing customers’ orders in due time.

The family business also involves Erkebu eje’s niece, who manages the workflow of the staff who work at home, such as felt cutters.Her daughter, a music master, deals with foreign clients.

The staff classified as “outworkers” are craftswomen and mothers of large families; some of the outworkers are talented graduates of art colleges. They specialise in making clothes for felt dolls, accessories, and a variety of decorations, as well as assembling cute, little felt animals. A mother and her two sons supply round, elongated work pieces (blanks) to be used as heads, bodies, hands and legs of felt dolls.

All parts of the prospective dolls are assembled within the workshop as this intricate and delicate process has to be supervised by the chief artisan – Erkebu Djumagulova. One more significant and complicated stage of doll making has to be mentioned here: the creation of doll faces - distinctive, easily recognizable Kyrgyz features (cheerful, sweet, kindled with happiness). Two talented mistresses of needlework carry out this process. Erkebu notes: “The making of dolls’ faces is a prerogative of a very limited number of craftswomen; this skill is exceptional”.

kyrgyzstan art craft textiles, kyrgyzstan holidays tours, silk road tours
Erkebu eje has proudly represented her works at Santa Fe
This is one-of-a-kind enterprise, managed by a brilliant and creative artisan and businesswoman, which embraces her family members, friends, industry peers and individuals. It makes an indispensable contribution to the region’s economy, ensures cultural sustainability, and helps to revive and keep the rich and flamboyant practices of felt making alive.

I would like to wish Erkebu eje continued success and prosperity in her all future endeavors!

Note: A visit to Erkebueje’s workshop is included in an Uzbek Journeys tour.

If you wish to visit Erkebueje’s workshop independently, please contact her on email: workshop_erke(at) mail (dot) ru

Contact Lilya on: lolya.87(at) mail (dot) ru
Read all Lilya's articles

Related posts:
Kancha - Design for Urban Nomads
Elechek - Kyrgyz Traditional Headdress 
Yurts of Central Asia
Kyrgyz Chii - Yurt Screens and Mats  

Tuesday, July 7, 2015

Explore Uzbekistan and Kyrgyzstan in 2016

Details of Samarkand's Registan. Image: Richard Marshall
Details of Uzbek Journeys 2016 one-of-a-kind, small group tours to Uzbekistan and Kyrgyzstan are now available.

The 16-day Uzbek tours, scheduled for the very best seasons in Uzbekistan, focus on the architecture, art, craft and history of this fascinating section of the Silk Road.

Explore the architectural masterpieces of the ancient cities of Samarkand, Shakhrisabz, Bukhara and Khiva.


Visit artisans’ workshops to meet families who have practised their craft for generations and contemporary artists who are fusing ancient techniques with modern style.

Roam the bazaars, lounge around in tea houses and spend the night in a yurt in the Kyzyl Kum desert. Learn about the intrigues of the Great Game between Britain and Russia and view the extraordinary collection of avant garde art in remote Nukus.


kyrgyzstan tours, kyrgyzstan art craft traditions, kyrgyzstan holidays
The majesty of Kyrgzystan's landscape
The 8-day Kyrgyz tours combine the majestic, rugged landscapes of snow-capped mountains and lush valleys, with visits to craft co-operatives, design workshops, felt carpet makers and yurt makers. 

Travelling around shimmering Issyk Kul lake, with the towering Tien Shan mountain range in view, you will understand how nomadic traditions are still at the core of the Kyrgyz people, who take immense pride in their heritage.

There are opportunities for hiking, picnics by streams, and listening to traditional musicians and bards in private homes. You will have the chance to see a kupkari (buzkashi) match and an eagle hunt. The tour also includes a visit to Sunday's Karakol livestock market.

Kyrgyzstan is a beautiful country, often called the Switzerland of Central Asia, and makes a marvellous contrast to the landscapes of Uzbekistan.

Why not discover this fascinating region in 2016?


View the 2016 Kyrgyzstan tours.
View the 2016 Uzbekistan tours.

kyrgyzstan holidays tours, kyrgyzstan art traditions craft, kyrgyzstan vacations
Magnificent felt work from Aidai  Asangulova's workshop, Bishkek, Kyrgyzstan

Monday, June 29, 2015

Kyrgyz Blues

kyrgyztsan tours, kyrgyzstan holidays, kyrgyzstan art craft tours
Decorative elements of Karakol house. Image: Lilya Kas'janova
Travellers in Kyrgyzstan are charmed by the blue architectural details of Kyrgyz homes: marvellous hues adorn shutters, doors, gates and windows.

Often the paint has faded  - nevertheless, the charm remains, particularly on the gingerbread cottages dotted throughout the countryside.

Discussing this with Lilya Kas'janova, the brilliant guide who leads Uzbek Journeys tours in Kyrgyzstan, there are many theories about why blue is so popular. 

As always, Lilya dazzled me with her knowledge of Kyrgyz traditions. (However, I hasten to add that theory #11 below was contributed by a mad Kyrgyz taxi driver).

Why blue?


1.    Blue represents the boundless sky of Kyrgyzstan.

2.    Blue also represents water - Kyrgyzstan's bright, blue lakes and the swift-flowing, crystal-clean mountain rivers.

kyrgyztsan tours, kyrgyzstan holidays, kyrgyzstan art craft tours
Blue gate, Chon Kemin valley
3.    Blue is considered a symbol of eternity: the colour is attributed to the Sky God in Kyrgyz folklore.

 4.    Kyrgyz people are of Turkic stock and in Turkic culture, blue is a symbol of the deity Tengri. Tengriism, a religion of ancient Turkic and Mongol tribes, arose at the end of the 2nd century B.C. 

Adherents believed that the universe consisted of three parts: the upper, middle, and lower worlds. Blue was associated with the upper world, the realm of the gods.

5.   In Mongolian and Kazakh cultures, blue is identified with fidelity and selfless devotion to one's country.

6.   In the Middle Ages, blue became associated with veracity and people who dressed in blue clothing were those who sought, and arrived at, the truth.

7.   People of the East believe that blue frightens away evil spirits - it protects against evil curses and the evil eye.

kyrgyztsan tours, kyrgyzstan holidays, kyrgyzstan art craft tours
Stylised almond design on a fence to protect from the evil eye
8.   Manas, Kyrgyzstan's legendary national hero, had a blue flag when going into battle. After victory, the flag was red.

 9.   In southern Kyrgyzstan, women wear either a blue scarf or dress for one year following the funeral of close family members.

10.   In the Soviet era, the range of cheerful paints was limited - blue was the brightest available. People liked the effect and continue the tradition.

11.   This is the alternative Soviet era theory. Yes, the range of paint colours was severely limited in the USSR.  However, for some reason, Kyrgyzstan drew the "blue paint" straw and vast amounts were trucked from Moscow to Kyrgyzstan and distributed around the country for residential purposes.

Whatever the reason, you will be charmed. Enjoy several other Kyrgyz "blue" images below.

Related posts: 6 Quirky Things About Kyrgyzstan
100 Experiences of Kyrgyzstan 
5 Reasons to Visit Kyrgyzstan
Bishkek's Mosaics: Fragmented Dream Project



kyrgyztsan tours, kyrgyzstan holidays, kyrgyzstan art craft tours
Twilight in Kyrgyzstan, Rosemary Sheel

kyrgyztsan tours, kyrgyzstan holidays, kyrgyzstan art craft tours
Colonial house, Karakol. Image: Lilya Kas'janova
kyrgyztsan tours, kyrgyzstan holidays, kyrgyzstan art craft tours
Tush Kiyiz (Kyrgyz traditional decorative piece to be hung on the trellis wall of a yurt). Image: Lilya Kas'janova

kyrgyztsan tours, kyrgyzstan holidays, kyrgyzstan art craft tours
Poplar Leaves on Blue Bench at Prezewalski Museum gardens, Karakol. Rosemary Sheel's evocative use of Snap Art 3