A short ride out of Bishkek, the town stumbles into fields; rolling, empty, vast, fertile agricultural land, criss-crossed by cool running streams. In our 4x4 vehicle we whiz through the green grasses, passing cattle, sheep, and the silhouettes of men on horseback. But not all is a pastoral wonderland—and we pass too the torn up ghosts of former soviet Kolkhozes, the new cement hotels built too-quickly for the summer masses, and the broken trunks of trees illegally felled to fuel our thirsts.
But as we continue to race forward, bulges in the earth become mountain, and we let ourselves be guided by the statuesque beauty of the northern spine of the Tian Shan. We are headed about five hours away from the capital (Bishkek) to Tasma Village located just beyond the eastern shores of Lake Issyk-Kul in Kyrgyzstan.
After skipping past the blue and turquoise Alpine lake, we pull off the main highway and progress along an unpaved bumpy road with herds of sheep and cattle grazing on either side. It is the season of births, and young lambs and foals keep close to their mothers. The road turns to muddy earth, and we climb up into the mountain foothills.
As we enter Tasma, we drive through a cluster of birch trees and head directly to the village’s former schoolhouse. The bright white and blue school building is the home of two women-run community groups that have pooled together the talent of local women to make felt and soap. Both groups have recently benefited from the support and staff of the Japanese International Cooperation Agency (JICA) and its One Village One Product initiative.
The first group set-up in the schoolhouse is a small felting cooperative called Akshoola. Guljamal Baibotoeva the outspoken coordinator vivaciously introduces us to the group’s six members—a handful of women well into their prime. All of the younger men and women have left the village in search of education and better lives—leaving behind the grandparents to tend to the village and the children. The Akshoola women are determined to keep their village and its traditions alive.
The elder of the group, and its emblematic leader used to be a teacher (about forty years ago). The other women were all housewives—sharing in the tasks of running busy farming and shepherding households. They are all skilled felt makers.
Akshoola was started in 2003, and has benefited from JICA support since 2008—at which time they moved into the old school and renovated their studios. With the infusion of JICA staff, the group has also started to differentiate itself from other felt-making cooperatives with a brand. The women chose a nest as their brand identity. Indeed—with all of the crow nests around their workshop—it is a fitting emblem. The Akshoola women say that the nest is also about strong women nurturing their communities.
Because Tasma village is remote enough (ten hours by bus from the capital, two hours from the local provincial center) the Akshoola women have had to base their business only on locally available materials. This restriction has the incredible grace of making things earth friendly and sustainable.
The group uses many natural dyes, including walnut shells, onion skins, roots, and leaves. All of their wool is also locally sourced in Tasma or neighboring villages, where the women buy the wool directly from the herdsmen. Many of the women are originally from neighboring villages, having only moved to Tasma after their weddings. Their cross-village and cross-county connections have enabled the women to be effective wool buyers, using their connections and relations to buy wool from relatives in other villages.
The women then work the wool entirely by hand in their schoolhouse studio. They clean the wool, beat it, boil it, soften it, dye it, and then felt it into their products, which includes bags, slippers, pockets, and scarves. Although they make most of their products for sale to tourists, they also make certain products for the village and local markets including beautiful tall winter felt boots, worn by both local men and women.
But, for me, the real magic of Akshoola is their amazing hand-spun wool thread. It has a breathtaking beauty. Double spun from beautiful natural, un-dyed wool that’s direct from the source, it is an amazingly natural, no pollution, all-clean thread. The beauty of its creation, the spinning and the hands, and the place where it is made, seems to imbue itself into the thread and it has a beauty and a simplicity that is now only found deep off the main roads. Akshoola’s magic thread is one of these beautiful crafts whose utter simplicity and soul is now so hard to find.
Craftspring is partnering with Akshoola to make this magic hand-spun all natural wool thread, which we are incorporating into several of products and ornaments.
The word Akshoola when directly translated from the Kyrgyz means “white light” or “white luminescence”. It is a word used to wish someone well for the future. Akshoola women are felting and spinning their future and it is a bright light in the village and beyond.
Anne-Laure Py is the founder and director of Central Asian Craftspring. She lives in Beijing, China and travels often to Central Asia. To learn more about Craftspring, please visit, www.cacraftspring.com.