Ancient Felt Wool Traditions Meet Modernity With These Cozy Slippers
France is known for its perfume, Italy for its leather and Scotland for its whisky, to name a few famous exports. One that may not be as well-known is Kyrgyzstan and its wool. In the Naryn and Issyk-Kul regions of Kyrgyzstan are farms where sheep frolic in the striking mountains of the Central Asian country. Though the farmers are no longer nomadic, the wool’s unique quality hasn’t changed. The wool is sent to a factory in Bishkek, Kyrgyzstan’s largest city, a metropolis largely untouched by tourism dominated by Soviet-era architecture, where it is turned into everything from blankets to felt toys to the softest slippers at Tumar.
“Felt inspires us; it has energy in it,” says Chinara Makashova, CEO and co-founder of Tumar. “For Kyrgyzstan people, felt is something sacred.” Felt has deep meaning for her country. A Kyrgyzstan person is born on felt and wears it their entire life and passes away on it. People have passed on indigenous felt-making techniques from generation to generation for centuries. After all, felt is believed to be the oldest fabric in the world, with evidence of it dating back to 6500 BC. Felt played a crucial role in the silk trade route. Impressively versatile, felt can be soft or hard. “Felt can be as sturdy as a wall,” Makashova says. Every Kyrgyzstan home has traditional felt rug.
When Roza Makashova, Head of Production and co-founder of Tumar, graduated from college in 1994, the Soviet Union had recently collapsed, making it challenging to pursue a career with her engineering degree in a tumultuous nation. Instead, she worked in textile factory, endorsed by a government organization that worked with traditional arts. She had a small workshop in the village where they lived, Keng-Bulung, outside of Bishkek. Their first client was from Australia and they made children’s toys for them, buying wool from their neighbors and washing and preparing it to create felt balls. Roza and had learned to do this as a child, so together with her niece Chinara Makashova they opened Tumar in 1998, a co-op for felted wool artisans. They tried to modernize the traditional art with machinery while maintaining old techniques. Now Tumar employees 150 people—70 percent women—providing jobs in a place where steady employment is still scarce.
Kyrgies, an American company focused on house shoes, has become their biggest client. They produced 16,000 pairs of shoes for them in 2021, working with 1,500 farmers to source the local wool. “We were looking for a world-class product and these stood out like nothing else we had seen,” says Barclay Saul, President and Co-founder of Kyrgies. “We were creating knitwear in American factories for American brands, and were considering something in that space, but this product was so unique, so special and so much better than anything in its category we decided to build a brand around them. Tumar are the finest felters in the world. The sheep that are native to Kyrgyzstan have a wool that you can’t get anywhere else, and it’s perfect for this application. A softer wool wouldn’t be as sturdy. Kyrgies’ uppers, particularly in our rolled felt products, are unlike any you will find. Because of it our returns rate is miraculously low for a shoe brand, around 4.5% over our five and a half years in business. We’ve heard about brands like us who have 30% returns annually.”
Central Asia is known for its semi-coarse, semi-fine wool, and that rougher texture is ideal for shoes since it’s sturdier. Tumar receives raw wool and if it has curls it’s easier to felt, explains Zhazgul Madazimova, Marketing Director at Tumar. “It just needs soap, water and human hands to become felt,” she says. After the wool is cleaned and dyed, it goes through a pre-felt machine with needles to punch it that was invented by Tumar and is exclusive to the company. Rolling the wool used to be done by hand, but now it’s done by machine, which can provide heavier pressure. Each piece of wool moves throughout the factory, a veritable artisanal assembly line. After the wet wool is stretched out, it goes to a drying room and can be cut into a pattern. The wet felting procedure is the most traditional process. Then it goes to the dyeing room, where employees refer to a hand-written recipe book of colors. Once it is dried, cleaned and shaved, the sewn cutouts go onto a shoe mold, followed by the quality assurance team, and finally the natural rubber or leather outsoles are put on. The felting process is similar for their other offerings, like traditional patchwork for rugs and yurts, as well as personal accessories like bags. Tumar is expanding with a second factory that is currently being built in Shopokov, a suburb of Bishkek.
“Our supply chain exists entirely in Kyrgyzstan, from the farm to the last thread sewn,” Saul says. “We support not only the artisans who make the slippers but the designers who help us create products for the American market. Every employee of the workshop is paid a living wage and works in a healthy work environment. Since we started working with Tumar, they’ve grown so much. Our sales have helped them hire 55 women to date. These jobs are in demand, too. Kyrgyzstan’s economy is still developing, and this is steady employment with vacation, benefits and a comfortable wage.” Due to the traditional processes they use, Tumar and Kyrgies are naturally sustainable, prioritizing minimizing waste as they modernize. Leftover felt scraps are used for insulation for buildings.
During the Soviet Union, cultural traditions were not encouraged, and that went for everything from clothing to crafting. Now, the people of Kyrgyzstan are working to renew their ancient ways. At Kiyiz Duino, a foundation that protects its country’s cultural heritage and applied for UNESCO status this year, they are rediscovering traditional dress that was lost during the Soviet Union era through finding old photos and interviewing elderly people. For example, they have researched how to wear the Elechek hat, worn daily by women in the mountains for warmth, an important tradition and a detailed process that involves wrapping the head in a particular way, then adorning the hat according to her marital status.
By modernizing felting techniques, Kyrgies aims to help revitalize this important heritage. “Every time we visit Kyrgyzstan we learn more about this tradition,” Saul says. “We’ve seen machine-made felt, which generally has industrial applications, and it’s nothing like this handmade product. For our purposes, Tumar’s artistry, which is passed down for thousands of years of these nomadic people’s lives, is the lifeblood of our brand. It’s why we’re able to make so many people cozy.”