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The Kazakh Women Felters of Zarshiganak

Felt has been used by Kazakh women to make garments for centuries. The custom fell out of common practice during the Soviet era, but is now enjoying a come back. PHOTOGRAPH BY RYAN BELL (@comradecowboys)

When life gives you wool, make felt. That was the lesson Kalimash Baimuhanova learned in the difficult years following the Soviet Union’s collapse.

The village of Zarshiganak sits on the ironing-board flat steppes of northeastern Kazakhstan. During the USSR, it was a thriving community of shepherd families who worked on the Kalinsky Collective Farm. In those days, few people thought about how dependent their lives were on the Soviet Union’s planned economy. Trucks delivered supplies on schedule, their goods went to market, every worker met his or her quota, and the paychecks came on time. Even the clothes and boots they wore were one-size-fits-all products of Soviet manufacturing.

Everything changed in December 1991, when the Republic of Kazakhstan declared its independence from the USSR. Moscow’s purse strings were cut and the village of Zarshiganak was marooned on the steppes. The land was privatized and, as happened all too often in the post-Soviet era, fell into the hands of high-ranking officials who had little regard for the village economy. The collective farm was dismantled, sold for scrap, and the animals shipped off.

The residents of Zarshiganak were stranded between economic tides, the planned economy of the Soviet Union having rolled out to sea, but the waves of the free market slow to reach their shores. Kalimash and her neighbors reverted to a subsistence-style of living, growing food in their gardens and raising their own herds of sheep and cattle. They had precious little money to buy anything else.

Kalimash Baimuhanova heeded Arman Sultanbeck's advice in helping her village build a thriving microbusiness selling felt goods. PHOTOGRAPH BY RYAN BELL (@comradecowboys)

Then, in the late 1990s, they were visited by Arman Sultanbeck, a businessman from the city of Pavlodar. He taught a seminar about how enterprising Kazakhs could start small businesses in their homes. What products could the villagers of Zarshiganak offer the rest of Kazakhstan? he asked. They had a lot of surplus wool, if they could just figure out what to do with it.

That’s when Kalimash had an idea: use the wool to make felt goods. Felting is a traditional handicraft in Kazakhstan. Long before the Soviet Union, when Kazakhs lived as nomads, women made felt boots, rugs, tapestries, hats, and more. Wool was the fabric of their lives. Some of the village women still remembered felting with their grandmothers, although they’d forgotten the hands-on practice.

Kalimash had little talent for domestic skills like felting. Her talent was in organizing people. Sultanbeck’s workshop inspired her to help grow her village’s economy. She traveled to her native southern Kazakhstan and found some felting experts who agreed to come teach the women of Zarshiganak.

In 2002, the village held its first yurtistan, or summer camp. For ten days, village women learned to make felt carpets, boots, and hats. They enjoyed the camaraderie of the work, forgetting about the troubles of their everyday lives. The smell of wet wool reminded them of their ancestors. Even the husbands, who had been skeptical at first, chipped in by building tables, collecting the wool, and one man even led morning exercises.

One of the villagers, a woman named Aiman, proved to be a talented felter. Here she forms a pair of children's slippers. PHOTOGRAPH BY RYAN BELL (@comradecowboys)

With their new skills, the women worked throughout the year, making felt products. When they had enough to sell, Kalimash and her friend Aiman, the village’s best craftswoman, took a taxi to Pavlodar where they set up a stand at the weekend bazar. They sold out of everything. With the money, they went to the store and bought supplies they hadn't seen at home for year, and a few treats, like bags of sugar.

To keep the program going, Kalimash decided to create a non-profit organization to raise money, organize annual felting camps (now in its 15th year), and to use a portion of the earnings made on product sales for community development projects -- such as buying sports equipment for various youth sports leagues.

When Kalimash asked for suggestions what to name the organization, one woman said “Zhaukousin”, the name of the crocus wildflower in Kazakh. The reason, she said, was because the crocus is the first sign of life when it blooms on the steppes after a long, hard winter.

Ryan Bellis traveling through Russia and Kazakhstan for his project #ComradeCowboys. Follow his adventure onTwitter, Instagram, andFacebook. Get updates about his work at Website.

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