Ancient craft revives rural area in Kazakhstan

“No one in our family, and even in our network of friends had anything to do with felt,” says Tatyana Chuchupalova, smoothing the bright felt berets, scarves and bags laid out on a large table. “Ten years ago, my aunt attended a master class on felting by a mere chance. She showed me what she’d been taught and I fell in love with the craft at first sight. It appeared very special compared to the more common handicrafts such as knitting or sewing.”

Tatiana lives in village Verkhneberezovskiy in Eastern Kazakhstan, where most of the residents used to work at a processing plant. But a few years ago, the plant was closed after an accident in one of its units, leaving the majority of locals without work. Now jobs can only be found at a local school, hospital, kindergarten and shops. Many of the residents have to commute to work to neighboring villages.

"I come from a family of engineers. I, too, have a master's degree in Engineering. I had worked at a design institute for six years, before realizing that the job doesn’t bring me any joy or satisfaction. I’d already done some felting, but only as a hobby. And then I learned that the United Nations Development Programme conducts competition for grants. I decided to apply, and receiving the grant turned my life around."

With UNDP support, Tatiana opened a small workshop, which teaches felting to other villagers. Tatiana herself enjoys making tekemets (traditional Kazakh carpets with national ornament), pillows, blankets, quilts, pictures, and many other products.

“Felt is a very special material. It can take practically any shape, it is highly useful and, most importantly, environmentally friendly. I really appreciate the fact that the wool that is used for products is sheared from sheep, and the animal doesn’t suffer, but lives on,” - says Tatiana. According to her, “felting is a creative process that allows you to make a wide variety of things that can transform any interior, decorate a piece of clothing or make a unique gift; it opens up opportunities for creative work. Felting combines creative ideas and accurate mathematical calculations. Manufacturing products, depending on the complexity, can take from three days to a week.”

There are twenty people currently enrolled in the courses – a rather large number for a village with a population of 4,000, especially given that some of the graduates have already began felting on their own and soon will be able to teach others. Surprisingly, the workshop inspired villagers and gave them a sense of hope and a sense of purpose in their revived lives.

“Sometimes people would come here for the sake of socializing, but such employees either drop out quickly, seeing what kind of hard work felting is, or gradually fall in love with the material and begin to fully dedicate themselves to the work”, - says Tatiana.

Felting is an ancient craft. The first felt items were found in what is now modern Turkey and date as far back as the 3rd millennium BC. For many people, especially nomadic, felt was the only kind of textile available and it accompanied them throughout their lives. However, in today's world, felt is competing with other materials and products to win its niche in the market.

High income levels of the extractive industry in Kazakhstan reduced attractiveness of the labor-intensive industries. Perhaps that is why felting - a very labor-intensive activity – went under in Kazakhstan. At the moment, however, the picture is gradually changing:  original handicrafts made of eco-friendly materials are gaining popularity, and the “handmade” tag is highly appreciated by the customers.

“By reviving traditional craft, we at UNDP help people to help themselves. Moreover, by creating work opportunities for all the segments of the population, we are working towards reaching the Sustainable Development Goals", - says Malika Koyanbayeva, programme coordinator at UNDP’s Governance and Local Development Unit.

More importantly, the secret “recipes” for felted products should be passed to younger generations from the elderly, if we do not want to lose them. But if no young people are interested in pursuing this handicraft technique and keep up with the traditions, then the invaluable knowledge might as well be lost as the elderly are passing away.

“I think everyone should know the history of their homeland and not forget their roots. It is sad that our fellow citizens can only think of felt boots (Rus. “Valenki”), when they hear of felt. There is no strong succession between the generations of artisans, so I try to read materials on applied creativity, study designs and shapes of old products so that my own items carry a part of the cultural heritage of our people", - says Tatiana Chuchupalova.

Tatiana’s business is slowly but surely gaining momentum. There are orders made through the Internet and in general people seem to be interested in the goods she makes. I asked Tatyana about her future plans, and she said that much remains to be done, and at this point they are only at the beginning of their journey.

"At this time, we use the finished, washed and combed wool from different manufacturers. In Kazakhstan, the factory "POSH-Taraz" sells wool, but in very large batches of 400 and 800 kg - I do not know of any factories in Kazakhstan that can process such a large amount of wool. We have now started purchasing local sheep and we are planning to comb and paint the wool ourselves and thus at least partially solve the problem of the lack of material," - explains Tatiana. "However, this is a very complicated and time-consuming process. We dream of buying the appropriate combing equipment. Then, on the one hand, our business will be more stable, and on the other, our workshop will start to contribute to purification of environment, because a large amount of wool is burned, or simply thrown away."

“Whilst it is important to maintain traditions and culture in our work, it is far more important to modernize the items we sell so that they appeal to the modern fashionistas and fit the modern lifestyle. Thanks to UNDP, we realized how important it is to communicate with other artisans, to undertake trainings, to introduce innovations and, of course, to work, work, work", - she concluded.

 

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Some key facts:

UNDP has been working with craftspeople since 2014

Over 100 craftspeople have been trained over this period of time

30 of them have become specialists

8 of the 30 specialists are now teachers, Tatiana Chuchupalova is one of them

Tatiana Chuchupalova is one of 30 craftspeople who UNDP will promote to participate in EXPO-2017 in Kazakhstan (https://expo2017astana.com/en/)

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