The nomadic women of Kyrgyzstan have been crafting felt carpets and wall hangings for generations.
Our story starts in Kochkor, where shortly after the collapse of the Soviet Union, a group of women in northern Kyrgyzstan gathered together and decided to use their traditional crafts and skills to generate income.
They called themselves Altyn Kol (golden hands), and began making a range of products to sell to aid and development workers, tourists, and government representatives from overseas who visited and lived in Central Asia.
Since then, and through the support of international organisations and donors, Altyn Kol has gone on to be a major employer of women in Kochkor and nearby villages in the Naryn region of Kyrgyzstan. An achievement that the current Director, Burul, is particularly proud of is that 5% of their members are widows, who are managing to earn an income to support their families who would otherwise be destitute.
In a country with extremely high levels of unemployment, the fact that women can bring in income while continuing with their daily tasks is of huge value. The cooperative now has over a hundred members, and four full-time employees.
Through making shyrdaks, women can work flexibly, stay with their children, and earn a good wage for their families – Burul, Altyn Kol’s Director.
Orders are taken and organized by the team in Kochkor, who then divide tasks up between different groups of women throughout neighbouring villages. The artisans receive 70% of the sale price for each item sold. As Altyn Kol belongs to the women themselves, they gather together every year to elect leaders and discuss their progress, resulting in a level of transparency which is rare in Kyrgyzstan.
As well as selling their products, the women of Altyn Kol aim to train young Kyrgyz people about traditional handicraft techinques, to ensure that their skills are passed down to the next generation.
Our shyrdak range
We have worked with the management team at Altyn Kol to create a range of shyrdak (pronounced shur-dak) cushion covers, a departure from the traditional brightly coloured rugs, but still leaning heavily on Kyrgyz designs and motifs.
These cushion covers are handmade from wool from the Karakul sheep, which originated in Central Asia and have been raised there continuously as early as 1400BC. The wool produced by Karakul sheep is coarse, and therefore perfect for making shyrdaks which were originally used as carpeting for yurts. Their density kept in the warmth and prevented moisture from reaching the family dwelling.
If you get the chance, treading barefoot on a shyrdak is highly recommended- they really do keep your feet warm, even in the cold Kyrgyz mountains!
All the designs featured in shyrdaks have meaning, borne from the Kyrgyz connection to nature and animal life.
The ram’s horn symbol refers to great wealth and fortune, while the soldiers pattern depicts soldiers standing at attention and in vigilance, providing protection to the homeland. The mother and child symbol represents the keeper of the hearth and a safe home.
Each cushion cover is made by a woman in the cooperative, providing valuable income to her family and allowing her to continue the traditional techniques her ancestors have been preserving for generations.
If this wasn’t good reason enough to think about buying one, we give 50% of our profits to groups in Kyrgyzstan supporting artisan development and income generation projects.
Through our partners in Kyrgzstan we can arrange custom orders from a variety of colours and designs, in both cushion covers and rugs. We also have a limited range of one-off shyrdak cushion covers not available on our online store. Email us for more information.