"All my products carry positive energy, because wool is a live material. I put love and positive energy into my work and people that buy my products can feel this warmth and love in every doll."
Erkebu is a textile artist from the capital city of Bishtek, Kyrgyzstan, who has been working with felt since she was a young girl. Today, her felt pieces, sculpted of wool, silk, and yarn, expertly capture the expressions and customs of rural Kyrgyzstan.
Erkebu searches year-round for wool, silk, felt, dyes, beads, threads, and fur. Most materials come from local Kyrgyz markets. In her workshop, she is joined by eight other women—her sisters, nieces, and aunts. For her family, felt is the main income source, but purchases of Erkebu’s artworks also benefit her community of businesspeople and fellow artists.
A century ago, the Kyrgyz people led nomadic or semi-nomadic lives. Mostly, they bred sheep, and felting became an integral part of nomadic life. Even today, Erkebu explains, “Felt…is everywhere; the yurt, the traditional dwellings of the Kyrgyz, are made of felt.” Wall panels, floor rugs, cases for dishes, clothes, toys—all are made of felt, and so the wool product remains integral to Erkebu’s culture and community.
“Both my parents were involved in felting,” says Erkebu. “My mother knew about felting from her mother and my grandmother knew from her mother. Felting is passed on from generation to generation and I am now teaching my daughter to carry on the tradition.” She remembers helping to clean and card wool, and very early on, she made the decision to be an artist. She hopes that through her work, she can help preserve the beautiful, valuable tradition she inherited. At art college, she worked to hone and expand her felting and embroidery techniques.
She spent many years with the National Artist’s Union as a felt designer, and travelled numerous times to distant regions of Kyrgyzstan. On those journeys, she met with “the keepers of the traditions,” and, through conversations with other artists, was able to collect traditional techniques for felting, embroidery, and rug-stitching.
Today, Erkebu searches for inspiration in nature and in the many faces of Kyrgyzstan. “My traditional dolls are the samples of everyday life,” she says. Her felt pieces depict women cradling babies, or musicians playing traditional instruments. All of her pieces represent traditional Kyrgyz dress, and her works of art capture slices of Kyrgyz life that have changed little in the last century.
As for her products, they’re one-of-a-kind, made in stages. Erkebu is in charge of the embroidery. She is committed to using 100% sheep’s wool, and she incorporates only traditional designs, colors, and cutting techniques into her felt pieces. Her finished products are popular in Kyrgyzstan as Christmas presents and interior design elements for houses.
The most beautiful parts of her craft, she believes, are the faces and costumes of the dolls her family has made for generations. She says, “I am proud that I am a representative of the people working to preserve handicrafts. My traditional dolls bring information about Kyrgyz people and their ways of life.”