The vanishing threads of Tush Kiyiz

NewEurasia’s Mary Mitchell recently went to Kyrgyzstan in search of the country’s beautiful textiles. In a remote yurt, she found beautiful examples of traditional tush kiyiz, a dying form of embroidery. Here is her report.

Baktagul, a craftswoman from Tamchy, holds up a Tush Kiyiz embroidered by her grandmother Shukurkan c.1920.

Editor’s note: NewEurasia’s Mary Mitchell recently went to Kyrgyzstan in search of the country’s beautiful textiles. In a remote yurt, she found beautiful examples of traditional tush kiyiz, a dying form of embroidery. Here is her report.

Lying inside a tent on the side of a mountain pass between the north and south of Kyrgyzstan, Gulanda wakes only when cars stop to buy the Kumis and Qurut she sells.

A little way down from her tent, following a steep rocky path, is the yurt that she spends her summers in with a selection of her children and grandchildren. Today her daughter Gulnara is visiting, on a week’s holiday from her job with a Uyghur herbal pharmaceutical company in Bishkek.

Gulnara’s generation has left the nomadic Kyrgyz lifestyle and all its traditions behind for a new life in the city. Among these traditions has been embroidery style known as Tush Kiyiz.

Inside the yurt

The walls of Gulanda’s yurt are fashioned with two very different types of decoration. The first are hangings made from synthetic fabric in contrasting bright yellow and pink, machine-made and popular in roadside low-class restaurants looking for a bit of colour. Hung at the back of the yurt are two Tush Kiyizes, hand embroidered on red and black backgrounds with traditional Kyrgyz motifs.

Measuring 3 metres by 2 metres, Tush Kiyizes were traditionally made by the mother in the family following the birth of a daughter, to be given as part of the dowry to decorate the newly married couple’s yurt. In a nomadic culture where in previous centuries marriage might mean the bride never saw her family again, the Tush Kiyiz served as a physical reminder of her mother and ancestors.

On one Tush Kiyiz, Gulanda has embroidered her name and the date of her daughter’s birth. The other has the year it was completed sewn into an eagle motif. She says to me (or rather, shouts, as her hearing is beginning to fade):

“I’ve made 10 Tush Kiyiz, most of them I’ve given to my daughters. I started making them when I got married at 18 and made my final one when I was 50. I taught myself.”

Kyrgyz arts have their roots in a pastoral nomadic existence and subsistence economy. All decorative arts were tied to the processes of animal husbandry, gathering food and medicinal herbs from the land and raising livestock, and were an outlet for cultural and spiritual expression. No surprise, then, that common patterns to be found on Tush Kiyizes include ram’s horns, raven’s claws, or eagle’s eyes. Using a contrasting combination of a black background with naturally-dyed bright silk threads, they are a unique style of embroidery.

2. The centre motif of a Tush Kiyiz embroidered by Baktagul’s great grandmother Tileke c.1890.

Kazakhstan also has a similar style of embroidery, called Tys Kiyiz. While Tush Kiyiz are decorated from three sides leaving the centre free from embroidery, due to its location at the back of the yurt above stacked blankets, Kazakh Tys Kiyizs also feature embroidery in the centre, as they were placed behind the bed. This makes them more popular for collectors.

A dwindling art

Once an integral part of the lives of Kyrgyzstan’s women, the art of embroidering Tush Kiyizes is in danger of being lost forever. As women’s lives expanded beyond their immediate families during the Soviet era and they were encouraged to find employment, the time available to embroider decreased, alongside the personal value that was placed on it. Gulanda’s generation is the last to regularly embroider.

The loss of Kyrgyzstan’s Tush Kiyiz not only represents a lost skill, but a loss of culture, as handicrafts played a key role in passing down traditions, stories and values from one generation to another in a culture where the written word had not been valued until Russian influence enforced literacy upon a nomadic population.

The Tush Kiyizes that remain have been bought by collectors. Many are now in museums and private collections in the West, although the National Art Museum in Bishkek holds a 60-strong collection, according to Dinara Chocunbayeva, Director of the Central Asian Crafts Support Association in Kyrgyzstan (CACSA) who was involved in collecting Tush Kiyizs for this exhibition.

3. A Tush Kiyiz embroidered with the flag of the Kyrgyz Republic of the Soviet Union, currently on display in the National Art Museum in Bishkek.

As a member of the international jury of the UNESCO seal of excellence programme, Dinara is always on the look for other Tush Kiyizs to add to her private collection:

“Now I look at the new Tush Kiyizs that people bring me, almost every week, and there are less and less of them and the quality is getting worse and not as good as it was before. You can’t find good Tush Kiyiz now.”

A woman’s industry

4. Dinara Chochunbayeva, Director of Central Asian Crafts Support Association, who is playing a key role in supporting artisans in Kyrgyzstan and preserving traditional crafts.

CACSA was founded in 2000 after the success of an Aid to Artisans programme in the region. After eight years the Presidency was handed over to Kazakhstan, but a Kyrgyzstan branch continued to operate providing support only to Kyrgyz artisans. They work to open up the market available for Kyrgyz made products, support the artisans by training and helping to improve the quality of their crafts, and to preserve traditional Kyrgyz culture through crafts.

Dinara has been observing the labor trends in crafts for the last ten years. She reports,

“In Kyrgyzstan a minimum of 70% of artisans are women, growing in some areas to 90%.”

Consequently, working in crafts in Kyrgyzstan also involves working in the sphere of gender equality and women’s rights. In neighbouring Uzbekistan and Tajikistan the percentage of male artisans is much higher.

Westernisation = De-Kyrgyzisation?

While CACSA has had success in filling the market with high quality souvenirs, it has struggled to reestablish the art of embroidering a Tush Kiyiz. Dinara says,

“Tush Kiyizes were produced by women as gifts for their children, but now children don’t value the tradition, they don’t understand it, and the fact that they should care about it because of the amount of time invested in each piece.

“There is no time for embroidery any more, the speed of life is different. Some young people even refuse to receive Tush Kiyizes that are given to them, which is very sad, and we have no programmes in our schools that teach them the value of Tush Kiyizs.”

Dinara is only aware of one lady in Kyrgyzstan who teaches the art of embroidering Tush Kiyizs, but she suspects she hasn’t done much over the past year due to her age and decreasing health.

Indeed, embroidering a Tush Kiyiz does not lend itself well to the speed of production and consumption that Kyrgyzstan is becoming accustomed to. A woman would work on one piece over a period of years, fitting it in between other tasks. It is difficult to see how this style of working and the value placed on the finished product can be resurrected in a new Kyrgyzstan aspiring to Western values, which in many ways is completely different from the nomadic culture that existed before Soviet rule.

Companies like Saima, a family business run from Bishkek, turn fragments of Tush Kiyizs into table runners, wall hangings and place settings, sold to a Western market. While this brings much needed income into Kyrgyzstan, the obvious disadvantage is that it necessitates literally cutting up the heritage of Kyrgyzstan contained in these embroideries. The need for income, even at the expense of tradition and culture, seems to be ever present.

Back in the mountains, we prepare to leave. Gulanda says to us,

“If you stayed, I’d teach you.”

Gulnara smiles, but tells her mother she has a job to get back to in the capital.

1 comment Show discussion Hide discussion
  • Thank you for this beautiful story.
    It is a beautiful Kyrgyz product and I saw some of it.
    Unfortunately the person who give lessons in this amongst other at the Osh university was demotivated by the school and quit her job in 2007.

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