Kyrgyz felt carpets and the women behind them
Son Kol is an idyllic mountain lake in the center of Kyrgyzstan, is also the namesake of the business of SINGApreneur Aimeerim Tursalieva. In an interview with Rossana A. Amman, Aimeerim shares that Son Kol, “the Kyrgyz heaven”, was the first thing that popped up when brainstorming company names with friends. The felt carpets she sells represent female unity, Kyrgyz culture and a cooperative of women working together towards one goal. However, Aimeerim not only sells carpets, she also organizes felting workshops in Winterthur and takes people on tours to her homeland.
While doing her Master’s at the University of Basel in “Peace and Conflict Transformation”, the sociologist and social researcher worked with refugees in Greece and Turkey. She confesses that “it was difficult work to do. From what I studied, it was responsible work and you must have a strong personality to work in such areas. I realized it was very tough.”
During her studies, she started selling souvenirs and carpets from Kyrgyzstan. “That was my student cash to travel, to have coffee with friends and those types of activities,” she says. After some success selling her wares at town (Christmas) markets, she decided to go deeper with the business and incorporate social and environmental impact in her business model.
Rossana: Tell us more about your business.
Aimeerim: It all started as a very small thing. In 2014, I started to bring felt carpets from Kyrgyzstan and sell them near my home in Winterthur with a friend. Making Kyrgyz-carpets is something that I have been doing since I was a child. It is part of my life. In Kyrgyzstan, it also acts as a marriage gift for girls and every family makes felt carpets for their daughters. Here in Switzerland, I often tell such stories about the carpets and bring my culture with it.
Did you receive your own carpet from your parents?
Aimeerim: Of course, I have it at home! My mom, aunts and grandmothers gathered together to make the carpet when I was only 13 years old. My mom just kept it until I got married (laughs). The carpet means a lot to me because it was made by all the important women in my family. It symbolizes the power of female community.
It was not until 2016 when Aimeerim realized that the business was becoming something else. She even started to do workshops with interested clients. “People were asking how I made the carpets and I told them to bring some friends over to my place and I will explain how it works. I then organized courses for 13 women in Winterthur. Everything evolved by itself,” she explains.
Who makes the felt carpets?
Aimeerim: I started buying the carpets in Kyrgyzstan from what we call ‘women communities and cooperatives’ (women from nomadic communities getting together to make carpets by hand to earn some money). I worked with three of them and after I started wondering, how could I do business in a more sustainable way?
In Kyrgyzstan, 5 to 10 women gather to make the carpets together. It is a difficult process and that’s why you don’t do it alone. It is community work. While doing it they sing and talk about life. You have female unity woven into those carpets.
You recently organized tours for Swiss people to Kyrgyzstan. How was this experience?
Aimeerim: The first two trips were in June and August 2018. 10 Swiss women dived into the Kyrgyz culture and were taught traditional Kyrgyz-felting craft in different workshops with local women from different cooperatives. The trips took 12 days and we went around the country to create 4 different felt products: in the city of Kochkor they made carpets, in Tamchy felt-animals, in Bokonbaevo felt-silk scarves and in Kara-Oi felt-shoes. We also hiked in mountain valleys, enjoyed the untouched landscapes and gained insight into the original way of life of nomadic families.
Where do you see your business going in the next 5 years?
Aimeerim: I will totally keep doing the same. I would like to keep the spirit of sharing and the exchange of cultures. Women everywhere are very similar: they like to talk, share time together and engage in exciting projects. I like where I am going now and I would like to continue this way.
Until now, what do you find to be the most useful guidance inside the SINGA Factory?
Aimeerim: They have supported me the most in building up structure. We have a variety of
workshops: about legal aspects, marketing or how to manage your finances and they help you bring in and set a vision. Why, how and what do you want to be? The question is always the same. It makes you think a lot. The available templates also help me organize my business in a different way.
From all the workshops you have participated in, is there one you could mention as really special?
Aimeerim: I say all the time during the workshops: ‘oh that’s really cool! That’s really cool!’ because it is knowledge I really need. Nevertheless, I think for me an eye-opening workshop was the one about cultural aspects of networking in Switzerland with Angie Weinberger. She talked about Swiss history, how it works here and how you build your network properly in the country. It made a lot of sense because whatever business you are in, the way you network is important.
What would you advise people who would like to start their own projects but don’t think they have the time, energy, courage or ‘perfect moment’ to do it?
Aimeerim: Come to SINGA! (laughs). I would tell them to go outside and start doing it! Maybe don’t spend so much time planning the ideal business, you learn from the practical side. However, on the other hand; plan activities, plan events and things properly in a way they would do it here in Switzerland. Put 100% effort into what you are doing. You have to get out of your comfort zone! You could also look for people that are doing similar projects in the country (and learn from them) and adapt your business plan and strategies.
What drives and motivates you every day?
Aimeerim: My kind of morning ritual starts with breathing in some oils e.g. lavender, and that smell gets me in the mood. What I am doing now really motivates me a lot. Building up my business and doing what it takes to provide it with a good structure. Besides that, my ‘zero-waste’ project in Kyrgyzstan for the community of Bishkek, also keeps me busy.
Good to know:
New tours with Son Kol are coming in 2019. You can learn more about upcoming workshops, tours and the online shop at: www.sonkol.ch
On Facebook you find more details about the markets and the experiences with the participants: https://www.facebook.com/Son-Kol-702244689917754/
This interview was held in English by journalist, storyteller and volunteer Rossana A. Ammann, who is passionate about multiculturalism, people’s stories and organizational development. You can find her work and more about her on LinkedIn