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Creating felt slippers
The stories of the craftsmen behind each pair of felt slippers
Felting Process
Larisa Duisheeva, 55, wool carding and pattern cutting machine specialist, 6 years with Tumar

"This coming October will mark my sixth year working with Tumar. Our workshop prepares felt to other production sections. First, wool passes through a carding machine before getting to the hands of my colleagues at the next stage. There they create the base: carded wool is laid to create large pre-felt sheets. Attention is given to ensure that the sheets have the same thickness on all parts. Afterwards pre-felt sheet goes through the needle-punching machine, which is a very important step on processing felt. Special needles pierce through wool and make fabric denser. After this process I clean the fabric from tiny pebbles and debris. The pre-felt is then washed, cleaned to become a finished felt and is distributed to the production section specialized on making slippers.

We work with different colors of felt, i.e. grey, blue, red, green, etc. We clean all types, however the colour they might be, but working with dark ones is easier. The most challenging part, for me personally, is to clean white felt, as it makes every single mote visible."

How much felt can you clean a day?
A felt canvas has approximate dimensions of 2.6×1 meter. I can clean five of such canvases daily. These days fineness of our felt is very high, as production engineers work relentlessly to improve the quality. Also, our work have been simplified in certain parts. For example, we used to wring out wool manually in the past, but now we do it through a special centrifuge. Technically, this is a big step forward. However automating the entire production process is hardly possible. No matter how refined machines become, they cannot do the job the way human hands do. When you work with your hands, you feel the material, don't you? A person can feel which is no machine is capable of doing. This is the reason why hand-made items have always been and will always be valued for.
When you work with your hands, you feel the material
Pattern Cutting
Larisa Duisheeva, 55, wool carding and pattern cutting machine specialist, 6 years with Tumar

Among other things, I also cut felt insoles and leather outsoles for Tumar. I had worked at "Cholpon" shoe factory for 10 years in the past. When I just started working here, I saw the pattern-cutting press. I glanced at it and thought, "Oh, this is something I know! I used to cut leather for kids shoes on a similar press machines at the factory "Cholpon" for so many years! Very few people can cut using this press as good as I do."
Sometimes there is so much work and deadlines are tight, so I asked to give me a mentee. At the beginning, a mentee just watches me working for a week. I walk him/her through the entire process. Then the mentee makes draft cuts under my supervision. Yet, there are things I do myself. There are many subtleties here. So many small details need to be cut. Doing them right requires from one to really know how and in which direction machine blades must be moved. My mentees do, of course, eventually learn everything. Look at Berik, for instance, our former mentee, who has by now mastered lot of things. Isn't it true, Berik? Tell us a bit about yourself.

Berik Amangaziev, Larisa Duisheeva's mentee, 34, pattern cutting and engraving specialist, 1 year with Tumar.

My background is in economics. I have been working at Tumar for a year by now. Certain aspects of my background came in handy in this job. Based on the drawings I calculate every step by centimeter and millimeter– it is necessary to work by precise measurements. Working on the cutting press is special. You need to feel every blow the machine gives to fabric. If you miscalculate the pressing force, then the cutter will pierce through the insole and the stand under it. Mainly I cut slipper soles out of leather or rubber. On average, I cut about 150 pairs of insoles. That may not be regarded as a great pace by any degree. We do not throw away the leftovers from soles, but reuse them later for smaller details, for examples for heels.

Another job I do is engraving on a leather sole and I love it! When etching letters, every second matters. Many factors may affect in this process. Depending on the leather dying, which can be black or reddish, a heat marking must be applied for 1, 3 or 5 seconds. If something isn't clear, I always come to Larisa and ask. We argue occasionally, but that is life. It is part of the job, like it or not, which is ok. At any rate, Larisa for me is no less than a master and I have been listening to her. She doesn't say anything bad and can teach me good only.
Have there been occasions when things went reverse and you, Larisa, have actually learned something from Berik?
Yes. I ask Berik quite a few things. He is young and has a bright mind. By the way, no matter whom you ask, everyone will tell who Larisa is. When I enter the work hall, I'm playful with my people, asking them "How are you doing my fellas?". Well, that' is just how I am. I can even occasionally throw a joke to our boss, Roza, although she is not very fond of it. God is the witness, all our people are wonderful and kind. If you need something, they always prompt and advise. We share a great team spirit here, celebrate every holiday together. Occasionally, we cook plov in a large pot, celebrate and socialize.
Sewing Assembly
Aksana Ajieva, 36, 16 years with Tumar

I've been working in this newly opened workshop for about a year, and for Tumar since 2003, which means 16 years in total. My job is to sew cutouts for slippers together. I sew them and secure with a fabric ribbon to keep them tight. If a model of slippers has a high back, then I also stitch a loop to it, so that a wearer can conveniently pull up while putting the slippers on. When my part is done, the slippers are forwarded for an overlock process (sewing for hemming and seaming of products). Overlock master does the most difficult part – stitching the upper part of the slipper to the insole. Sometimes women do it too, but they quickly get tired as it is a stressful work, indeed, requiring a man's hand and strength to get it done with accuracy. Guljamal also knows how to do it on overlock machine, but she says it is hard and be better done by men.

At the next step, slippers are shaped, i.e. stretched to the necessary size. Slippers are then returned to us for gluing outsoles, for additional seaming and cleaning.

This is an operational process. You are constantly checking on every step. If something went wrong, the seam went crooked, for example, the master working on the next stages approaches me and shows it, so I could redo the job properly.

Errors happen also while size-marking. Sometimes size 45 is marked instead of 43. If this is the case, shaping masters find out about it while putting the slippers on molds with size 45. They bring the slippers back and inform about the misfit and ask to redo.
Do you think your team is cohesive and friendly?
Yes, and this is not an overstatement – we are a very close-packed team. On a pay day, we all go out together. This has become our tradition.
Working conditions here with a five-days-long business week are nice. I have three kids. I had worked here before my maternity leave and later managed to get back. There was a period when my son started the first year in elementary and I had no choice other than taking frequent work leaves. He really needed to be walked to and picked-up from the school. On other days, I had been leaving a bit earlier to pick up my youngest son from the daycare. My management had never seen it as a problem and treated with understanding.
Why do you think there is a great demand for Tumar slippers?
I think they are practical. Slippers are worn every day and they are an essential home accessory and work well for health as well. Handbags and other accessories are good too, but slippers are something 'must-have', especially in winter, when the temperature cold. One gets used to them in no time and cannot do without them afterwards. Most of the slippers we produce are exported abroad. The felt available on the market is prone to pilling, but ours does not. It does not pile at all due to its premium quality. The last batch we shipped to the overseas customer contained 1000 slippers. Our work is very much dependent on the availability of orders. During downtimes, we work on something else, designing new models, for instance.
Your work is sedentary predominantly. Do you have eyes or back strain, at times?
Actually, eyes do not hurt. The back sometimes aches because of prolonged sitting. At some point, I remember, our boss organized eastern dance sessions and it helped a little. Then I gave up on the dancing and the sessions ended too.
Meder Mambetkul uulu, 29 felting and forming master, 10 years with Tumar

We have mainly male team in this workshop – wet-felting and forming section. Most of the time we maintain a great work spirit. Some of us dance, listen to music and sing songs during the workday. Having said this, you see a lot more serious faces today, as everyone was briefed about your interview and filming.

Guys here bring wool into a proper shape. To do that, wool is washed, rolled and dried. The process requires manual work to achieve desired shape and thickness. It is a laborious work, let me tell you.

At this very moment, we're ironing and remaking few pairs of black slippers – heels have shrunk a bit and small lumps appeared. This happens and sometimes may have nothing to do with our work. Quality of wool, its texture, machinery and multitude of other factors can cause or contribute to this issue. This soviet-era iron we work with is very heavy. However, it does the job very well. A strong and heavy press is critical for straightening the wool out.
Makhsat Sodonbaev, 30, 10 years with Tumar

We made most of the working tools ourselves and other items that have been required for work were figured out in the due course. All tools are made of copper. I remember years when we pulled the felt under the pads with pliers. Some of us still practice, especially when work is in excess and tools are lacking. Yet in most of the days we use this flat pod.
As per safety rules, we must work in gloves, and I don't like that. The palm skin cracks a bit because of the dyes, but I need to feel the material.
Cholpon Subakhozhoeva, 58, slippers cleaning, 11 years with Tumar

I have been working at Tumar for 11 years now. My original background is nursing. For family reasons, I moved to Bishkek and joined Tumar. My friend who had worked here before actually proposed me to join this company. I like it here, and my journey with Tumar carries on. At first, I worked in another workshop. We used to make shirdaks, ala-kiyiz and a range of felt products, but now I only clean slippers. Our team has 22 people. We clean slippers after they have been shaped in the previous workshop. Our working processes are interconnected and we rely on each other. Sometimes our drying machine breaks down leaving us with no work. On average, I clean about 20 pairs of slippers a day, sometimes more.

Cleaning with a blade gives the best result. If you work with a good quality blade, you can clean a pair at once. With a low-quality blade you can clean only one slipper. In those days cleaning takes a lot of time and my hands hurt, I get exhausted and moody. On the days when we clean black slippers, we are all covered in black by evening; same story with the red ones. We clean in different directions, as it also matters for making slippers surface pleasant and smooth to touch. From time to time we face rough wool that is difficult to work with. Personally, we have no idea as to why it happens. What we are certain about though is that it takes longer cleaning time. At those moments, I feel like crying. Although, one should say the quality of wool has become better in general. As opposed to now, in soviet days wool used to come with so much debris.

I am a very loyal person by nature and if landed at a particular place, I will not look for a job elsewhere. The gem of this company is the team. We indeed feel very close to each other here. Some can name this company as the second home. We spend most of the time in Tumar, from early mornings until evenings and go home just to sleep the nights over. The team here is strong and good. In a few days, we are heading out to the mountains for leisure.
Azgul Ainakulova, 48, 6 years with Tumar

This is my 10th year with Tumar. I sometimes stay late hours, till seven or eight PM. From time to time, we are given back cleaned slippers for re-cleaning. There have been fewer slippers to re-cleaning recently. Nothing like before! Oh, back then… we would have a whole big bag standing here.

I really want people to know that we produce a variety of products at Tumar. With our hands, we create premium handicrafts. Tumar has achieved a great progress. Now we get three times more slippers for cleaning than before.
Sole Manufaccturing
Abduvali Magometov, 56, 3 years with Tumar
How long have you been working for Tumar?
If I am not mistaken, it has been three years since I got here by recommendation of my friend, a very good person. His name is Zakir Aka, our Roza eje (workshop manager) knows him. Zakir used to polish molds for Tumar, when he was once asked if he knew someone in shoe-making specialization. That was how I got recommended. She invited me and I worked here since then. I am a certified shoe maker. In my childhood, from the fifth grade, to be exact, I started working as an assistant at "Cholpon" factory. That was in 1979. At that time, "Cholpon" was a giant shoe-producer in Central Asia. I started working in this industry as a teenager and I still live with it. At one point, I was transferred to the experimental workshop that produced shoes based on individual tailoring. My career growth started from there.
What does an individual tailoring mean exactly?
This means that you make shoes from A to Z. We are supplied with canvas segments and we cut out on the molds, adjust the insoles and start making shoes. That's all. Here in Tumar we get blanks of felt slippers, we outline them and glue the rubber or leather outsoles. I like working with leather more. Leather is elastic and can be arranged in different ways. There are no nuances – I smear and stick it. That's it. We work well, honestly! I make 35 pairs at most a day.
Hand-made has always been and will always be valued. It carries the warmth of a master's hands and love for his work.
What was the largest slippers you made?
Let me see, size 47, may be 48. A joke comes to my mind relative to your question. I heard it long time ago and I really like it. A man comes to a shoe store and asks about shoe sizes they have. The saleswoman briefs him, "Size 46 is the largest available." The man asks then, "Do you have size 50, perhaps?" "No Sir", the woman exclaims, "Next to the size 46 is only a suitcase.

We use the best rubber for the outsole, which is thick and elastic. It stretches in all directions, can be laid manually and pulled. Some rubbers you pull horizontally but it cannot be stretched in width, then you get it – something was not calculated right. We glue outsoles and then put them under the press. Applying high pressure allows glue to be well absorbed. Then we hammer the edges to make sure nothing comes off and fix the sole firmly. The sole is left drying for 15-20 minutes. Glue quality varies time to time. It could be the same brand, but a different batch. Some dry in 10 minutes, some take half an hour
Do you mostly work with music?
Yes, news and music. Sometimes we sing Russian and Kyrgyz songs.
Ibrahim Ualiev, 52, orthopedist, 8 years with Tumar

I was born in Tashkent and have been an orthopedic shoemaker since 1982. In Uzbekistan, I made orthopedic and model shoes, usually custom-made, sometimes for celebrity dancers and singers. My father worked as an orthopedic shoemaker for 50 years. At the age of 15 I was a hooligan, like many boys, and to stop me from that my father took me to his shoe shop. I studied for a year before turning into a master and enjoyed making shoes. I did not receive any higher education and all I know and can do came through hands-on. Apart from military service, I have 15 years in orthopedics. I had my own workshop and it is still being run in Tashkent by my nephew. I have a son who also works as an orthopedist.
Do you apply your orthopedic skills while working at Tumar?
Most certainly. My managers consult with me and I propose solutions to the best of my knowledge. During the designing phase, I scrutinize samples and we brainstorm how to make a person who wear slippers enjoy not just looks, but also comfort. Take these slippers – they are designed for people with the first degree flat feet syndrome. There is a special recess in the insole, like a pillow, for an increased wear comfort. This is not to say these are intended only for the people with sore feet. In fact, these could be worn by anyone. Wearing such slippers delays flat feet progression.

The insole on the heel determines the height of slippers. It is also designed to keep a foot leveled against the floor. If this hill is removed, the foot will be offset slightly backwards and a person will be walking incorrectly and with discomfort. A rubber sole is cut on a special machine with blades under pressure. If done manually, that job takes a long time. Rubber thickness is not uniform. For example, near the heel the rubber is thinner, it is done intentionally, so that when a person takes slippers off without bending, part of the sole would not cling and move.
Do you always wear a mask when working?
Not always. It's not comfortable to work with a mask on, in the first place. The other thing is I can still smell odors even when I wear it. Just think about it: when I leave the room and breathe fresh air, I start coughing. I'm allergic to fresh air. We drink milk, it cleanses and helps to remove chemicals from the body.

Let me share another story with you. In 1992, I was working in Tashkent, and my friend, a jeweler, was making various items from iron: small components, earrings and knick-knacks for Genghis Khan movie*. It was being shot in Kyrgyzstan at that time. They wanted someone good at leather, so we came to Bishkek. The Italians were making the film. Me with other craftsmen sew shoes, several hundred, around three hundred of them, to be exact. We also made hats, some sword accessories, armor for warriors, speaking in other words, everything that was required. The main character, Genghis Khan, was played by Richard Tyson. He had also starred in Kindergarten Cop with Arnold Schwarzenegger, if you remember. Once he came to us with his translator; he was wearing boots, leather ones, the kind cowboys had, and I liked them! One of the heels got rubbed off, so it needed a tap. He asked if I could make a heeltap. I had all what was needed with me. "No worries", I said, "It'll take an hour". "Okay!", he replied and left. I made the tap, glued it neatly, the way it should be. Later he asked, "How much do I owe you?" And I told him, "Not a penny! How about just having a beer with us instead" And he went like, "No, no …", and gave me 10 dollars. I was like, "Well, alright then…". He was a simple man without no sign of arrogance. I remember, I asked him what was up with Schwarzenegger. And he replied, "Okay, okay!" By the way, I gave him a rosary which I got from Tashkent, the ceramic one. He asked me, "What is it?", and I told him, "Good luck." And he, "Okay! Thank you!". I honestly don't know whether the film was completed in the end. Some people say it was released, but I have never seen it.

*Filming of Genghis Khan was suspended. In 2010, the US company acquired the rights to the original footage with intention to create a 2-hour feature film and 6-hour TV series " Genghis Khan: The Story of a Lifetime." It also went to no avail.
Quality Assurance Department
Raya Tulemysova, Head of QAD, 9 years with Tumar

I've been with Tumar for the last 9 years. I'm all about my work, I had spent in a hosiery factory many years before Tumar. I knew nothing but socks, tights and stockings. Honestly, when I got a job here, I was fascinated that so many things could be made of wool: slippers, decorations, bags. Had anyone asked me about that before, I would probably have guessed hats and scarves only. To sum it up: I decided to stay. It has been very interesting time for me. I'm currently in charge, among other things, of work distribution and quality control.
How is quality control of slippers done?
After cleaning, slippers are handed to me. I inspect them and if cleaned poorly, I return them for a re-clean. In other cases, the size could be labeled wrongly; sometimes our workers hasten and put a wrong size on. We check the size using pads and, if needed, send slippers back and they label it properly.

Then the slippers are sent to the sole gluing section. Then to a seamstress for seaming. After that, the slippers are returned to me again. I check the seams after gluing one more time. If required, we do the final cleaning and only after assuring all is in check, the slippers are moved to the storage room. The most difficult thing is to work with "melange" yarn, which is a mixture of black and white wool. Those products require extra care as opposed to dyed ones. Dyed felt is easier to clean.

Given no distractions it is doable to inspect 30 to 40 pairs a day. I'm talking about simple design with no pattern. The patterned ones, such with flowers, must be checked thoroughly, say, to align flowers properly, opposite one another.

We used to have very few molds before, certainly not enough for all the workers. These days we have plenty of them, of different shapes – four types. Designs vary too: Aladdin slippers, puffy, high and low ankle, boot-like and others.

I'm also in charge of recruiting workers.
How do you decide that a person is right one to hire?
We run an internship program. Interns are trained for a week and stay if they like it here. Otherwise, they just leave in the day one. When the work goes over well, people will put hearts into it. Those who come for nothing but money, will work poorly and watch the clock.
An artisan must enjoy the work
Roza Makashova, head of production, Tumar Art Group

I'm a graduate of Department of Energy at Polytechnic University. Chynara Makashova (head of Tumar Art Group) and I started the company together at Kyial years ago. Back then, my job was in a metal-ware shop (we used to make trays), and she was a sales-person in the store. When "Perestroika" broke forth, the world around started falling apart… leaving us neither with any factories nor jobs. Everyone was running around doing petty trade. We had to survive somehow. At that point, Chynara started seeing and understanding what the market wanted and thus came to an idea of producing felt and felt products. That was how it all began. Around the same time, I went jobless and started helping her with setting-up the felt business. There were no wet-felted slippers on the market at all back then, and those you could find were sewn. Down the line, the moment came when many products started being produced in wet-felting technology. This was where we thought, "Wow, why don't we try to make wet-felted slippers, those that don't have seams at all?" There were no such designs around at that time.

We mostly worked for the local market. I live in the village nearby Tokmok, 45 kilometers away from Bishkek. And there we started our operation, produced 15 to 20 pairs a week only, as the job was consuming. We had a long way to go. Every step in the whole production process was handled by ourselves. We carded wool, washed and dyed. We could do no more than 10-15 kilos of wool, which was enough to make 27 to 40 pairs of slippers. The first pair of slippers was made in 2001; it was in the fall, either in September or October. They were made of simple felt, seamless and very comfortable. I gave them to my friend, and she said, "When I wear these, my feet feel like landed in the nest. That is how warm and comfortable they are!" Later we began making slippers on molds. Firstly, we walked around the markets and looked for molds. We did not understand that molds could be so different, i.e. molds for classical shoes, high-boots, high and low-raise models, orthopedic or non-orthopedic ones. We were taking any molds we could find. Feeling happy for buying at least something, we usually proceeded to work. Perhaps, we were first on the market with such products.

These days, before a pair of slippers is made and ready, a large team puts efforts together. Let us say we need five colors. Or the next year such and such colors will be trending. We consult internally on what the customer expectations are, be that slippers with flower applications or spot patterns, or soles made of rubber or leather. After brainstorming, our designers create slippers design which is later manufactured at production. We have a dyeing master as well. For all these processes, we developed technological maps and dying recipes. Those materials enable craftsmen to understand how much and in which way wool must be processed in making felt, with a particular emphasis on weight, structure and quality. Knowing dye recipes is crucial not only for dyes used in existing products, but also for creating new hues.

Besides, we maintain visual inspection at every production stage. Those inspections are a job for not one, but several people. Speaking of slippers, the monthly production output is 1000 or more pairs, so quality assurance is done comprehensively. It involves the work by production manager as much as the assistants.

None of us has a specialized technical background in making wet-felted slippers. No one was actually trained on to roll slippers, spread or untangle wool. When people join the team, we simply provide hands-on internship and they learn as they go. Those who get things right and are inspirational about the work, as a rule, stay. Of course, there are some workers whom we seek and attract from outside too. I come to the production and address to people, "We need a person with such and such qualities. Let us look for decent people, the people whom we can trust. This is vital for keeping our team in a great spirit, as one scabby sheep will mar the flock.
Many of your artisans say they enjoy working at Tumar, they have a close-knit team and an interesting job. What do you think of this?
I'm very glad to hear that. Maybe it is true. Mostly, they have taken a strong linking of each and nobody wants to change the team. I have women who started working at the same time with me. People come here by close referral and oftentimes stay. There were also those who came from the sewing shops, but they did not stay for long. We raise the quality bar very high! Many people complained that requirements were too tough and unnecessary questions were asked about their work… Yet we cannot say strong enough how we appreciate our masters and the work they do.

We enjoy long-term contracts with our customers from US, Finland and Germany. They like working with us thanks to quality products. We have implemented felt density monitoring system and continuously giving a full regard to customer preferences. I come to the workshop and repeat to my colleagues that the person who bought our product should gratefully say, "Wow! This is an expensive buy, but you know what? It was totally worth it!

It would be too much to say that Tumar as something very up-scale. We still have things to strive for. We still have a lot to do and much to accomplish.

The wool we are working with nowadays isn't bad, it has not become worse or better. Same as in the past, the wool now is quite dirty with much of plant debris in it. Last year we acquired a cleaning machine and the work has gotten easier. Previously, wool cleaning was done manually. That said, even this machine can't cope with debris entirely. Once machine cleaning is completed, people go through the wool removing plant debris by hands. Automating everything is not yet possible. What helps us are reliable people. We work with quality leather suppliers and cattle breeders. Some have over 20 years of experience in what they do.

Our dyes are imported from Moscow and some from Switzerland. At the onset, the approach was basic. People were simply telling they needed plain green, olive green or a grass-like dye. We were looking at dyes and adding a spoon of one dye to a spoon of another. I was personally involved in this process and dyed products myself.

Around 2007 or 2008 we started seeking a dyeing technologist and met an elderly lady, she was 74-75 years old then. Nelly Alexandrovna said initially she would join us for a week, prepare recipes and leave. She ended up working with us for a long time and would have probably worked longer, if not a stroke. Now she spends her days at home. However, before that happened, she had taught everything she knew to us, i.e. how to design a recipe, work with dyes, maintain proper temperatures, blend components and calculate proportions. Nelly scaled everything by grams. Currently when engineering a new color, we take a particular dye as a baseline, analyze how it was created and start experimenting with it. We mix that dye with others and develop a new one. Our dye palette at the moment includes over 500 recipes.
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