April 21, 2021

JC and the Kyrgyz

"'Mein etim JC', I said as I handed each one a cup of tea and a cookie.  And that was the extent of my broken Kyrgyz language (which I had frantically Googled before they arrived).  'We’re so glad you could come and visit our mill.'"  JC, short for Jerry Christensen, fondly recalls his first words to the group of 12 Kyrgyz artisans CIP brought to his "mini-mill" during our Handicraft Small Business program through a Community Connections grant.

The group, comprised mostly of artisans whose skills in felting blew JC away, came through CIP's program in November 2007 to learn how to market and promote their craft from entrepreneurs and small business owners like JC and his mother, Karen.

Like an omen of things to come, on the same day that we reached out to JC and Karen to see if they would be a part of this program, JC happened across a story about the issues facing Kyrgyz textile artisans.  "On my desk lay Linda Cortright's latest issue of Wild Fibers Magazine. It was early September 2007.  It was open to the feature article about the first cashmere conference in Central Asia.  I felt as if I had just walked through a wardrobe door and entered onto the rooftop of the world.

"As I learned of these pastoral people who raised world-class cashmere yet received 'pennies for their rubies', I turned to my mother Karen and said, 'I wonder how we can help, because this is a tragedy!' I didn't even know how to pronounce Kyrgyzstan, but that did little to hinder my enchantment of wanting to connect.  With their rich ancestral history of husbandry skills in raising fiber and our newfound access to niche mini-mill equipment maybe there was a possibility. Our mini-mill could fit in a two-car garage, and never in my wildest dreams would I have assumed it would have an effect on the textile industry the way it has since the turn of the century. So you can imagine my level of disbelief when my mother received a midmorning call from the Council of International Programs."

After we described the program to JC and Karen that morning, they kindly agreed to take part.  "Of course, we said yes, and within a few short weeks a group of twelve artisans and two translators showed up at the mill and changed how we viewed the world forever."

JC's journey into the textile manufacturing industry has been winding and rewarding.  "I'm a former college football player from the University of Toledo with a degree in Recreation and Leisure Studies. I married Marghie in 1997 and raised a large family of 8 children while being a youth pastor, before joining my mother's new mini-mill adventure in 2005.  By 2018, I had a lean six sigma black belt in manufacturing processes, had spun high-quality yarns from over 150 different breeds of fiber from all over the world, and became known as a master spinner.

"But it was long before any of that that I found myself working with CIP and the Kyrgyz. Starting in the spring of 2008 through 2013 we took four different exploratory/training type trips over to Kyrgyzstan to help establish a solid foundation for their fiber industry. During those trips, we educated established value and dreamed together. We shared what we knew and connected them to the resources and networks that we had. We confirmed what Linda's article had highlighted, and then began to consider a path for them to begin, sustain and optimize the true value of their fiber, culture, and craft. Over the years, through a vast network of relationships that extends throughout Kyrgyzstan, across Europe, and the United States, we have helped to established the platform which led to While it doesn't connect all of the dots that make up fiber, culture and craft in Kyrgyzstan it provides a relevant way for them to conduct business and realize the value of their efforts as pastoralists."

We at CIP are thrilled that we could faciitate the beginning of this beautiful partnership during our Community Connections program in 2007.  JC remembers our group's visit vividly: "It truly was an honor to show them around the mill and describe what each of the machines did in processing fiber.  When we finished at the mill we invited them over to our home and enjoyed a meal.  Finally we took them to our felting studio.  Showing a Kyrgyz how to felt is like teaching Payton Manning how to throw a football.  They were very gracious and greatly appreciated how our machines were able to do what they do by hand. What happened next will forever be etched in my memory.  Our felting studio was turned into a bazaar as each one pulled out their artwork and put it on display.  The room was a buzz as everyone clamored for us to view their pieces.  It was then that we discovered why these were the top twelve representatives hand-picked from their country.  Their artwork was amazing.  Every single piece was done by hand from raw fiber to finished product.  The free-hand designs were so unique, intricate, colorful and flawless.  I felt so privileged to be a part of such an eclectic gathering of fiber artist. But as with any trip into 'spare room' you suddenly find yourself back in the real world.  I’m convinced that all good-byes are awkward – this one was no exception.  As I clamored for something appropriate to say each one kept speaking blessings on our mill and family.  It was very humbling.  We attempted to bless them as well and asked if there was anything we could do for them.  In unison the group erupted in spirited Kyrgyz.  As the comments died down the translator said they had asked if we would come and help them put mills like ours in their villages."

Although JC has since moved on from his mill, his heart is still with his friends and partners in Kyrgyzstan.  "I sold the mill in 2018. I had to get a full hip replacement and needed to find a line of work where I wasn't on my feet for 8-10 hours per day. I still work as a consultant for various mills around the US and abroad. Recently I took a full-time job as a solutions engineer for a labor market analytics firm in Moscow, Idaho. My wife and I have plans to visit Kyrgyzstan after the kids are grown and out of the house."
Posted by Melissa Zwick on April 21, 2021 at 10:53 PM in CIPUSA Permalink
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