Wednesday, March 23, 2011

Through a door and onto the rooftop of the world!

If you're wondering how our business ever got involved in our current work in Central Asia you'd have to read this post.  It's a pretty amazing story and I'm still amazed when I read it how all these events have come about.  Sometimes I have to pinch myself.

It was through a wardrobe door that we entered into the enchanted world that Linda Cortwright calls “wild fibers”.  It was a brisk day in early fall when my mother received a midmorning call from the Council of International Programs USA, a non-profit educational exchange program based out of Cleveland, Ohio.  They were planning a series of stops for a group of fiber artisans from Kyrgyzstan and we happened to be the closest mill available.  They wanted to know if we would give their group a tour.  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.

The artisans who visited our mill in the fall of 2007.
Kyrgyzstan is a land locked country bordered by a bunch of other places I had never heard of (let alone could spell) and China.  The country is literally covered in mountains and plateaus.  The Pamir Mountains, which means “Rooftop of the World”, run along the southern border of Kyrgyzstan.  They have been considered a strategic trade route in history past and are still arguably one of the greatest “undiscovered” tourist destinations in the world.  Not only are they home to one of the largest glaciers outside of the Arctic Circle but within their borders are thousands of semi-nomadic people who are amazing artists and wonderful shepherds of sheep, goats, camels and... yaks!

Historically, Kyrgyzstan was the hub through which many of the routes of the Old Silk Road traveled, connecting Eastern, Southern, and Western Asia with the Mediterranean world, as well as parts of Northern Africa and Eastern Europe.  Cities in Kyrgyzstan such as Osh, Bishkek and Naryn, which still exist, were frequented by every merchant imaginable on their way to or from the Orient.  And while today it is not the economic center that it once was it is still a great link for us in the fiber world.

on the road that leads to Naryn from Bishkek
 “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.”  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.

There are rare moments in your life when you suddenly realize that what’s in front of you is undeniably what you were born to do.  God spoke in that moment and said, “JC, will you serve these people too?”  I smiled and explained that as God allowed we would do whatever we could to serve them.  “This is good.  We will pray for this too!” they said.

As they drove away I knew now the path in front of me.  Growing up I had never dreamed that God would lead me halfway around the world to work with fiber producers and artisans, and connecting them with our fiber friends in the US.  As an ex-collegiate football player and youth pastor of 12 years I didn’t know the first thing about fiber compared to these people.  They were craftsmen… true artist in every sense of the word.  I knew following this path would require that I become a student.  The next day I went back to work with a new perspective on who I was, what our company was about and how God wanted to use it.
Fiber artisans gathered to meet us in their village hall.  The lady in the grey hat with a black band was the organizer of their co-op.
Shortly after this I met a wise older woman during a guild presentation at Malabar Farms who came up shook my hand and told me, “If you’re not too smart, you’ll learn something new everyday!”  Each day in the mill was now an opportunity to learn.  There’s a trail of tears, sweat, defeat, headache, and hard work that’s brought us to the present.  There are many customers who have graciously, patiently worked with us and allowed us to fail, learn and grow from our mistakes in trying to make all things beautiful – and to them we are forever grateful!

A young shepherd in a village outside of Naryn
Last March we took our first trip to Kyrgyzstan.  We spent seventeen days there and met with 55 different groups of people from government and business leaders and important organizations to village artisans and shepherds,  along with many of the friends who had visited us in the states.  We witnessed first hand who they are and the needs that they have.  We listened.  We asked questions.

The village people there make in a year what most Americans bring home in a week.  In Kyrgyzstan you’re either very rich or very poor – there is no in between.  We met an elderly woman who works with her daughter and granddaughter year around to make four shrydaks (a 9’ x 6’ felted rug) which they hope to sell for a little more than a hundred bucks a piece to a local co-op.  It’s a good year if they make $600.

Two examples of a handcrafted Shyrdak.  Traditional shyrdaks are 9'x6' and are used as wedding gifts.
We met Cashmere goat farmers who might get $8-10 per pound for some of the finest fiber I had ever seen.  Most people in Kyrgyzstan sustain themselves on less money than the majority of Americans make in a two week pay period.  Needless to say, we returned from our trip highly motivated to develop a solid business strategy that would allow us to help bring economic and social transformation for the rural people of this mountainous region.

Over the last twelve months we’ve sought out and partnered with 100’s of people here in the states and abroad to develop a solid business plan for the development of a network of mini-mills that can be used in Central Asia among the remote mountain region villages – among those who raise some of the world’s rarest fibers and create some of the most amazing art.  While we have no intention of closing our business here in the states we know we must somehow expand our business to serve our friends overseas.  In the process we’ve begun to rethink the cottage industry model – we must streamline it and make it a powerful tool that any small farmer can use to realize a sustainable and profitable business both here and abroad.
These are two men from the Naryn oblast who help process wool.  They are fortunate enough to have a 40 year old picker, which is in need of repair and new parts.
Our plan is to develop each mill in four stages: first scouring, then opening/dehairing, carding/felting and finally spinning.  The first phase will require the initial start up capital of $20,000 of which our business will contribute a quarter, our partners in Kyrgyzstan will raise a quarter and we will raise the other half from contributors here.  From then on the business there and here will provide the additional capital needed for each new phase. However, additional fundraising will be needed towards specific projects as they become evident (training, supplies, etc.)

We are presently planning a trip to return to Kyrgyzstan on April 21st and while we are there we will be interviewing potential business partners (a national partner is required by law to do business there), to purchase Cashmere fiber and artwork, and to allow God to show us more of what it is that he wants us to do there.  While on my first trip I took with me two business advisors and a photographer.  This time I will be taking my wife and my two oldest children.  I think it’s necessary to take them with me as we will be required to live there for a period of time once we get the business up and running, and this will help with that transition.  While our business is contributing $4000 to this trip there is still an additional $4000 that we will need to raise.

We’ve partnered with Interlink Ministries out of Kidron, Ohio to be a financial institution through which donors can make tax deductible contributions to our project: MSF in Kyrgyzstan.  To learn more about how you can help us raise these funds please contact me (  Every little bit will help.  What if 400 of our friends here in the US could contribute $10 to help their neighbors in the Pamir Mountains realize value added steps to their exotic fiber and art work?  I’m confident that you can help us realize this goal.
this shepherd is going to teach our boys how to shepherd sheep, and wanted me to tell Obama that he said Hi!
One night sitting down at my desk with my head in my hands ready to throw in the towel God showed me Psalm 23 as if I had never read it before.  I cried out to him, “You are my shepherd.  I have no wants.  Lead me in paths of righteousness for your name sake…”  I’m sure there are many more valleys that await me in the path ahead but there is also an amazing mountain range called “the rooftop of the world”, a place where the air of heaven is sweet and the people are kind and humble and in great need.  And as God allows we will do whatever we can to serve them.

JC Christensen owns and operates Morning Star Fiber in Apple Creek, Ohio and raises a small flock of Icelandic sheep in the tradition of his grandparents – and raises a larger flock of 8 kids.

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