Slippers with a soul: Kyrgies blend wool tradition with living-wage jobs for women

Kyrgies are wool-felted slippers that are handmade in Bishkek, Kyrgyzstan. (WTOP/Rachel Nania)
A local company is on a global mission to bring some hygge to your home — and feet

WTOP's Rachel Nania

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WASHINGTON Barclay Saul never imagined he’d be an expert in wool.

For most of his career, the Northwest D.C. native ran a music school in Tysons Corner. But his tune changed last year when he joined childhood friend and former Potomac School classmate Steven Anderson in a business venture that took him out of Northern Virginia guitar studios and into a women-run arts collective in Kyrgyzstan.

Saul and Anderson’s business is called Kyrgies, and they sell wool-felted slippers that are handmade in Bishkek, Kyrgyzstan.

“Wool felt is the oldest textile on earth. There are examples of wool felt that are at least 8,000 years old,” Saul said. “And the people who make these slippers, the Kyrgyzstan people along the ancient silk road, have been wool-felting for as long as people have been there.”

Saul was drawn to the slippers for a few different reasons — comfort was one of them. He calls wool felt “a sort of magic material” for its ability to keep the body warm when it’s cold, and to cool the body down and wick away moisture when it’s hot. In Kyrgyzstan, everything from clothing to shelters namely, yurts are made using wool felt.

The story behind the artisans making the slippers was the other big attraction. The factory, which employs mostly women, pays a living wage, and the shoes are made with water, wool and natural soap — no chemicals.

“They are really lifting these people out of poverty,” said Saul, who added that Kyrgyzstan is one of the poorest countries in Central Asia.

“Each of the women who makes these is in a really good position, and they’ve actually already hired 50 new women [in the factory] since we started in less than a year.”

Currently, Kyrgies, based in Fairfax, Virginia, makes an indoor-only slipper and an indoor-outdoor version that Saul said is perfect for running errands or wearing around the office. The majority of their sales are online, although a few retailers in Canada carry the shoes.

Hygge is a big hook for Kyrgies. The Danish word that more-or-less means “a state of coziness” (pronounced hue-guh) is a popular buzzword these days, mostly when it comes to interior design. But Saul said it translates beyond furniture and light fixtures to feet.

“When you get home, not only should you take off your shoes, you should put on something that lets you forget the outside world, and much of the rest of the world does that,” he said.

This spring, the business partners hope to expand the Kyrgies line by adding a spring slipper and a leather-sole shoe. They’re also hoping to partner with other organizations to spearhead some infrastructure projects in Kyrgyzstan, starting with wool cleaning.

“One thing we really need to specifically do is help them clean wool,” Saul said. “The wool that you get from Kyrgyzstan is just as good as the wool that you might get from New Zealand or Australia, but New Zealand and Australia have an industrial infrastructure so that they can basically keep leaves and grass from getting into the wool.”

That’s not the case in Kyrgyzstan, where workers lose up to 30 percent of the product in the cleaning process.  

Kyrgies come in several color options, ranging from gray to teal, and cost between $49 and $59.

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