KUKESH, Albania – Atel Ora has been weaving carpets and rugs for more than half a century, entering her aunt’s workshop as a child.
Ora, 64, now teaches her daughter, her nieces and nephews, other junior women, selected and improved techniques to ensure that there is another generation of craftsmen who will continue the tradition.
Albania once had 13 former state-owned factories that produced carpets, rugs, fez hats, folk costumes and other handicrafts. Kukes, northeast of the capital Tirana alone, employed more than 1,200 women as weavers. When the country’s communist era ended in 1990, the local factory closed.
Oran built three looms for himself, bought a large supply of wool fibers and other necessary tools from the mess. Today he is just one of the few Albanians who still weaves, which does not bring much money. With a population of about 60,000, Kukes is one of the poorest in Albania, one of the poorest in Europe.
Many young people in the city, especially young men, have emigrated to Western Europe in search of work. Women often remain unemployed at home, waiting for transfers from their husbands, brothers and other male relatives.
“Restoring this tradition will add value, increase jobs, and have a direct socio-economic impact on people’s lives, as well as preserve a part of Albanian culture,” said Deputy Mayor Majlinda Onuzi.
Social Development Investment NGO received funding from German-Swiss development agencies to train 125 women in wool production and weaving. Founder Elias Mazlum said the goal was to “open a window of hope for the unemployed” in the Kukes area to preserve the tradition of handmade carpet weaving.
As part of the Part project, Ora both teaches young people how to weave wool from Ruda sheep in rugs and other items using Persian knots, which is a local method better than Turkish-style knots. She learns how to clean, wash, comb, dye her hair with vegetable և other natural dyes.
Oran said that other efforts to revive carpet weaving in Kukes had failed. “Because in order to be successful, they have to work with all the qualified women to find our market.”
“Until the whole carpet industry is restarted, I or someone like me will hardly be able to capture the attention of Tirana individually, where the whole business և market is located,” he said.
Mazlum said the new program trains participants to produce a product that already has a buyer. At least half of the women involved in the program have started working with wool at home, she said.
“It’s very difficult work, but the price does not correspond to the real value. “It is underestimated, given the time, how difficult this job is,” Mazlum said.
Blerina Koljini, Associate Professor of Textiles and Fashion at the University of Tirana, Albania, points to the art of carpets and other products at the Kukes Gallery. The quality of Ruda sheep wool found only in that area, in Kosovo և Croatia, the density of the knots, the thickness of the thread և the attention to detail “do not differ much from the world work of artists.”
Koljini says that carpets and other woolen products were the second most exported goods to Albania before the end of communism. The items made there were of such high quality that the Italian company bought and sold them at 10 times the price in Europe, while saying that they were made in Iran, a country awarded for carpet weaving.
“Shepherds make wool, and artisan women weave its threads. “What is missing in Albania right now is the intermediate stage of yarn processing,” he said.
A study by Mazlum NGO found that 85% of the country’s wool was thrown away, creating a potential annual loss of 20 million euros ($ 24 million). In the village of Nange, not far from Kukes, 68-year-old Mereme Pepa is the only one who still spins the wool she uses for sweaters, blouses and socks.
Her grandson, Ernest, և Several high school classmates participate in the Social Development Investment Training Program. Most girls attend SDI in high school. At first, they attended for fun, but some of the girls enjoyed the desire to learn the craft, “not wanting to lose it, let the foreigners do what we can.”
Oran enthusiastically described how she learned to weave through her aunt’s methods of “stealing”, how she helped support her parents during the communist era by making carpets, and then her family of five during the difficult post-communist years.
Before starting her training program, she taught her daughter to make carpets. Ora’s bride, a nurse, helps work part-time as her main assistant. The 23-year-old niece, who studies industrial chemistry, helps, sometimes brings in school friends, and women who want to learn from Aunt Hate, the name (pronounced HAY-tee) that everyone in the city calls Ora.
It takes an experienced weaver three months to make a rug with the image of Mother Teresa or an intricate arrangement of Albanian symbols.
“Why doesn’t the businessman or the government look at us?” He asks. “We make works of art, don’t we?”