Issue 2, 2015. April-May

   

REWOVEN: SAVING THE ART OF WEAVING AZERI RUGS IN GEORGIA

American Ryan Smith is working with women in Georgia's minority Azeri community to save the ancient tradition of Azeri rug weaving.

Ryan Smith

Awoken from deep sleep by the ringing of my phone, I see a foreign number flashing across its screen. I struggle to gather my wits in the middle of the night and piece together the Azerbaijani words coming from half way around the world, "We're almost out of black yarn."

For most, such a seemingly trivial call at 3 a.m. would be a great annoyance, especially when on vacation back in the U.S. But for me, it was pure joy. After more than a year of unsuccessfully searching for someone to weave a traditional Azeri rug in Georgia, finally our first rug was coming to life, one knot at a time. And with it a project named reWoven was born.

Azeri people living within the southeast of the Republic of Georgia have been weaving gorgeous rugs for centuries. This region has been their home since at least the 12th century. Today, they number around 500,000 and are Georgia's largest ethnic minority. The Azeris are just one of many distinct ethnic groups that have lived for centuries on the lands included within Georgia's borders today. Tbilisi itself has historic Azeri neighborhoods and Azerbaijanis have sold rugs in Tbilisi's markets for generations. Learning about the minority peoples that have influenced Georgian culture and language contributes to understanding Georgia as a whole.

The traditional Azeri name for Georgia's Kvemo Kartli region is Borçalı (Bordjalou). It is also the name of a classic Azeri rug design with repeating hooks around triangular blocks.

Other village names in the region also have corresponding rug designs, including Qaraçöp (Karachopt) and Faxralı (Fachralo), testifying to the rich weaving history in the region. Azeri villages in Georgia wove many of the Caucasian rugs found in museums and collections around the world today. These centuries-old textiles display harmonious natural dyes, playful designs, and finely tied knots.

I first became familiar with these design names when I was living in Baku, Azerbaijan, in 2002. I spent a lot of my free time in its old city's carpet shops while I learned the local language. I immediately fell in love with the ancient craft, and slowly began learn the names of designs and distinct weaving techniques.

When I later moved to a rural region of Azerbaijan, I started a rug-weaving project. My simple fascination with rugs became a practical necessity, as I sought to preserve the craft while providing an income opportunity for women in the villages. I would never have guessed that this experience would repeat itself ten years later in the Azeri region of Georgia.

My wife and I arrived in Georgia in fall 2011. She began working with Teach and Learn with Georgia, while I had a contract with an NGO. I immediately began investigating rug weaving in the region. Countless conversations and forays to local villages quickly demonstrated the dire condition of rug weaving among the Azeris in Georgia. Once a world-renowned rug-weaving region, this tradition had all but vanished.

In centuries past, nearly every woman would weave. Mothers would spend endless hours weaving with their daughters, teaching them just as they had been taught by their mothers. Each mother and future bride wove a set of rugs together for the future bride's dowry.

Janet, the mother of 12 children, used to weave with the project. Today two of her daughters and her daughter-in-law are all weavers with the project. (Ryan Smith)

Unfortunately, several forces of modernization drove weaving to near extinction. The introduction of cheap, machine-made carpets provided women with an effortless option for covering their floors and walls. These were eventually accepted in a bride's dowry, thus eliminating a significant drive to continue their weaving tradition.

Another major shift in the aesthetic of rugs happened in the late 19th century with the introduction of synthetic dyes. It was much easier to toss a packet of powder dye in a boiling cauldron to create colors never before imagined possible, rather than to painstakingly collect plant roots, petals and peels, along with specific minerals, to fix the pigments to the protein fibers.

The vivid colors on ancient textiles testify to the durability and beauty of natural dyes. And because the colors come from nature rather than a test tube, every color shares similar pigments in varying degrees, making the colors naturally harmonious.

Despite the absence of active weavers among Azeris in Georgia, there are plenty of local hand-woven rugs on the floors of village homes today. In stark contrast to the beauty of 19th century pieces, these rugs display garish synthetic colors, lifeless designs, and coarse weaving. Any rugs of value and beauty were traded out long ago.

After a year of discovering the near extinction of rug weaving in the region, I held out for one last hope. A distant village where time was said to have stood still, Qaraçöp (pronounced Garachirp) is the name of an amalgamation of 7 villages in Kakheti with over 20,000 inhabitants.

Despite its size, Qaraçöp is still very much a traditional Azeri village. Women carry water to their homes on their backs in long-necked bronze jugs. The seasonal rhythm of the village includes taking herds to distant mountains in the spring, and shepherding them back in the fall. Winter is traditionally the season for rug weaving, when all the summer outdoor activity is complete.

I visited Qaraçöp in December 2012. After going door to door with a new local friend for four days, we finally found two women, sisters-in-law, who each accepted the challenge of weaving a rug. We provided them each with a historic rug design from the region, and a bag full of hand-spun, naturally-dyed yarn with the appropriate colors.

I had arrived at Qaraçöp with yarn and a faint hope of meeting some weavers. But I left having made new friends and with a muted optimism that a beautiful rug would emerge in the months to come. The midnight phone call for black yarn was further evidence that we were on the right path.

That was more than two years ago. Since then, some 30 women have combined to complete 34 rugs with reWoven, with more rugs on the loom today. Most of these women had not woven for 10-15 years, but took the bold step to try it again. They each accepted a bag of yarn and a design, and turned them into a reflection of centuries past. Each woman's own personal story intersected with their community's ancient tradition to birth a new treasure with their fingers, bringing to life what had only survived in faint memories.

Our very first weaver, Tukazvan, has continued to be our most skilled and productive. She takes great pride in her work, and it shows with each completed masterpiece. She is currently weaving her sixth rug, this time with her sister-in-law, Mebara. Tukazvan wove her first three rugs by herself before she convinced her sister-in-law to join her. Tukazvan's own sister and another sister-in-law also weave with our project. It is a family affair.

All of our rugs are woven in the weaver's home at her own pace. The weaving is intended to fill in the gaps when the women have free time beyond their other responsibilities. It is a way for them to earn supplemental income while practicing their craft.

reWoven is a non-profit project that is committed to insuring the maximum benefit for its weavers and their community. All of the proceeds of this project will remain within the local village. We are confident that our weavers are the highest paid in the Caucasus region. As we establish a market and ensure the financial viability of this project, we are eager to continue to raise the weavers' wages.

One challenge to the preservation of this craft is the naiveté of rug buyers and the misinformation, and even deceit, in the rug market. Most rug sellers, from Baku to Tbilisi, claim their rugs are locally woven and naturally dyed. But the vast majority of these rugs are from Iran, Afghanistan, and China and are made with chemical dyes, yet use Caucasian designs. They are woven by hands that are paid much less than Azeri weavers can afford to live on, thus undermining the local craft.

We attempt to overcome this challenge by maximizing the personal connection between the artist and the patron. Each reWoven rug includes a certificate that contains personal information about its artist and the history of its design. An even more personal connection can be made between customer and weaver by ordering a custom rug. Customers can pick from a catalog of historic designs and give input on the selection of colors and design elements. If the customer lives in Georgia, they are welcome to visit the home of the weaver and see their rug on the loom.

If you are interested in helping to continue this rich tradition, you can learn more about the project and view our available rugs at www.rewoven.net. To custom order a rug, please write us at info@rewoven.net. Each reWoven rug is deeply rooted in an ancient weaving tradition, and one small step toward insuring this tradition survives another generation.