Saturday March 26 we took a guided trip to Shkoder (aka Shkodra) in the north of Albania. While I usually abhor guided trips due to their predictability and herd mentality, this trip was wonderful. It was arranged by the Tirana Womens International Group (TWIG). There were twelve or thirteen of us plus our guide, Drini, and the driver of the minibus. The trip was something like an hour and half from Tirana.
Our first stop was an artisan weavers’ shop in the mountains of Shkoder. We passed quite a few sheep (some of which were later converted into wool) as our bus climbed up the winding roads. When we arrived, we climbed a tall set of steps to a small house which contained the looms. The work space looks exactly how you might imagine 18th century cottage industry to manifest itself. The room was as big as an average bedroom or a small living room and four looms–two large and two small–were packed into the space with piles of wool and other things taking up some space. There were no lights on but the area was lighted well enough by the one large window.
Three women worked the larger loom. They sat next to each other in the comfortable way that folks who have worked together sit. They neither spoke much nor sang; they neither rushed their work nor dawdled but threaded the colored wool of the woof across the white strands of the warp according to the paper pattern in front of them. Then, according to some silent and unspoken cue, they released their foot pedals, reached forward and pulled the bar towards them with a solid whack! which tightened the woof in place. Then they began again with nimble fingers to weave the bright colored yard which had been off-white covering for several of the sheep grazing outside.
In addition to the three women working the big loom, one woman worked the small loom, concentrating on a mostly red and black rug (colors of Albania). Somehow, whether it was she or the owner I don’t remember, Miranda, the 13-year-old, and Carly were beckoned to sit down and work the smaller loom along with the woman. Carly, usually shy at first in these circumstances, agreed to go along if Miranda tried it first. Soon Miranda was sitting at the loom and twisting threads across the warp and, with a nudge of the weaver, pulling the bar back with its loud whack! to set the yarn in place. When Miranda was finished, Carly took her place and as soon weaving the bright red yarn through her section of the rug and pulling the bar back with a whack! as what were shortly before only bits of thread piled about the place became a rug someone would keep in their home. It was exciting to think that Miranda and Carly’s work would be part of that rug for who knows how many years. Carly was the last one to leave the weavers’ room, working silently with the weaver and loving the silent and focused work as she always does. I am sure that, if it were possible, she would have stayed there all day, weaving and whacking and working quietly and purposefully.
The retail part of the enterprise was downstairs in a room about the same size crowded with rugs hanging on the walls and in piles on a long dresser. The only obvious concession to anything touristy were a few very small red rugs (mouse-pad size) with the black Albanian eagle printed on them. Some of the rugs were special orders and were not for sale. The owner of the factory told me that they did make special order prayer rugs for Muslims and they also made other rugs according to whatever design the buyer wanted. The rug I bought, for only $20, was maybe two and half by five feet long. Shawna and Carly bought some placemats and two purselike bags. Transactions like these always leave me feeling just a little ambivalent. On the one hand, I know I should have dropped $100 or $200 there and found a way to take home those wonderful tapestries I could never afford at home. On the other hand, I thought of the hours it would take to make those rugs, to card the wool and spin it, to color it, to weave it. How many different ways my $20 would have to be split up and how little of it probably ended up in the hands of the weavers. But I also know that little bit goes a long way here and the work they were doing didn’t seem to be something that was onerous. From the looks on their faces, it seemed to be a pleasant way to pass an afternoon rather than slaving in a sweatshop.