Hate Ora has been weaving carpets and rugs for more than half a century, since learning the craft as a child by sneaking into her aunt's workshop.
Ora, 64, is now teaching the methods she picked up and perfected to her daughter, nieces and other younger women to ensure there is another generation of artisans to continue the tradition.
Albania once had 13 former state-run factories that produced carpets, rugs, fez hats, folk costumes and other handicrafts. Kukes, a town 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.
Ora built herself three looms and bought a big supply of wool fibers and other needed tools in the chaotic aftermath. Today, she is one of only a few Albanians still doing weaving work, which doesn’t bring in much money. Kukes, a town of about 60,000 residents, is one of the poorest in Albania, which itself is one of the poorest countries in Europe.
Many of the town’s young people, especially the young men, have emigrated to Western Europe in search of jobs. Women often remain unemployed at home, waiting for remittances from their husbands, brothers and other male relatives.
“Resuming this tradition would be an added value, increasing employment and having a direct social and economic impact on the people’s lives” along with preserving a piece of Albanian culture, Deputy Mayor Majlinda Onuzi said.
A non-governmental organization, Social Development Investment, has received money from German and Swiss development agencies to train 125 women in wool production and weaving. Founder Elias Mazloum said the purpose is to “open a window of hope for unemployed people" in the Kukes area and to keep the tradition of handmade carpet-making alive.
As part of the program, Ora is both teaching young people how to weave wool from the area's Ruda sheep into carpets and other items using Persian knots, the local method preferred over Turkish-style knots. She herself is learning how to clean, wash, comb and color the wool with vegetable and other natural dyes.
Ora said other efforts to revive the carpet industry have failed in Kukes “because to be successful they have to employ all the qualified women and find the market for our products.”
“Unless the whole carpet-weaving industry resumes, me, or any other like me, can hardly attract individually Tirana’s attention, where all business and the market is located,” she said.
Mazloum said the new program trains participants to produce product for which there already is a buyer. At least half of the women in the program have started wool-working at home, he said.
“It’s a very difficult job, but it is not priced with the real value. It’s underpriced, if you take into consideration the time and how difficult this job is,” Mazloum said.
Blerina Kolgjini, an associate professor of textiles and fashion at Albania's Tirana University, points out the artistry in the rugs and other products displayed at a gallery in Kukes: the quality of the Ruda sheep wool found only in that area, Kosovo and Croatia, the density of the knots, the thread thickness and the attention to detail “not much different from worldwide painters’ work.”
Kolgjini says carpets and other wool products were Albania’s second-most exported goods before communism ended. The items produced there were of such high quality that an Italian company would buy and resell them in Europe for 10 times the price while saying they were made in Iran, a country prized for its carpet making, she said.
“Shepherds produce the wool, and craftswomen weave its threads. What Albania is now missing is the in-between step of yarn processing, the spinning mill,” she said.
A study by Mazloum’s NGO found that 85% of the country’s sheared wool is 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 still spinning the wool she uses to crochet sweaters, blouses and socks.
Her grandson, Ernest, and a few of his high school classmates, are taking part in the Social Development Investment training program. At first, they attended for fun, but some of the girls enjoyed it enough to want to learn the craft, “not wanting it to be lost and let foreigners do what we can do ourselves,” said the teenager.
Ora excitedly described how she learned to weave by “stealing” her aunt's methods and how she helped support her parents during the communist era by making carpets and then her own family of five during the still-difficult post-communist years.
Even before the training program started, she taught her daughter to make carpets, too. Ora's daughter-in-law, a nurse, helps out part-time as her main assistant. A 23-year-old niece who is studying industrial chemistry also assists and sometimes brings friends and women she knows from school who are eager to learn from Aunt Hate, the name (pronounced HAY-tee) that everyone in the town calls Ora.
It takes the experienced weaver three months to complete a rug with an image of Mother Teresa or an elaborate arrangement of Albanian symbols.
“Why doesn’t a businessman or the government turns the eyes on us,” she pleads. ”We do artwork, don’t we?”