reWoven’s Story: From the Beginning…

reWoven is in the final minutes of a half-time break, which thankfully will provide an opportunity to catch up on recording the events up to this point.

Perhaps I should briefly make some mentions of my own personal journey, which are central to origin of this project.

A passion for travel and a love for people of other cultures lead me from the USA to Azerbaijan in 2002. After a stint in Azerbaijan’s capital Baku learning the local language, Azerbaijani, and culture, I headed to a rural region to explore opportunities for community development.

My time spent in the rug markets of Baku’s old city had already filled me with an appreciation for this ancient craft. But moving to a remote region where the craft still survived inspired me to investigate the possibility of starting a rug weaving business.

It was a very steep learning curve for me as a foreigner in a distant land, trying to gather information and experience in the midst of the disappearing craft, and all in a foreign language and culture. An additional challenge was the level of deception and secrecy that seemed uniquely high in the rug trade. Perseverance, luck, and divine favor carried me forward to develop a small project called Dugul Looms. You can look at the website to learn more about the Lezgi people and their beautiful national textile called a “sumakh”.

Unforeseen circumstances forced me to leave Azerbaijan prematurely in Decemenber 2005, before the project reached sustainability. And I wondered if the unique rug skills I learned in Azerbaijan would ever have relevance in the future.

After returning to the USA, I worked, got married, and completed a degree. Then my wife and I had the opportunity to move to the Republic of Georgia. We were wonderfully surprised to learn that Georgia has a large population of Azerbaijanis, as many as 500,000. We moved into its Azeri region where my wife begin teaching English through a Georgian government program, and I began to explore the possibility of again using rug weaving to as a basis for a community development project. The project’s general goal would be to revive rug-weaving culture and income generation opportunities for women in the village.

I was optimistic from the start. The historic name of the region where we moved is “Borchali”. While insignificant to the general public, this name had immediate recognition for me. It is the name of a classic Caucasian rug design, one of which I had in my personal collection from my years in Azerbaijan. In fact, many of the Caucasian rugs found in museums and collections around the world were woven in the villages that surrounded my new home in Georgia. The names of these villages testify to this rich rug-weaving history:  origins: Bordjalou (Borçalı), Karachopt (Qaraçöp), Fachralo (Faxralı), and Lambalo (Ləmbəli). With such a weaving history, and all of my rug connections in neighboring Azerbaijan still in tact for materials and expertise, it would only be a matter of time before our first rugs would be woven.

My optimism proved premature. Countless conversations and several forays to local villages quickly demonstrated the dire condition of rug weaving in Georgia. Despite a perseverance that pushed me up bumpy dirt tracks to remote villages, I only found one village with active weavers. The few weavers there were already weaving for a carpet shop in Tbilisi, and at very low wages. I considered the village off-limits to me because I did not come here to interfere with someone else’s enterprise.

I continued to keep my ears open, and I asked everyone that I met. But nothing materialized. I had heard about a distant village in another region of Georgia named “Garachirp” (Karachopt, Qaraçöp). Like “Borchali”, I also know this name as a classic rug design. I’d heard it was a ancient village where traditions persisted. But because of it’s 2-hour drive from my town, I had avoided investigating it. I had also heard that the village was filled with a fierce and independent people. I have since come to learn that “Garachirp” literaly means “Great Army”.

As is often the case, the beginnings of reWoven resulted from a chance contact. A local friend in Marneuli gave me the phone number of a buddy of his in Garachirp. That phone number stayed in phone for many weeks because of the hesitations that I mentioned above (primarily the long distance to the village). But in an attempt to put a final nail in the coffin of the hopes for starting a rug weaving project in Georgia, I made the call.

The man on the other end of the phone was clearly not an ordinary villager. Simkhan spoke with a clarity and sincerity that gave me a degree of confidence that if weavers could be found, he could accomplish it. We exchanged phone calls over the next several weeks as he came and went to Istanbul to buy inventory for his small clothing store, and to pursue other entrepreneurial activity.

During one call, he gave me the news I had been waiting for. He had found a weaver who wanted to weave. Within days, I headed to the village for the first time, about a two hour drive. I carried with me enough yarn to week two rugs, the same yarn I had hoped for more than a year would transformed into rugs. I drove directly to the home of my telephone contact, Simkhan. Conveniently his surprisingly modern two-story house was located at the entrance to the village.

After pleasantries and tea, he told me that he did not have time to accompany me to the weaver’s house. In his place, he would send his brother, Izzetxan. Shortly we left together, bumping across the unpaved roads of their village. I’m not sure what the word “village” conjures for you, but I was surprised by what I saw. The first surprise was the immensity of the “village”. I soon learned that Garachirp is the name of an amalgamation of 7 distinct villages, 6 of which merged together into one rural metropolis with over 20,000 inhabitants.

Despite its enormity, it is still very much a traditional village. Women carry water from communal spigots to their homes on their backs in ancient bronze long-necked jugs. While natural gas has recently been piped to all the homes, very few of them make us of it. The village’s primary income is herding livestock. The seasonal rhythm of the village includes taking herds to distant mountains in the spring, and shepherding them back in the fall. Winter has traditionally the season for rug weaving, when all the summer outdoor activity is complete, and people are bunkered down inside.

My destination with Izzetxan was the one village outside of the conjoined metropolis, his home village of Gazlar. Upon reaching the weavers house, I was excited to meet my first weaver. Would the hopes of the project that had languished for over a year finally come to fruition? If only it would have been that easy. Early in our conversation with the potential weaver, it was obvious that we had widely different expectations about the details of our relationship.

When Isimkhan and I had begun our phone conversation several weeks prior, I had specified the amount of money I was offering to pay a weaver. It was a wage higher than what I understood weavers were being paid in the one other weaving village I knew. This woman’s expectations were not even close. She said she would only weave for 50% more than what I was offering. I looked at some of her previous weavings, and I was not particularly impressed. Knowing that I was hoping to build a foundation for a future work, it was an easy decision not to move forward with this woman.

Another closed door. Another disappointment. But my new assistant was not so easily discouraged. We immediately went from house to house in the same neighborhood looking for weavers. With only finding a few doubtful possibilities, and darkness falling, we returned to Isimkhan’s house to regroup. I found myself as the overnight guest of a family whom I had only met that day for the first time. We spent an evening together filled with intriguing conversations about their lives, work, faith, and dreams.

The following day, Izzetkhan and I picked up where we left, making phone calls and knocking on doors. It felt we were on the hunt of some rare white tiger. We’d find clues, but trails would go cold, only to stumble onto another lead. Somebody on a corner would tell us about their aunt’s sister-law’s niece. But she’d be out with her livestock in their winter quarters.

Just before I needed to leave for a meeting in the capital, Tbilisi, we found a weaver who agreed to our terms. But I did not have the time to explain everything about the rug and weigh out her yarn. We promised to return the following day. After spending the night back home in my own bed, I headed back to the village early the next morning. Izzetxan called me on the way, but I only later found out that our latest lead too had grown cold. She had backed out the evening before. Regardless, we continued to hunt. We zeroed in on a neighborhood with remnants of rug-weaving culture.

Eventually, we connected with two sister-in-laws, each who had woven recently and were agreeable to weaving a rug for us in the their respective houses. We did not complete these conversation until early evening. So we agreed to meet again the following day to give them the yarn and final instructions. After spending another night with my gracious hosts and weighing out the yarn in the morning, we headed to the weavers’ homes to hand-off the yarn and design pattern, along with communicating our desired density for the rug.

I spent 4 days and two night in Garachirp, a village that I had never once visited before. I entered as a stranger, but left as a friend. I had arrived with yarn, but I left with only hope. As I drove away, I had muted optimism that I would one day return to see my skeins of naturally-dyed, wool yarn transformed into a beautiful village carpet. All of this took place just days before my wife and I were leaving to the US for six weeks. This unplanned separation made it easy to release the outcome into the hands of the weaver, and the divine forces that brought us together.

The first sign of rug-weaving progress was a middle of the night phone call in the US from Izzetkhan in Georgia. Our two locations were exactly 12 time zones apart, a perfect am/pm flop, on completely opposite sides of the globe. Having been isolated from the Azerbaijani language for the past several weeks, never mind that I am hardly coherent in any language in the middle of the night, I slowly began to grasp the message being communicated from the other end. “We’re almost out of black yarn.” Wow, that means a rug is taking form! Other than talking to my yarn supplier in Baku, Azerbaijan, there was not much I could do to solve the problem from the other side of the globe. But it was a problem that I rejoiced in having. And perhaps even more so, that Izzetkhan was connecting with the weavers and monitoring their progress. He was committed to the process.

Within days of my return to Georgia, I headed to Garachirp to assess the situation. Consistent with my journey up to that point, and with what was to come, there were both progress and disappointments. The shortage of black yarn was the result of one weaver’s activity, while the other weaver had not yet even begun weaving over the past two months. But something is always better than nothing, and the half-finished rug was a very beautiful beginning. The rug’s vibrant colors on its simple wooden loom could easily have been a scene from centuries past. Not one detail betrayed the mystery that the rich naturally-dyed yarn was coming to life in a classic Caucasian rug design today.

One weaver and a half-finished rug. Not an explosive start by any evaluation. But then again, this project is not, and never will be, a race. Rug weaving is a time-intensive craft. Knot by countless knot, the rug slowly takes form. Just as the progress of a rug is painstakingly slow, how much more so the revival of a whole weaving culture. Inspiring weavers who have not woven for decades. Procuring materials from distant lands. Redrawing historic designs. Assembling looms from dilapidated parts. Only a steady long-term approach has any chance of success to overcome these nearly insurmountable hurdles.

Over the weeks and months that followed, a total of 11 women, and a handful of helping friends, embraced this challenge. They each accepted a bag of yarn, a design, and an assignment and turned them into a reflection of centuries past. Each woman’s personal story intersected with their community’s ancient tradition to birth a new treasure with their fingers. From the ashes they raised designs and colors which had only survived in faint memories.

Against all odds, it is happening. Woman are practicing the art of their ancestors. They are bringing hand-spun, naturally dyed wool to life by reweaving historic designs, creating antiques for the next generation. This is reWoven.

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