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Travellers’ Tales: Declarations of Independence

As part of the HALI Fair Online, running from 23-27 June 2021, Cosima Stewart has worked on an Event with Dr Irina Koshoridze, who will present a group of striking Tushetian kilims from the storerooms of the Ethnographic Museum in Tblisi, alongside examples from three private collections. In HALI 207, she celebrates her love of Georgia—and the textile traditions that exemplify the country’s unique culture and spirit. An extract follows:

‘Five years after first visiting the Caucasus, I left London on a stormy November morning in 2020 and boarded a flight to Tbilisi. My ticket was one-way. Cliché or not, it is very easy to visit Georgia and fall in love with the country. A heady combination of delicious wine, snowy mountains, warm hospitality and a sense of freedom is enough to enchant most people.

The region also has a rich history of weaving and textile production, many types of which are not widely known, either commercially or academically. It is extraordinary that a country so often defined in terms of its imperial neighbours—Persian, Ottoman and Russian—should develop and retain such a high degree of cultural independence. Certain techniques, such as wax-resist block printing and symbols, including the boteh and the gül, are recognisably borrowed; but there is much that is distinctively Georgian.

Lion kilim, Kakheti, Georgia, dated 1955

Lion kilim, Kakheti, Georgia, dated 1955

From eastern Georgia come two very different types of kilim. One is the aniline-dyed, figurative ‘animal’ type from Kakheti (1), the other sombre-toned, naturally dyed mountain weaves of Tusheti (5). The Kakhetian landscape is extraordinary. Cypress-lined vineyards stretch east towards Azerbaijan beneath the massed snowy range of the Greater Caucasus, taller than the Alps. The gravity of the mountains’ presence adds romance to the otherwise nearTuscan landscape. The contrast between highland and plain is closely related to the history of weaving in the region. The hovering peaks are Tusheti, accessible only by a single, extremely dangerous road to Tusheti road in the summer months (4), or helicopter. This is the road traversed each year by the Tush shepherds, transhumant to this day.

Tushetian kilims have a spirit of their own, a certain spare brilliance, relying on a powerfully limited palette and almost monochromatic contrast. Dark brown, black and green dyes contrast with milky, undyed whites, and colour is used sparingly, to great visual effect (HALI 192, pp. 40–41). Hooked Memling güls and zigzag comb borders lend an explosive effect to some field designs. In (5) the border is of scrolling hooks, and the classically Georgian equal-armed ‘Bolnisi’ cross appears both within the loosely rendered güls and in the field. In each of the top spandrels there are what seem to be wine cups. The use of red is limited to the central part of the field, adding a powerful vertical emphasis to the quadripartite arrangement.

A finished Karachov design rug by reWoven

A finished Karachov design rug by reWoven

In the cold months of the year, the Tush shepherds mostly live in the lowland villages of Alvani in Kakheti. The wool of their flocks is still processed for weaving and felting, in an astonishing factory I visited recently. Old machinery stands in a beautiful brick industrial building, with spindles and piles of wool on the floor. Here, shepherd’s cloaks (nabadi in Georgian, kepenek in Anatolia) are made to order.

This eastern part of the country has another kilim tradition, an amazingly kitsch, 20th-century phenomenon: ‘animal’ kilims. Aniline dyes were used with abandon, and figurative scenes replaced geometric designs. In (1) there are syncretic elements, particularly the stylised, interlocking vine-leaf border. The border also bears two Georgian names, ‘Keto’ and ‘Datiko’, suggesting it may have been a marriage carpet. The garish colours take some getting used to, but beyond the prepossessing charm of these textiles, they are also ethnographically significant. Arguably they represent an uncomfortable, mid-20th century transition, as rugs ceased to be objects of tradition and practical function.

Blue tablecloth, Georgia, early 19th century. Cotton, indigo, resist dyeing, 1.16 x 1.47 m (3' 10" x 4' 10"). State Museum of Folk and Applied Arts of Georgia

Blue tablecloth, Georgia, early 19th century. Cotton, indigo, resist dyeing, 1.16 x 1.47 m (3′ 10″ x 4′ 10″). State Museum of Folk and Applied Arts of Georgia

Another type of little-known Georgian textile is the wax-resist dyed lurji supra or blue tablecloth. ‘Supra’ means not just tablecloth but a whole feast. It finds semantic and functional parallel in the Persian sofreh, dining rug. What is remarkable about these cloths is the debt they appear to owe to Indian textiles. In (3) boteh motifs swirl in a central roundel and march around the borders in a way that recalls Kashmiri shawls. Yet these tablecloths were always blue, dyed with indigo, and bear specific, recurring motifs such as the birds in this example. In others, the table is figuratively set with cutlery and fish.

Georgia is still widely perceived as a ‘hidden treasure’ on account of its relatively recent (and very successful) debut on the stage of international tourism. The bitter and diffi cult period of civil war after the Soviet Union’s collapse kept the country largely closed to tourism until the 2000s. Many wonderful traditions survive, particularly wine-making (which is a national activity) and the famous ‘supra’ or feast for which the indigo tablecloths were designed.

The road to Tusheti road in the summer months (4), or helicopter. This is the road traversed each year by the Tush shepherds, transhumant to this day.

The road to Tusheti

The tradition of weaving not only kilims but also pile rugs has a long history, predominantly in the ethnically diverse southern part of the country that borders Azerbaijan and Armenia. These Azerbaijani-populated villages such as Karachov, Fachralo and Lambalo were not spared the impact of mechanisation and the introduction of chemical dyes during the last century, but old ways of weaving are being resolutely pulled back from the brink by a non-profit project named reWoven. Working with a small number of Azerbaijani weavers, reWoven commissions rugs using exact cartoons of especially striking or beautiful 18th- or 19th-century examples; they range from star and pinwheel Kazaks to hooked-gül Borjalus and Fachralo runners.

Tusheti kilim, Georgia, 19th century. Tbilisi Open Air Ethnographic Museum

Tusheti kilim, Georgia, 19th century. Tbilisi Open Air Ethnographic Museum

Earlier this year I visited the village of Kosalar (in what was once the Borjalu district) to meet the women who work with the project, women who delightedly taught me to use the loom and gave us a fabulous lunch. It was only then that I fully realised the joy and pride entailed in keeping a tradition alive in a meaningful way. Also striking was the richness of the naturally dyed wool as the carpets were laid out, their vivid colours doubly satisfying against the stark, tawny land stretching beyond them and the lunch table towards the cloudy Armenian mountains. Traditions can be awkward to sustain self-consciously, yet in Georgia there are many that are alive and well—and, thankfully, the arresting motifs and lustrous handwoven pile of Caucasus rugs are among them.’

To watch the online Event ‘Tushetian kilims – flatweaves from the mountains of Georgia’ at 5pm BST on Friday 25 June 2021, please register to attend HALI Fair Online.



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