In the Greater Caucasus, wool is as sacred as wine. Residents of the highlands use natural sheep’s wool to create warm and durable clothing such as chokha and nabadi, shoes, and carpets. Tapestry weaving, felting, knitting and embroidery techniques are passed down from generation to generation.
In the culturally diverse Kakheti region, there is a special need to protect and revitalize wool handicraft techniques that are under threat of disappearing. A number of entrepreneurs have stepped up to the challenge, creating beautiful products for the local market and hosting tourists for hands-on masterclasses.
Tusheti Factory and Mzemoe in Alvani, and Pesvebi Art-Studio in Dedoplistskaro are three members of the Clusters 4 Development Tourism Cluster, a B2B product-sharing and ideas-generation project funded by the European Union and the German Government, and implemented by GIZ.
United by a common vision for cultural heritage protection through wool crafts, these three makers have the potential to be the first stepping stones on a Kakhetian ‘Wool Handicrafts Trail’, where visitors could trace the value chain of raw fleece from the pastures of Tusheti, to the spinning and dyeing facilities, all the way to the workshops.
Wool Processing at Tusheti Factory
When winter rolls into the high mountains of remote Tusheti, the majority of families depart their villages and retreat to Alvani, a small town in the Kakhetian lowlands. This is the place where many Tushetian traditions are kept alive as a result, including the art of working with wool.
Based in Zemo Alvani, Dimitri ‘Dito’ Arindauli is the only person in Georgia who processes Tushetian wool. He is single-handedly responsible for furnishing local shepherds, artisans and exporters alike with pure-wool yarns from the region.
A number of entrepreneurs have stepped up to the challenge, creating beautiful products for the local market and hosting tourists for hands-on masterclasses
His factory was established in the Soviet period and still has its original equipment – monstrously huge, clunking spinning machines from the 1970s. Wandering through the factory, you can just imagine what it would have looked like in its heyday, when row upon row of skilled workers manned the lines.
Today, Dito employs around a dozen people to wash, dry, spin and dye wool, with the entire process done in-house. Traditionally, Tushetian wool is only colored with natural dyes, but because of the high demand and huge volume of production, Dito uses chemical alternatives.
The factory processes between 30,000 and 35,000 tons of wool every year, all of it sourced from Tush shepherds who transport fleeces from their high mountain pastures to the factory via the Abano Pass.
Touring the factory, it’s quite incredible to see how the wool is transformed from muddy, matted fleeces into beautiful fine-spun wool.
Dito also produces his own line of products, including nabadi, long, durable felt cloaks used by local shepherds for warmth, both when out in the field and when resting (the cloak is big enough to wrap around oneself like a sleeping bag).
Dito’s vital role in supplying artisans with wool yarns cannot be underestimated. He inherited the business from his father, Gogi Arindauli, who in 2005 founded the first wool processing facility in post-Soviet Georgia. But without anyone to take over the family vocation, the factory faces an uncertain future.
For now, Dito welcomes tourists to tour the factory by appointment and is looking for new ways to expand his business. There is an opportunity for him to sell directly to tourists, and in the near future, he plans to open a small shop at the front of the factory where people can buy Tushetian wool products direct from the source.
Wool Processing Factory Tusheti is located in Zemo Alvani. Visits by appointment only.
Tushetian Felting at Mzemoe
Just down the highway in Kvemo Alvani, you’ll find one of the many craft workshops putting Dito’s wool to good use. Tushetian Crafts Workshop Mzemoe is an independent crafts workshop run by a group of local women. They specialize in knitted and felted items made from pure wool, including clothing, accessories and homewares.
Their small studio inside the Kvemo Alvani Cultural Center is covered from floor to ceiling with iconic Tushetian handicrafts: Felted wall hangings, knitted slippers, felt booties, and more.
Hovering over a tin bowl laid out on a lace tablecloth, Mzemoe’s Nana Eliboshvili demonstrates how Tushetian slippers are made. She starts by teasing soft wool onto the table then wetting it with cold water. The wool is then compacted by hand, all the while lathering it with natural soap to help fuse the layers.
Once it reaches the desired thickness and texture, the felt is shaped around a mould that resembles a tiny foot. When it’s finished, this will be a child-sized slipper. Nana then dunks the felt into hot water to further compact and harden the wool, still rubbing it with soap to fuse the felt and make it sturdier.
The finished bootie is decorated with traditional Tushetian ornaments. Felted wall hangings are created using the same technique, fusing soft wool into a sturdy canvas onto which pictograms and abstract patterns are embroidered.
United by a common vision for cultural heritage protection through wool crafts, these three makers have the potential to be the first stepping stones on a Kakhetian ‘Wool Handicrafts Trail’
With Kvemo Alvani the main departure point for tourists travelling to Tusheti, there is a huge potential for Mzemoe to establish a craft shop and a cafe in the town. For now, Nana and her colleagues welcome drop-in visitors to see the studio and buy souvenirs.
Mzemoe is located in Kvemo Alvani. Visits by appointment only. Shop for their products at the workshop or at EthnoDesign in Tbilisi.
Kizikian Carpet-weaving at Pesvebi Art-Studio
At the far opposite end of Kakheti region in Dedoplistskaro, the jumping-off point for the semi-deserts of Vashlovani National Park, another Georgian craft enterprise uses sheep’s wool for a very different purpose.
The factory processes between 30,000 and 35,000 tons of wool every year, all of it sourced from Tush shepherds who transport fleeces from their high mountain pastures
Founded by Nino Bakhutashvili in 2005, Pesvebi Art-Studio is dedicated to restoring and developing traditional Kizikian carpet weaving. The name Pesvebi means ‘Roots’, a nod to the fact that this is the only studio of its kind in Georgia where natural dyes are used to color raw wool.
Many of the motifs woven into Pesvebi’s carpets are inspired by the flora and fauna of Vashlovani National Park. Others come from archival photographs and documents – unfortunately, the techniques of Kizikian weaving and dyeing have been lost from living memory. Colors, too, are strictly regional, taken from local plants and flowers and fixed with iron oxide.
From humble beginnings, Pesvebi has grown into a successful social enterprise with nine full-time staff, all of them women, and some from disadvantaged backgrounds. Working on standing looms arranged across an old parquet floor, the workshop is abuzz with women tying and weaving carpets. Many of the designs feature rose buds and blooms, motifs typical for this area. The latest collection is heavily influenced by nearby Vashlovani National Park. Abstracted birds of prey are achieved using colors carefully selected from the flowers and plants that comprise the birds’ habitat.
Many of the motifs woven into Pesvebi’s carpets are inspired by the flora and fauna of Vashlovani National Park
As well as large-scale wall and floor carpets, Pesvebi produces leather bags with woven panels. This range is inspired by traditional dowry bags once ubiquitous across this region. Smaller variations combine squares of woven wool with high-quality leather. The entire process is done here in the studio, including sewing the bags and finishing them with hardware.
Pesvebi Art-Studio is located in Dedoplistskaro. Visitors are welcome during working hours. Nino hosts workshops and masterclasses by appointment. Pesvebi bags are available to purchase at the studio, from EthnoDesign in Tbilisi, or online via Etsy.