Albania Artisans Face Ruin

One of the oldest and most admired crafts in the country is under threat.

Albania Artisans Face Ruin

One of the oldest and most admired crafts in the country is under threat.

Tuesday, 6 September, 2005

Master craftsman Rreli looks around his workshop with tears in his eyes. Intricately embroidered fabrics are being hand-sewn into distinctive Albanian national costumes by highly-skilled workers - but possibly not for much longer.

"The old embroiderers are a dying breed, and no young ones wish to follow in their footsteps as there is no profit to be made," Rreli told IWPR. "Albanian embroidery is coming to an end."

The dwindling number of traditional costume makers are seeing their livelihoods slipping away from them, due to cheap unlicenced copies and a perceived lack of government support.

As a result, the industry is being shunned by young craftsmen, who see no way to make a living out of what was once a highly prized art form.

Rreli is from one of five Albanian families currently producing such costumes. He offers some 20 different designs originating from the Greek border to the south, the highland regions of the northern Albanian Alps as well as Mitrovica in Kosovo. Each one is unique and can take up to three years to produce.

Within Albania, a male folk costume is sold for 20-30,000 leks - 140-220 US dollars - while a woman's is priced at 15-22,000 leks (110-160 dollars). A particularly intricate or unusual one could fetch up to 15,000 dollars on the international market.

Although these garments have been sold around the world and won numerous awards, the industry has suffered a series of blows in the 12 years since the end of communism.

A rash of cheap copies has led to a drop in the demand for authentic hand-produced garments. Now Rreli sells no more than five costumes a month during the tourist season - and hardly any at other times.

His team has to operate from shared premises in Tirana - as this is the only way he can afford the rent and rates levied by the authorities.

"During communism, our lives were different as the government supplied all the materials we needed. Now we have to import them, and that is very expensive," he said.

Afërdita Onuzi, manager of the Institute of People's Culture - a national archive with more than 33,000 rare costumes from all over Albania - told IWPR that the craftsmen needed more support if their skills were to survive into the next generation.

"If the current trend continues, we will hardly know what remains of a heritage that has endured for centuries," she said.

As well as the perceived lack of support from the authorities - accused by craftsmen of hiking taxes on traditional businesses while allowing the unlicenced manufacturers to operate freely - the industry has also been hit by changing attitudes to fashion.

In the past, young Albanian women would be married in a traditional gown created from the centuries-old design specific to their region - but very few brides are willing to wear one of these today.

Instead, they opt for the basic white wedding gown favoured by western brides and available from any hire shop in the country. It seems that the days when a group of girls would sew a special section of their friend's wedding dress as a gift are long gone.

Rovena Kalaja is editor with the Albanian newspaper Albania.

Albania, Kosovo
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