The first time I visited Georgia, I fell in love with the country’s handicraft and textile traditions. I’ve since been lucky enough to visit dozens of makers around the country – from clay pottery studios and qvevri-making factories to cloisonne enamel workshops.
In culturally diverse Kakheti region, there is a special need to protect and revitalise vanishing handicrafts. A number of entrepreneurs have stepped in, producing beautiful products and hosting visitors for masterclasses. Many of them work with sheep’s wool, the raw material of choice in pastoral Eastern Georgia.
I recently had a chance to visit Kakheti with the Tourism Cluster, established under the Clusters 4 Development project, funded by the European Union and the German Government, to learn about Tushetian feltwork and Kizikian carpet-weaving – two beautiful Georgian textile traditions that are hanging on by a thread.
In this blog, I’ll introduce you to a trio of dedicated small business owners working to keep endangered traditions alive. Whether you’re a textile expert or a curious traveller like me who loves to buy meaningful Georgian souvenirs straight from the source, visiting these producers in person is an authentic, rewarding Kakheti experience.
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This blog is part of a paid campaign with Clusters 4 Development.
Wool processing at Tusheti Factory
When winter rolls into the high mountains of remote Tusheti region, the majority of families depart their villages and retreat to Alvani, a small town in the Kakheti 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 (Upper 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.
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 coloured with natural dyes, but because of the high demand and huge volume of production, Dito currently uses chemical alternatives.
The factory processes between 30-35,000 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.
It’s quite incredible to see how the wool is transformed from muddy, matted fleeces into beautiful fine-spun wool.
Dito also creates 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 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 a big 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, the lower part of the town, we found one of the many craft workshops putting Dito’s wool to good use.
Mzemoe is an independent crafts workshop run by a group of local women. They specialise in knitted and felted items made from pure wool including clothing, accessories and homewares.
The small studio where they work is covered from floor to ceiling with the most iconic of 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 felt 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 much the same technique, fusing soft wool into a sturdy canvas onto which pictograms and abstract patterns are embroidered.
Tushetian Crafts Workshop Mzemoe is located inside the old House of Culture, an unmissable landmark that dominates the centre of Kvemo Alvani. Since this is the departure point for travelling to Tusheti, there is a huge potential for Mzemoe to establish a craft shop and a cafe for tourists to stop at on their way up or down the mountain.
Natural dyes & 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.
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 colour raw wool.
When Nino first had the idea to start Pesvebi, she discovered that the knowledge around natural dyes and carpet weaving had sadly been lost from living memory in her community. So she turned to the past instead, drawing on museum archives and private collections to re-discover traditional Kizikian patterns.
Many of the motifs woven into Pesvebi’s carpets are directly inspired by the flora and fauna of Vashlovani National Park. Colours too are strictly regional, taken from local plants and flowers and fixed with iron oxide.
The workshop’s palette changes with the seasons: In spring, shades of crimson are achieved with madder root (the same material used to dye Easter eggs in Georgia); in summer, barberries, cherries and pomegranates reflect nature’s bounty. Onion skins are used year-round for deep browns, with staff bringing their kitchen scraps from home to use for dye material. Since Indigo is not readily available in Georgia, natural mineral powders are used for the blue hues.
This spectrum of colours is the result of 15 years of experimentation – a task Nino took on herself, creating a makeshift ‘dyes laboratory’ inside her family home with help from her husband, who happens to be a chemist. Every inch of wool is still dyed there today.
Explaining the process, she emphasises the importance of sustainable harvesting, especially madder root, so as not to exhaust the natural supply chain.
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.
In the second part of the Pesvebi studio, working on standing looms arranged across an old parquet floor, women tie and weave carpets. Many of the designs feature rose buds and blooms, motifs typical for this area.
One larger carpet sports a distinctive Adjarian pattern – a custom order. Leafing through an old book taken from her office shelf, Nino points out more heritage Kizikian carpet designs that Pesvebi artisans have incorporated into their repertoire.
The latest collection is heavily influenced by nearby Vashlovani National Park. Abstracted birds of prey are achieved using colours carefully selected from the flowers and plants that comprise the birds’ habitat.
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.
The future of traditional handicrafts in Kakheti
As is so often the case, in Kakheti it’s motivated individuals who are taking it upon themselves to keep disappearing craft traditions alive.
In the case of Pesvebi, Nino and her staff are single-handedly responsible for bringing Kizikian carpet weaving and dyeing back from extinction. Mzemoe’s commitment to honouring the traditions of Tushetian wool craft and continuing to make everything by hand is a response to the trends of mass-production and overseas import that threaten them . And in the case of Dito, his determination to continue producing high-quality wool locally is a lifeline for hundreds of artisans around the region and beyond.
There is a huge potential for responsible tourism to bring more attention and ultimately more income to these businesses, making them more sustainable for the future. Visiting these workshops in person is a huge privilege that more people should have a chance to experience.
The three makers we visited are united by their shared vision for cultural heritage protection through wool crafts. I would love to see them band together to create a ‘handicrafts trail’ of sorts in Kakheti, where visitors could trace the value chain of raw wool from the pastures of Tusheti to the processing factory, all the way to the workshop.
There is also an opportunity for handicraft producers from other parts of Georgia to learn from Kakhetian artisans. Other businesses in the region – wineries, restaurants, and particularly guesthouses – could incorporate locally made wool products into their decor and sell directly to tourists.
About the C4D Tourism Cluster
Regional clusters developed in both Imereti and Kakheti regions are divided into sub-clusters of Food and Wine, Concept Accommodation, Cultural Heritage and Crafts.
The Tourism Cluster currently has 53 active members, who are encouraged to benefit one another through B2B product sharing, ideas generation, workshops and training. Its mission is to increase the competitiveness and better positioning of cluster members in the local and international markets, as well as enabling them to scale up their skills.
The Tourism Clusters have been established with support from the Clusters4Development project, funded by the European Union and the German government and implemented by GIZ.