If you’re an admirer of traditional textiles, crafts and handmade objects, you’ll find travelling in the Trans-Caucasus countries (Georgia, Armenia and Azerbaijan) a real treat.
Carpets, tapestries, silks, embroidery and blockprinted cloth are all part of the cultural fabric of this region, and there’s no shortage of museums, galleries, workshops and boutiques dedicated to antique and contemporary textiles.
Of all the handmade products the Caucasus region offers, its silk, soumaks (Azerbaijani carpets) and lurji supra (Georgia’s famous blue tablecloths) that really captured my attention during my recent 12-week trip through Georgia, Armenia and Azerbaijan.
Why is this part of the world so dynamic when it comes to handmade textiles? Cultural and linguistic diversity is one of the reasons – tribes of the Caucasus are all distinguished by their costume. Tributaries of the Silk Road once passed through Azerbaijan and Georgia, fueling the production of silk and the exchange of ideas and materials in the region. Proximity to Dagestan, Turkey and Iran – each with their own textile traditions – undoubtedly had an influence on Trans-Caucasian artisans, too. Some of the world’s first pile rugs were woven in the Caucasus and the region’s own style of carpet, ‘Caucasian carpets’, are said to be the result of an intermixing of different regional techniques.
Many handicraft industries were commercialised under the Soviet Union, helping to preserve age-old techniques and fuel a local market for textiles. Most, as you will see, were irreparably damaged when the USSR disintegrated. Now, carpets, silk and lurji supra are all experiencing something of a renaissance as artisans and entrepreneurs (and sometimes the State) look to international export and tourism to develop the local economy while promoting traditional handicraft techniques.
Here are my tips for where to see, learn about and buy authentic, traditional textiles in Azerbaijan, Armenia and Georgia.
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Textiles in Azerbaijan
Of the three countries featured in this post, I’m of the opinion that Azerbaijan has the most robust and accessible textile scene. This is mostly down to the country’s long tradition of carpet-making. Soumaks (flat-weave carpets with a thick, shaggy underside) and kilims are traditionally woven here from lamb and sheep’s wool coloured with a basic palette of five natural dyes. Patterns are regional and highly intricate.
Azerbaijan’s seven schools of carpet weaving – each with its own favoured motifs, colour combinations and techniques – are centred in Baku, Shirvan, Quba, Ganja, Gazakh, Tabriz (present-day Iran) and Karabakh (present-day Nagorno-Karabakh). Sheki in north-eastern Azerbaijan is the country’s premier silk region, and alongside block-printed kelagai (silk headscarves), also produces silk carpets.
Carpets and carpet-making both play an esteemed role in modern Azeri culture and identity. Perhaps the best evidence of this can be found in the Azerbaijan Carpet Museum in Baku, which was the first institution of its kind in the world when it opened back in 1967. Production of carpets for export has been identified as one of the country’s most profitable industries outside of the oil sector. It receives a lot of attention and investment. In 2016, state-sponsored efforts to “revive weaving traditions and re-introduce Azerbaijani carpets to the world” led to the founding of Azerkhalcha Company by presidential decree.
Today, it’s possible to visit small and medium-sized carpet workshops in many different parts of the country (using the seven schools as a guide). Most of these facilities are still recovering after a period of forced hibernation following the collapse of the Soviet Union. Unlike Georgia and Armenia which are both Orthodox Christian countries, Azerbaijan is predominantly Muslim. I’m sure that local demand for hand-woven Sajjadah prayer mats has also played a role in keeping carpet-making traditions alive.
Antique Azeri carpets are national treasures. There are some restrictions on taking carpets out of the country – including a prohibition on exporting carpets of a certain vintage – so make sure you do your research and follow the right protocols if you plan on taking one home as a souvenir.
Where to see, learn about and buy traditional textiles in Azerbaijan
Azerbaijan Carpet Museum
28 Mikayil Üseynov Küç, Baku
When it opened in 1967, this was the first institution in the world wholly dedicated to carpets. The state-run museum has occupied its current building (which is shaped like an unfurling carpet) since 2014. Displays range from antique textile showcases to interactive exhibits on carpet weaving. A must-see in Baku for any culture buff, and a good primer for those planning to venture further into Azerbaijan to visit carpet-making workshops. More info here.
Palace of the Shirvanshahs
Icherisheher Old City, Baku
Aside from displaying a handful of beautiful antique carpets in situ, the Palace also offers carpet-making workshops. Visit the ticket booth at the Palace for more information or to make a booking. More info here.
Near Maiden’s Tower, Icherisheher Old City, Baku
You’ll see carpets strewn over balustrades and hung on walls all over Baku’s Icherisheher (Old City). Many carpet shops advertise their wares with these eye-catching outdoor displays. Flying Carpet is probably the best-known of the Old City’s carpet shops, but there are lots to choose from if you want to shop around. Samir’s Qizil Gul (close to Maiden’s Tower) and the nearby Seyed Carpet Shop both get good reviews online. Prices and quality vary dramatically between stores; see this post for tips on buying a carpet in Baku.
Cnr Heydar Aliyev Prospekti & Hikmat Huseynov, Quba
Located a few hours north of Baku, Quba is by far the most popular place for tourists to watch carpet-marking. Qadim Quba warmly welcomes visitors to its small workshop and adjoining store.
Lahıc, Ismailli Rayon
Northwest of Baku and far more remote than Quba, Lahic is known for its cobbled streets and traditional craftsman who ply their various trades in small, family run workshops. Although I didn’t visit Lahic, research tells me it’s a good place to find carpet weavers, along with tanners, potters, blacksmiths, engravers and wood carvers. Here is a recent traveller’s report on visiting Lahic.
Sheki History Museum
Inside Sheki Khan’s Summer Palace complex, Sheki
This modest museum houses a small collection of embroidery and heritage costumes. Sheki is famous for its craftsmanship, so you should also take the time to discover the town’s other artisan treasures, especially shebeki glass (visit the workshop on the same palace campus). Beware of advertisements for the ‘Museum of Folk and Applied Arts’ or ‘House of Craftsmen’ – it’s actually just a collection of stalls selling low-quality and imported souvenirs.
Sheki Silk Factory (Şəki İpek)
ME Rəsulzadə Küç, Sheki
Sheki has a long history of silk production – hence the beautiful caravanserais you see dotted around town, which were originally built to shelter traders on the Silk Road. There are still a handful of shops selling silk scarves, kelagai headscarves (part of Azerbaijan’s national dress) and silk carpets. Located uphill just outside the town centre, Sheki Silk Factory is the largest and most prominent. There is a 1930s-era silk workshop attached to the shop – apparently still spinning and dyeing silk using original equipment – but at the time of my visit in April 2017, it was closed to the public (I inquired several times).
For more information about silk production in Sheki, check out this photo essay by FAO Europe and Central Asia.
Textiles in Armenia
Armenia has a proud history of arts and crafts spanning just about every creative discipline you can imagine – from miniature painting to opera to leather work. Although they don’t enjoy the same international recognition as Azeri carpets, Armenian gohar carpets are an important part of the local culture.
Historically, carpet-making in Armenia was concentrated in Artsakh (present-day Nagorno-Karabakh), a semi-autonomous region that is the locus of an enduring conflict between Armenia and Azerbaijan (remember, Karabakh is also considered the home of one of the seven schools of Azeri carpet-weaving). After the Nagorno-Karabakh War officially ended in 1994, many carpet workshops were established here to help displaced Armenians earn a living.
Artsakh ‘dragon rugs’, Vaspurakan carpets from Western Armenia and iconographic Khndzoresks are the three most sought-after styles. Contemporary Armenian designs typically borrow motifs from rugs in churches, manuscript art and khachkar cross-stones, once again highlighting the influence of religious symbolism on textiles in the region. Armenia is also famous for its Marash stitching: an intricate embroidery made up of interlacing crosses and geometric shapes applied to dark velvet. Many Marash designs are similarly inspired by khachkar carvings. Aybuben textiles produced in Vardenis, Eastern Armenia, and beyond bear the characters of the Armenian alphabet and are particularly popular for kids.
Something I noticed about Armenia is the push to reinvigorate traditional arts and crafts, led by social enterprises such as HDIF and ONE Armenia. Carpets and textiles are definitely part of this movement. It’s a bit trickier to find information about Armenian carpet-making online, but there are plenty of places in Yerevan to see and shop for antique and contemporary textiles.
Where to see, learn about and buy traditional textiles in Armenia
Madoyan St, Yerevan
Established in 1917 and with showrooms in Yerevan and New York, Megerian Carpets is probably the most prominent exporter (and supporter) of Armenian carpets. The family run shop in Yerevan doubles as the city’s only dedicated carpet museum, displaying a collection of antique rugs and tapestries alongside working looms. Guided tours are available. More info here.
Tufenkian Historic Yerevan Hotel
48 Hanrapetutyan St, Yerevan
This gorgeous tuft-stone hotel in the centre of Yerevan also houses a carpet showroom and offers master classes in carpet weaving. I didn’t get to stay here, but I can only assume that the rooms are decorated with antique rugs. More info here.
32 Tumanyan St, Yerevan
As the name suggests, this shop trades in antique carpets (40-50 years old) sourced from different regions of Armenia. More info here.
Mashtoc St, Yerevan
Specialising in hand-knotted rugs from Artsakh (Nagorno-Karabakh), this company produces new rugs in factories in Stepanakert, Shushi and Jartar. I didn’t make it to Nagorno-Karabakh this time, but it may be possible to visit their carpet-making facilities there. More info here.
Aram St, Yerevan
This huge flea/handicraft market is a great place to pick up a souvenir carpet – although it may be a bit trickier to determine provenance, age and quality. Find the carpet sellers spread out along the eastern edge of the undercover market. Visit on the weekend for the best range.
Homeland Development Initiative Foundation (HDIF)
This social enterprise offers a great range of handmade souvenirs, including hand-embroidery, soft toys, accessories sewn from upcycled rugs and textiles (made in Koghb), crochet, ceramics, jewellery, and more. HDIF is Fair Trade Guaranteed, meaning your purchase directly supports women-led co-ops in rural Armenia, and Iranian and Syrian refugee artisans in Yerevan. For more information about their work, check out my interview with HDIF’s Shaunt Tchakmak for WFTO Asia.
3/1 Abovyan St, Yerevan
A popular souvenir store with a good range of embroidered textiles and carpets. We purchased an antique kilim here. More info here.
7/2 Mesrop Mashtots Ave, Yerevan
Another popular souvenir shop offering embroidery, beadwork, silver, felt products, traditional costumes and some carpets. More info here.
Textiles in Republic of Georgia
Said to be the heirs of Byzantine master weavers, Georgians have inherited their own tradition of wool and silk carpet-making. Georgian rugs are known for their expressive, contrast-heavy designs rendered in black and brightly coloured fibres, which sets the local style apart from the country’s Eastern neighbours.
Carpet-making has historically been associated with Georgia’s mountainous northern territories with the capital, Tbilisi, acting as a marketplace for the trade of carpets and textiles from all over Europe and Asia. Masters from the Tusheti region (especially Omalo) are considered to be the county’s premier carpet weavers.
At one time, Georgia also had a prominent silk industry – in fact, it was one of few countries in the former USSR (and certainly the only country in the Caucasus region) with a climate suitable for sericulture. Georgia even has an endemic species of mulberry tree. The Russian Empire set up the Caucasian Sericulture Station in Tbilisi in 1887 to further research and development of the sector. Unfortunately, Georgian silk production has only dwindled in the post-Soviet era.
As well as carpets and silk, Georgia has a signature textile all of its own. Lurji supra or ‘blue tablecloths’ are exquisitely patterned indigo cloths that once decorated the tables of every household in the country’s east. Traditionally, lurji supra are made by transferring designs onto cotton using woodblock prints and a technique known as ‘cold vat dyeing’. Symmetrical patterns reference domesticity and ritual feasting – knives and forks, humans and animals, and decorative paisley motifs.
Production of lurji supra peaked in the 17th and 18th centuries in Tbilisi, Gori and Telavi; eventually blockprinting techniques were replaced with more efficient silk-screening methods and lurji supra were mass-produced in factories. All factories closed down in post-Soviet Georgia and the art was all but forgotten. Then in 2010, a research laboratory was established at the Tbilisi State Academy of Arts to recover lurji supra techniques and develop new products for export. Professors Tinatin Kldiashvili and Ketevan Kavtaradze led the project, experimenting with screen-printing on different fibres. Their resulting range of cotton tablecloths and napkins in shades of blue and other colours is sold in gift shops all over Tbilisi. (You can distinguish them by the cotton tag with Professor Tinatin’s name and details printed on – although not all of the cloths have tags.)
Where to see, learn about and buy traditional textiles in Georgia
State Silk Museum
6 Giorgi Tsabadze St, Tbilisi
All that’s left of the Caucasian Sericulture Station, this is one of the oldest museums in Georgia. The Silk Museum’s history as a research and academic facility really shines through in exhibits that bring together silk cocoons, natural dye pigments, mulberry tree fragments and cloth samples from all four corners of the globe. The old building with its original furniture and fittings is delightful, and although some of the exhibits are a bit dusty, this only adds to the museum’s charm. This is the place to learn about silk production in the region. More info here.
Open Air Museum of Ethnography
Kus Tba St, Tbilisi
A fantastic museum that showcases the cultural diversity of Georgia’s different regions. The Museum features a working loom display, and you can find examples of antique textiles, costumes and carpets inside almost every model house and exhibition. More info here.
Georgian State Museum of Folk and Applied Art
28 Shalva Dadiani St, Tbilisi
A small museum with a permanent collection of carpets and handicrafts upstairs, and special project galleries downstairs. At the time of our visit, the museum was hosting an exhibition on lurji supra. More info here.
11 Abano St, Tbilisi
Founded in 1990, this was the first carpet and kilim shop to open its doors in the former USSR. It launched with more than one thousand different original carpets hand-sourced from families all over the Caucasus, and continues to trade in regional antique carpets today. More info here.
Caucasian Carpets Gallery
8/10 Erekle II St, Tbilisi
Probably Tbilisi’s most famous (and most photographed) carpet shop, owing to its prime location on Erekle II Street near popular restaurants and bars. I didn’t shop here, but the owners reportedly know their stuff. You can find authentic Georgian carpets and rugs sourced from Turkey, Dagestan, and beyond. More info here.
Dry Bridge Market
The Dry Bridge Market, Tbilisi’s biggest flea market, is a bit of a mixed bag. If you invest a bit of time, it is possible to find antique carpets and textiles amongst the jumble. If shops are more your style, there is another popular carpet retailer located nearby, under the bridge and close to Museum Hotel.
Baratashvili Street, Sighnaghi
At the time of our visit, the carpet-making workshop in Sighnaghi, Kakheti, was unfortunately closed. (From the looks of it, it wouldn’t be reopening anytime soon, either.) Pheasant’s Tears in Sighnaghi stocks an impressive collection of antique carpets and a few traditional folk costumes out the back of their restaurant in town. Prices on request. More info here.
Svaneti Museum of History and Ethnography
7A Lozeliani St, Mestia
A world-class museum showcasing all aspects of Svan culture, including weaving, costumes and textiles. More info here.
Just 50km northeast of Tbilisi, Dusheti is said to house Georgia’s largest national craft centre (I unfortunately didn’t get to visit while I was there – but will make the effort next time). Alongside carpet makers, the town is also home to clay and cloisonné enamel workers.
Do you have something to add? Please leave your recommendations/amendments in the comments below.