Albanian Kilims


 

Albanian Kilims and Carpets

Kilims in Albania are generally called ‘qylims’ and carpets ‘sixhade’, both borrowed from the Turkish language as what is now Albania was part of the former Ottoman Empire in Europe. These words are very general, however, and do not capture the complexity of Albanian language and are too general to describe kilims and carpets in the region. Albanian is in the Indo-European group of languages, like English, Persian, German, Italian, Russian, and Hindi, but is not closely related to any others. There are several dialects of the language and there are variations in word usage from town to town. This is especially true when discussing kilims and carpets.

Generally speaking in English, kilims are carpets with no pile or raised yarn, while carpets have pile. In other words, the English language provides us two words to describe an entire range of woven pieces. We have used those words to describe our pieces with pile and without pile on this website. We have also broken down the types of kilims into sub categories so that the reader can better understand the regional variations and the purpose of these pieces.

In Albanian, however, every type of carpet or kilim is known by many different words, with the words changing based on:

  • Local accents and dialects
  • Purpose of the kilim or carpet such as blanket, floor covering, sitting mat, sleeping mat, wall hanging, curtain, bed frame cover, bed sheet, saddle blanket, saddle bag, or table cover
  • Materials used to form the item such as wool, cotton, felted wool, goat hair

Some of the biggest challenges we have faced has been with regards to carpets with very dense, high pile that are generally called flokje, but also flokja, çulla, valenxë, and levencë depending on your location. These words can also mean other types of kilims and carpets, again depending on location. In the Mat Valley in north central Albania, kilims and carpets both are called pef.

Another challenge has been in regards to an old form of kilim found, as far as we can tell, only in the villages around Korçe. The limited literature on Albanian carpets refers to them as ‘shaggy carpets’ although they have no pile. They are, instead, kilims of goat and sheep wool that have been partially felted into order to give them a form of waterproofing and extra insulation. They were likely originally used by semi-nomadic Vlach (Aromanian) shepherds. They are referred to as valenxë, just like the piled carpets previously mentioned, but are completely different in every way. Research on these kilims is ongoing and we hope to publish about them in the near future. 

 Brief History

Weaving is an ancient tradition in Albania and the Balkans in general and it is likely that the carpets we know as flokje, a very shaggy form of carpet produced all over the Balkans today, preceded kilim production introduced from the Ottoman Empire in the 15th century.

   

Flokje carpets

There is no known date when kilims started to be produced in what is now Albania, or in the region generally. What we do know is that by the 16th century, there are references to carpets and kilims being made in northern Albania. In time, each area of the region produced unique patterns of kilims and carpets, developed specific sizes, or used certain materials or colors, while also borrowing motifs, images, and techniques from larger productions centers in today Bulgaria and Serbia which were major centers that produced kilims for export to the larger Empire.

Until recently, it was common for most households in Albania to have small, home looms where women would work during the winters making small kilim strips, 30 to 100 cm in width. The pieces would then be sewn together to make larger pieces to fit specific rooms, beds, tables, divan seats, or walls. Most Albanian kilims, therefore, are composed of a number of similar sized strips sewn together. Practically all production was, and is, for personal family use and not for sale. Kilim and carpet production, while reduced, continues.

Larger, one-piece kilims were made on vertical looms. These would have been made in larger towns such as Shkoder , Kruje, and Korçe, and in smaller numbers in other towns, as well as in Sarajevo, Novi Pazar, Gjakova, Pirot, and other locations in the Western Ottoman Empire in places that are now the states of Bosnia, Serbia, Kosovo, and Montenegro, as well as Albania. Larger, one-piece kilims would have been more expensive, owned by wealthy merchants and government officials, and ordered to fit very specific spaces. Most, if not all, larger pieces before the last half of the 19th century were made outside Albania. The first production of larger, single piece kilims began in Korçe in the south-east of the country starting in the mid-19th century and were purchased in southern and central Albania for large houses according to Qilima Shqiptare (Albanian Kilims) published by the University of Tirana in 1960. Northern Albania saw the production of single-piece kilims in large numbers by the early 20th century.

Kilims often contain motifs, passed down over centuries from local contexts and further abroad. These come primarily from the North West Bulgarian region that developed kilim production hundreds of years ago, but some also come from Turkey. Some motifs are locally derived or celebrated with the double-headed eagle being one of the most common, along with the butterfly.

Some distinct regional patterns emerged through time so that we can now often identify certain shapes, sizes, motifs, and colours with certain areas throughout the region.

 

 

Communist Era

Kilim production radically changed starting in 1945 when Albania became a communist state. Large houses were demolished or put into government service. Families were moved into apartments and smaller accommodations to improve living conditions for most, but also to enforce equality. Factories were established with thousands of workers for the production of kilims for domestic use and for exporting. Due to smaller accommodations during this era kilims were made in smaller sizes and all were made in one piece. Household kilim production continued, but was greatly diminished, and pieces were only used by the family and quietly. All wool, looms, and production belonged to the state. Few larger sized kilims were made in Albania after 1945, perhaps none. Larger sizes, if made after World War Two, came from nearby Yugoslavia, including today’s Serbia, Montenegro, Bosnia, Macedonia, and Kosovo.

Communism was replaced by a capitalist, multi-party system in 1991. In this new era, people continued to use kilims for the same purposes that they always had used them, but the communist kilim factories were shut down and imported nylon rugs became the household norm. Mass emigration from the country has meant that families often sell their homes and traditional furnishings as they depart for Europe, North America, and other locations, allowing vintage and antique woven pieces to come into the market.

Despite this historical evolution of the role of kilims and the decline of its prominence in the culture and economy of modern Albania, production at home for family use continues on a much larger scale than any other country in Europe. Small numbers of kilims, in all sizes, continue to be produced for tourists and interior decorating companies.  Villages in all parts of the country continue to produce kilims on horizontal looms for their own use, often using natural dyes as they always have. Villages in the central and southern parts of the country also make flokje carpets. Only levenxë, the partially felted goat and sheep wool carpets from the region of Korça are no longer made. Kukes-style kilims may still be produced, but in very low numbers and by special order.

New kilim produced in a village near Tepelene, Albania using natural dyes and locally-sourced wool.

Carpets

There are distinct types of carpets with pile in our collections:

  • Flokje
  • Kukes carpet
  • Prizren carpet
  • Southern carpet

Flokje

Flokje carpets are:

  1. Made exclusively of wool
  2. Made from one to six panels that were the product of a small loom at home
  3. Are often felted on the bottom to give some waterproofing
  4. Come in plain colors usually, but can also have colored patterns all over

 

Flokje carpet from Gjirokaster region

Flokje carpet from Korçe region

Flokje carpets are found primarily in the south, but also in the central part of Albania, as well as in Macedonia, Bulgaria, and other places. They were intended to be used to cover a floor where people would sit and sleep and therefore serve as a sitting and sleeping mat. Someone sleeping on a flokje could easily use only half as the mat part and the other half as a blanket. Needless to say, these solid wool carpets with thick pile would have kept someone very warm.

In households with furniture, flokje were used to cover benches and chairs, as well as divans and beds. This is still very common in southern Albanian homes today. The main colors for these pieces are usually white, using undyed wool, and red. Albanians like bright colors, so intense orange, electric blue, and other strong, vibrant colors can also be seen.

Albanians do not wear shoes in their homes, ever. This means that even older flokje have kept most of their pile and it is rare to find a piece that shows wear, at least on the side facing up. Any wear is usually on the reverse, perhaps indicating where a flokje has been hung up or show distress from use. They are the original shag carpets that the West is familiar with, but date back centuries, perhaps millenia.

Kukes Carpet

Sixhade is a Turkish word and it is used in Albania for both kilims and carpets, depending on location. For our website, we will simply use carpet.

  1. Are usually made of wool, but may contain other types of yarn, including cotton and acrylic fibers, depending on the age
  2. Are made in two panels on a horizontal loom
  3. Have very bright colors, many of which employ artificial dyes
  4. Often have a separately made fringe sewn onto the edges which may contain plastic beads, steel wool, silvery plastic materials that add a sparkling effect, and more
  5. Are intended to be for a guest to sit and sleep on, and therefore are rarely used and carefully cared for
  6. Are found in northern areas, including today’s Kosovo, with few exceptions
  7. Are often made by a woman as part of her dowry and given to her husband’s family as wedding gifts to prove her worth and skill

  

 

Kilims

Kilims were, and are, used to cover:

  1. Floors
  2. Bed frames
  3. Tables
  4. Walls
  5. Divans

They can be used as blankets, prayer carpets, and many other purposes as well.

Generally kilims are made of many panels if they were made in homes, or as a single piece. Large single-piece kilims generally date to  pre-1945 when communism was adopted as the governing model in Albania. Smaller single-piece kilims can date from any period, but the communist period experienced mass factory production of these types. The quality of these pieces were maintained at a high standard.

 

Kilims as floor and seat covers

Kilim as bed frame cover.

Shaggy kilim used as blanket in a modern home.

Partially felted kilims, carpets, and blankets

Shaggy carpets

A special category of kilim is referred to in Qilima Shqiptare (Albanian Kilims), the only book dedicated to kilims and carpets in Albania, published in 1960 by the University of Tirana. These are ‘shaggy’ carpets. These are really a form of kilim that is quite thick and made of partially felted goat hair yarn. The felting made it waterproof, so it is likely these rare pieces were made for outdoor use by nomads. They continue today to serve as blankets, as well as covers for divans and floors, although probably none have been made in at least 75 years. They are precious heirlooms for people in south Albania.

  

Unusual designs on the extremely rare shaggy kilim type from the Korçe region

Shaggy carpets were produced in southern Albania and, although they often feature motifs found in kilims throughout the region, many also contain what appears to be older patterns that may be pre-Ottoman. Some are solid colors, but this is even more rare. Major centers of production were villages around Korçe and Kolonje (between Korçe and Gjirokaster) and they are thought to have been produced primarily by the Vlach, or Aromanian, peoples of the region who were semi-nomadic. More research is being done to understand these kilims which were made on horizontal looms. They may be unique to the mountains of today’s southern Albania and northern Greece and are certainly no longer in production.

 Although the literature calls these shaggy carpets, they are known locally as levenxa or levenxa guni. In other parts of Albania they are called velenxe, velenci, and other terms depending on dialects and region.

Blankets

Another category of partially-felted kilims are blankets. These come in relatively large sizes, are always made of panels, usually three pieces, and often have letters or a shape woven into one corner for easy identification of ownership. If letters are used, they can be Greek or Latin letters, but sometimes are Ottoman Arabic script. While this type of blanket was probably used by shepherds, the additional of signs of ownership mean they were also made for soldiers, prisoners, and perhaps students who boarded in monasteries or other locations for their education. These blankets generally date from the 19th century through the start of the Second World War.

  

Ottoman soldiers’ blanket with easy to identify monogram from Gjirokaster

Dating Kilims and Carpets

Generally, it is a great challenge to date kilims and carpets. One way is to ask the owners how old something is or if they know who made it. We buy from families and also from small shop owners and they often know a lot of interesting and important information about the origins, production, and history of their pieces.

Another method we use to date pieces in our collection is to ask trained experts including staff at museums across Albania, as well as experts who live around the world. It is interesting that often the experts disagree with each other, but we learn a lot from the arguments they put forward. Educated guesses can be made on whether cotton or other materials are used in the production of a kilim; cotton was not often used in much of Albania before 1945 except the north-east of the country. Dye colors can also be helpful in dating on occasion, with bright yellows, greens, and pinks indicating dates in the late 19th century at the earliest. Thrifty villagers usually made their own dyes using locally available raw materials until modern times, so we have to keep that in mind as well and cannot state that just because something has natural dyes that it is older.

 

Two kilims from northern Albania that are late 19th or early 20th century. The bright green and orange dyes indicates that they cannot date any earlier.

 It is often tempting to date a piece by its condition, with more worn and torn pieces being deemed as older and newer-looking items being considered more recently produced. Given Balkan culture, however, this does not work whatsoever. Being that kilims were used on floors, beds, and divans for general, everyday use, many of these would have had signs of wear or holes from where furniture abraded them through time or a hole where they were hung on a wall or a door frame by a hook or nail. But, on the other hand, even everyday items could have seen long use without showing much wear, since people did not, and do not even now, wear shoes in their houses and in many cases, people sat on the floor or built-in divans or sofas with no furniture to be moved.

Many of our best, largest kilims in the collection were made specifically for special events, such as a wedding, or for infrequent guests. When not being used, they were carefully stored in cedar or spruce dowry chests which prevented any form of damage, such as being food for insects. We often find 19th century pieces that look practically new, with bright colors and no damage of any sort.

A friend of mine explained to me that his great grandfather purchased a kilim from a merchant in the town of Peshkopi in the north-eastern province of Diber in today’s Albania; it was Ottoman Turkey at the time. The kilim was made in Pirot, in today’s Serbia, and was large and expensive. This kilim was only to be used for guests and for no other purposes. The kilim survived the Balkan Wars, the First World War, the Second World War, and the destruction of the original Ottoman-style mansion in the communist era. Today it remains in mint condition and it resides in a special cedar box in a room set aside for guests in his parents house, having only been used for three guests in the last 40 years and just a handful of times over the past 120 years. This is the Albania I know and love.

Pirot style kilim from northern Albania.

 We have made our best attempt to give you a date of production for your kilim. Others may not agree with our assessment and they are welcome to their opinions. Hopefully future research and publications will help all of us to understand our pieces more fully.

What to expect in our kilims

Cleaning

We store our kilims in vacuum bags and with moth balls and other insecticides to prevent them from being snacked on by moths and other pests. While we have worked to remove dust and stains, we recommend that you use a professional cleaning service for your purchases. There are no professional carpet and kilim cleaning companies in Albania or we would do this for you. We also recommend that you use professionals to clean your purchases in the future. Do not try to clean these pieces on your own at home.

Repairs and small flaws

Few of our products have required any repair of any sort. When a piece has required some work, this has been done by our repairman based in Istanbul using vintage and antique yarns from kilim fragments purchased in rural Albania for this purpose. Vintage and antique kilims and carpets are rarely perfect and may have a minor flaw or flaws that are not noticeable and/or not cost effective to repair. Please pay attention to the high resolution photographs. You may also request that an item be inspected by our team and any flaws or damage, however small, be reported to you before purchase. 

This kilim dates from the 19th century from the Korçe region. Please note the small hole.

 

Shipping and handling

All our items are shipped by Albanian Post with tracking numbers. If you prefer UPS, FedEx, or another courier service that is represented in Albania, we are happy to arrange this for extra shipping and handling charges which will be dependent on the the weight and size of the shipment.