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A Dying Trade

A household staple for generations, the weaving of wool carpets is fading away, living on mainly in the stories of those who lovingly practiced the craft their entire lives. From Ziarul de Garda. by Liliana Botnariuc 13 December 2017

Weaving is no longer a staple of Moldovan households, as it was a few decades back. As a result, woolen carpets are not the most prized possession of a household anymore. Either given as dowry at weddings, or kept as heirlooms for the younger generations, the rugs were not just objects decorating a house, but a reason of pride for the craftsmen who worked on them. Nowadays, the great challenge is to rescue such beautiful practices from oblivion.


The town of Zabriceni, located in the Edinet district in northwestern Moldova, can still boast such traditional carpets, thanks to the women who have been making them with their own hands for years. Auntie [a Moldovan term of endearment for older people] Zinaida Botnariuc has entered the eighth decade of her life, and Moldovan carpets are woven into her biography. She was 40 years old when she learned the craft from an older sister. By day Zinaida worked as a caretaker in an orphanage, and by night she wove her carpets. That is how she observed generations of children growing up, while also seeing how dozens of carpets came into being through her own hands.


Auntie Zinaida with one of the carpets she made in the background


The words she uses to describe her craft seem taken from a history museum documenting life in Moldovan villages. In addition to the weaving loom and natural wool fibers, she also talks about warp yarns, wefts, and heddles. The size of the loom would determine the size of a carpet. “If you want a four-meter-wide carpet, the frame must be four and a half meters wide; and, after stretching the warp threads, one can get to work,” Zinaida says, reviewing the details of the process, which are engraved in her memory.   


It would take three women working one month to bring a carpet to life. Zinaida has lost count of how many rugs she has worked on. “I have woven around 10 carpets for myself alone, but I didn’t keep track of how many carpets I have woven [for other people] in the village,” the talented artisan says, while smiling. She is proud of the fact that every decorative carpet in her house is her own creation. “I’ve woven everything that hangs inside the house. I have six grandchildren and four great-grandchildren, and I thought that they should have some of this.”


But she has sadly noticed that the younger generation no longer favors such decorations for interior design. “Young people don’t need carpets to adorn their walls anymore. They merely paint them, put up curtains, and that’s [the entire decoration].” She is disappointed that the craft of weaving has died off in the country's villages.


Her granddaughter who left for the United States would really like to have a handmade carpet from her motherland. But it’s been quite a while since auntie Zinaida last weaved – she has even lost track of where she put her loom. She doesn’t spend her time idly, though. Zinaida works in the garden every day, and in the evening she lets her eyes rest on the walls of her room, which are adorned with her carpets and rugs.   


Back in the day, every household had sheep, so you had to shear them, untangle the wool, dye it, spin the wool into yarn, and only after that start weaving,” Ecaterina Parasciuc, an artisan who had worked for 17 years in a local workshop, remembers fondly. This is where she learned the secrets of the craft. At the time, the people working in the workshop would get overwhelmed by the number of orders, which sometimes made them work throughout the night.


Ecaterina Parasciuc said she would never sell a carpet after putting so much soul into making it.


Ecaterina has worked on almost 200 traditional carpets. The best part of the process, she said, was taking the finished carpet and displaying it in front of the house. Everyone in the neighborhood would come and study the model, and the quality of the workmanship.


While they were in your courtyard they wouldn’t say a word,” Ecaterina says. “But once they left they would start saying things about your work – either that you did a good job, or that you got something wrong. For instance it happened that the symmetry wouldn’t be perfect.” In addition to the craftsmanship, the price of a carpet also depended on the type of yarn used; if the threads were thinner the price would also be higher, because the weaving process would have been more tedious. Ecaterina says that the tradition of weaving carpets at home lasted until the 1990s, when the so-called “Persian” [imitation] rugs appeared on the market, and Moldovans filled their walls with these serial, factory-made objects.


At present, Moldovan carpets are part of UNESCO world’s intangible heritage. At the same time, there’s a great demand for them among online shoppers, especially among people who have left Moldova. Authentic Moldovan carpets can sell for thousands of Moldovan lei, or hundreds of dollars or euros. The price depends on the age of the carpet, its decorative pattern, its size, and how well it has been preserved. A carpet that is more than 80 years old can cost as much as 8,500 lei (almost $500).


Zinaida and Ecaterina say that they won’t sell anything that is part of their life’s work.  Every year, the carpets, rugs, and wall carpets patiently await the moment when their owners take them out in the sun to air them out. The older and better kept, the more valuable they are.

This article was written by Liliana Botnariuc, and originally published on Ziarul de Garda, a news and analysis site based in Moldova. Translated by Ioana Caloianu. TOL has done some editing to fit our style. Reprinted with permission. All images via Ziarul de Garda. 

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