Jozan Magazine has asked Ryan Smith to tell about his interesting weaving project taking place in Qusar in the Lezgi region of Azerbaijan. Ryan Smith is the founder of Dugul Looms, a company and project dedicated to preserve and promote traditional Lezgi weavings.
“I am an American who has been living in the mountains of Azerbaijan among the Lezgi people and I entered the Lezgi community in December of 2003, as I was working with a small business development firm in Azerbaijan called CB Consulting”, says Ryan Smith to Jozan Magazine.
“As I began to investigate potential economic development projects, I was immediately attracted to their weaver culture, and the potential it has to bring resources into their community” he continues.
“The Lezgi’s traditional woven structure is the sumakh. The Lezgi weaving culture seems to be on the verge of extinction. In the Lezgi region of Azerbaijan, only 2 villages out of 82 still have active weavers. The demands of an agrarian society in combination with the availability of cheap machine-made carpets suffocate their fragile weaving tradition. Mass production of sumakhs under the Soviet regime advanced the decline of Lezgi weaving. While sumakhs had long been commercially produced for export, their production had still largely been a private home craft, allowing for the weaver to take pride in her work. Large Soviet factories quickly eliminated this vital component to the craft’s preservation. Additionally, traditional intricate designs were replaced with simple degenerated designs to accelerate production. The priority was quantity, not quality.”
According to Ryan Smith the goal of Dugul Looms is to preserve and promote Lezgi weaving, and to find direct paths to markets to be able to keep as much of the profit as possible in the local community. “In the beginning of the project I spent months researching the Lezgi’s weaving history, availability of materials and weavers, and eventually ordered a bunch of yarn and contracted with a master weaver and her weaving network”, he says.
“After that we wove a bunch of pieces, and sold them primarily to the expatriates in Baku, Azerbaijan. The initial goal was to determine if the project could be commercially viable, and it was. The next stage is to raise the weavers’ wages and to create financial incentives for quality, and to do our own natural dyeing. While our first batch of yarn was unfortunately commercially dyed, we are already developing the natural dye process for all of our future pieces. It is our aim to find a direct market for our products, creating higher wages for the weaver and a better value for the customers. Before even establishing a market for our products, the wages of our first weavers were immediately increased 33%. As we are able to establish a market and ensure the financial viability of this project, we are eager to continue to raise the weavers’ wages. Increased wages is a critical step toward encouraging more women to learn the craft and, thus, ensuring the preservation of Lezgi weaving. Many of our weavers are single mothers, often widowed or divorced, who are alone in raising their children. In a land where only manual labor exists, it is very difficult for them to adequately provide for their families. Dugul Looms empowers these women to care for the people they love most.”
Ryan Smith is now back in the States for several months, and will promote the project. He has brought back several fine examples of sumakhs, and would love to show them to anyone with interest.
More information: Dugul Looms, Ryan Smith