In the backroom of a small house in Pirot in southeastern Serbia, a handful of women are fighting to keep an ancient craft alive.
Their dexterous fingers race up and down large wooden looms, weaving the bold geometric patterns distinct to Pirot carpets.
Once celebrated throughout Europe for their beauty, Pirot carpets graced the walls and floors of Serbian royal palaces, as well homes of the urban elite. Weaved for over four centuries in the town after which they were named — Pirot, once a thriving trade center on the caravan route between east and west — they were ceremonially rolled out for state visits, and given to foreign dignitaries.
However, what was a thriving craft practiced by 5,000 weavers a century ago is now under threat of extinction, with only 10 women still keeping the tradition going.
“Pirot carpet weaving is our treasure which is passed on from generation to generation. It’s the knowledge I learned from my mother and my grandmother,” says Slavica Ciric who founded the Lady’s Heart cooperative in Pirot with local women in 2009, to try to stop the skills nurtured throughout centuries from passing into oblivion.
“Carpet weaving is in our DNA,” she continues. “We were born on carpets and we grew up in houses filled with Pirot carpets.”
Mastery of craft
Pirot carpets are very thin but extremely dense, and are said to last more than a century. They have two identical sides and are geographically protected, which means that they can only be made in the Pirot area, and out of Pirot sheep — a rare breed with only a few flocks counting just 250 sheep remaining.
Weaving is painstaking work. It requires geometrical precision, supreme skill and creativity in equal measure. Everything is done by hand only, and in the same way as hundreds of years ago. It takes two weavers working simultaneously a month to create less than one square meter.