Shortage of thread causes Syria’s last weavers to abandon looms
Ariha - With the deftness of decades of experience, Abu Mohammad wove thick green thread with a wooden loom in north-western Syria, creating a vibrant geometric pattern renowned among Arabic textiles.
It was the last day before the weaver, in his 50s, would be forced to close the workshop, leaving the last five remaining looms in his hometown of Ariha in Idlib province to gather dust.
“This trade is dead now… Today is our last day of work on the loom as we don’t have any more thread,” he said
Weaving has been devastated by Syria’s 5-year war, with thread becoming too difficult to procure from Aleppo, once the country’s artisanal hub but now ravaged by fighting and bombardment.
Aleppo, 70km north-east of Ariha, was the main provider of the rough thread needed to weave Arabic textiles, versatile fabrics turned into rugs, furniture covers and other household items.
Aleppo’s rebel-held eastern districts are besieged by government forces, making it impossible to obtain thread from there and materials from the regime-controlled west are too expensive, Abu Mohammad said.
Even though it was his last day, he worked as enthusiastically — as he had since his teenage years — pulling wooden levers to lay down colourful acrylic fibre across a white base. The sound of the panels smacking against each other was interrupted only by Abu Mohammad’s nasal singing or a brief tea break with fellow weavers reclining on a shabby couch.
“Ariha, in Idlib province, is the most well-known in making this product,” said Abu Mohammad, gesturing to the green-and-red blankets and pillow cases hanging on the wall behind him. “We make all household items, from rugs for bedrooms to covers for the Quran. We would furnish entire houses.”
“Before the war, there were more than 100 looms in Ariha but the only ones left are the ones in this shop,” he said.
As the siege on eastern Aleppo’s tightened and access to thread became more difficult, only three looms in the Ariha workshop remained active.
“Before the war, our trade was booming. We could buy thread for pennies from Aleppo,” Abu Mohammad said. He pulled out a small box containing dozens of spools of colourful thread: “This is all we have left.”
A kilogramme of the blend of cotton and polyester used for the textiles costs $7, up from about 81 US cents. Abu Mohammad points to a rug hanging on the wall: “Before, I could make this whole rug with just 200 Syrian pounds (93 US cents).”
Another lifelong weaver, 40-year-old Abu Mostafa, said he began working a loom when he was about 12. He tried to find work in a different field but never felt comfortable doing anything except weaving, he said, as he pumped the wooden panels below his loom.
“I went to Lebanon and worked in construction and then to Turkey for a few months but I couldn’t hold any job that kept me away from a loom for too long,” he said.
Abu Mostafa beamed with pride as he reminisced about the robes and pillow covers he would produce. “No one else could make the pieces we made. They looked as if they were printed,” he said. “I challenge any computer to make something like this!”
The products from rebel-held Ariha were once sold across Syria. Even as the war raged on, they were exported to areas controlled by regime forces such as Damascus and Hama, as well as regional markets in Lebanon and Saudi Arabia.
Today transporting the woven goods — whether in or outside Syria — takes two to three months and is exorbitantly expensive.
“We used to send our products to Damascus at 10am and they would get there by 2pm,” Abu Mohammad said.
Despite the pressures, Arab textile production will resume eventually, the veteran weaver insisted.
If there was enough thread, “we could work 100 looms at once. The looms are all ready, we just need the thread,” he said.
“It’s a shame it’s going to end like this.”