Sheki, Azerbaijan: The Remarkable Complexity of Modern Silk-making Unveiled

Mark Elliott
All images by Mark Elliott

In the 17th century, silk production was a cottage industry in several parts of present-day Azerbaijan, notably Ordubad, Karabakh, Sheki and especially Shamakhi, which was for centuries the capital of the semi-independent Shirvan region. However, Shamakhi was razed to the ground by Nadir Shar in 1742 and, having been reconstructed, the city was flattened again by a series of 19th-century earthquakes. The new Russian Imperial authorities decided instead to encourage the concentration of sericulture at Sheki, and in 1829 introduced the first semi-mechanized silk reeling workshop, partly manned by 12 Italian families who arrived to share the work with 72 native Sheki employees. 


Nonetheless, much of the silk production and cocoon gathering processes remained as small-scale family businesses until 1931, when the Soviet authorities centralized a whole supply chain of activities into one massive factory complex.

Technician Əsabəli is one of the plant’s longest-serving workers, having worked here for over 50 years. He shows us the now disused old processing hall with its antique equipment dating back to the 1930s.

Today the factory site still covers an area of 11 hectares just north of central Sheki and is such a landmark that it’s locally known simply as Kombinat (works). In its heyday, the plant had around 7500 employees, and the huge surge of humanity during the thrice-daily shift changes must have been quite a sight.

A Soviet-era statue of local 19th- century poet Mirza Fatali Akhundov stands outside the factory’s social club.

The complex was almost a town within a town, having its own social club and museum, and its fabrics and threads supplied over 150 enterprises across the USSR. However, with the fall of the USSR and the resultant collapse of such a manufacturing chain, the factory struggled, bouncing back from the edge of bankruptcy on a couple of occasions. Since 2018, however, things appear to be looking up. New management has reinvigorated the complex, helped by a surge in demand for Azerbaijan’s signature kelaghayi hand-stamped silk scarves following their 2014 designation by UNESCO as intangible representatives of human cultural heritage.


As yet, plans to allow tourist groups to observe the factory’s utterly fascinating processes have yet to fully materialize, though the public can watch a series of videos while perusing the inviting showroom shop.

However, the Caspian Post was granted a unique opportunity[1] to look around and get a better understanding of the complexity of silk manufacture.


Our guide, the very engaging Ilqar Aghayev, is primarily a marketing specialist. However, he tells us, it’s all hands on deck during the very short window for gathering and sorting cocoons (late May, early June), and he too is part of the team sent out to the regions of Kurdamir and Imishli to select and grade the raw material.

Sacks of cocoons have been heated to kill the larvae within before they bite their way out and thus damage the silk threads. The dead larvae are later turned into animal feed.

Their value varies enormously according to quality. The lowest quality is where cocoons have been damaged such that the threads can never be spun, so these are worth very little as they can only be used as wadding for pillows etc. The top-quality cocoons are worth 15 times more (the actual price varies yearly). And it’s these that we encounter as we enter a truly extraordinary machine hall - hot, humid and perfumed with what smells a little like wet coats.

The processing & ‘winding’ room that turns cocoons into threads is a veritable miracle of technology and human skill.

Over half of the plant’s 360 employees work in this ‘winding’ section which creates the silk thread through a remarkable series of processes. These start with the cocoons being placed into a ‘vacuum permeating machine,’ which helps water pass through the tight ‘skins’ surrounding the finer silk fibres.


From there, they are dropped under gravity into a divided cylindrical vat, from which they are laboriously scooped into a series of cooking baskets that slowly make their way on a conveyer belt system through a series of ovens at various temperatures from boiling to 30 degrees. This further loosens the internal threads in readiness for the most Heath Robinson-esque of all the gadgets – the skin-remover machine - which uses a set of revolving brushes to gently push aside the ‘skins’ which are then grabbed by what looks like a kind of meat-slicer.

A veritable army of eagle-eyed workers – primarily women in floral dresses with buta-patterned aprons – watch for any foul-up and keep the system running.

The skins are pulled off into a very rough yarn allowing the naked silk balls to be washed into a new conveyor system where they bob in carefully designed plastic trays.

They then glide past a vast array of contraptions designed to unravel the balls into single silk threads. Each is fed from a little reservoir of de-skinned cocoons, automatically replenishing when the quantity reaches a low point. Sensors activate mechanical handles to reach down and fish out a few more cocoons from the passing trays.

While highly mechanized, the threads are very fine and frequently require the intervention of skilled human labour to rejoin broken or disconnected threads. That’s no easy task, given the minuscule diameter of the threads, which are almost invisible to the camera.

The bobbin coils so created are then put through a second winding process on larger spinning machines, while kept damp in a channel of warm water.

Much of the silk is then woven into cloth. Some is produced using 1980s Soviet looms that can be deafening for the 40+ weavers, and some on much newer Swiss machines that allow programmable choices of texturing to be built into the weave.

Some thread is sold directly without being woven, packaged up using a careful process that prevents the silk from tangling and knotting. The resultant bundles, which have the most delightful softness as they come off the rollers, are then wrapped in brown paper.

Once woven, turning the silk cloth into Azerbaijan’s classic kelaghayi scarves requires a laborious process of multiple dyeing and hand-stamping. A mixture of rosin and paraffin is heated in metal vats and then applied using carved wooden stamps. Getting the right consistency is key – enough that the mixture penetrates right through to the back of the cloth but not so much that the pattern loses the crisp detail of its design.


Once stamped and re-dyed, the cloth is washed in hot water to dissolve away the rosin residue and reveal the original colour beneath.

For multiple colours, the procedure is particularly arduous as the rosin typically has to be reapplied in the same position as the first time if the original colour is to be preserved.

Hopefully, before long, Azeripek will start allowing visitors to see for themselves the remarkable process behind the creation of Azerbaijan’s archetypal scarves. Having observed the process first-hand, it suddenly seems that the asking price of just AZN55 (US$30) per scarf is something of a bargain, given the skill and sweat required to make each one.




[1] Hot on the heels of the BBC,