The Art of the Kelaghayi – Azerbaijan’s Unesco-celebrated Silk Scarf
Mark Elliott and Orkhan Azim
The Caspian Post visits the ancient village of Basqal to see master scarf makers at work in a simple workshop that has captured the national imagination with its traditional craft.
Newly dyed kelaghayi drying in Basqal. Image: Mark Elliott
Among the more unexpected inscriptions on Unesco’s intangible cultural world heritage list are Azerbaijan’s kelaghayi (kəlağayı) silk scarves. Completing these colourful masterpieces takes a whole series of processes, from worm to cocoon to thread to cloth to beautifully patterned scarf. While fierce competition from East Asia now challenges the economics of Azerbaijan’s small-scale sericulture industry, silkworms are still cultivated – notably in the Aghjabedi region. Silk is spun and woven into cloth in the historic city of Sheki, a silk-making centre since at least the 16th century, where one factory still operates seasonally despite periods of near-bankruptcy in 2015 and 2016. Once the plain silk cloth has been made, some is sent to the little Azerbaijani village of Basqal, where the leading dyeing and patterning of hand-made kelaghayis is a cottage industry based in a remarkably low-tech workshop.
Think batik on silk: Basqal kelaghayi designs are craft classics. Image: Orkhan Azim
Welcome to Basqal
Though now a small village, Basqal was once the biggest town in its region and still retains the remnants of a medieval stone bathhouse and a fine old mosque. The narrow dead-end lane that reaches the village off the Shamakha-Sheki main road passes a small supermarket just as it’s descending into the historic heart of the settlement. A track to the east here takes you quickly to the workshop that lies just beyond a timeless tea garden – the Araz Chaykhana – where old men clack their dominoes with surreal vigour.
Gentlemen at the local teahouse regale the author with village history and tales of kelaghayi: Image: Mark Elliott
Welcoming us over a pot of lemon tea, a trio tells us proudly that a Basqal scarf had once been celebrated in London. “It won a prize.” says one chap. “International exhibition,” says another. “Years ago - in the 1860s or 1870s. This is an old, old town.” We thank them for the tea and head next door.
Simple yellow signs above red-metal doors usher us into the squat workshop dotted with bathtubs, barrels and wooden pails full of assorted liquids and clouds of steam rising from large cauldrons.
In the workshop, we meet master designers Nizami Mammadov and Abbasali Talibov. Nizami Mammadov, who learned the art of kelaghayi-making from his grandfather, has become a spokesperson for the craft and has appeared on various TV documentaries.
Much of the workshop is open-sided to reduce the inhalation of fumes. Image: Mark Elliott
Abbasali has an equally long connection to the art, telling us that he has been working at kelaghayi hand-printing for almost 50 years, following in the footsteps of both his father and granddad. “Even during the famine of World War I, people in the village prepared and sold kelaghayi,” he tells us.
“For generations, our ancestors had been selling their products as far afield as Italy, France and England” and, he claims, there’s still a kelaghayi scarf from 1862 in the collection of the Victoria and Albert Museum in London. So perhaps this is the true story that the tea-gents were trying to tell us.
Before the cloth is coloured, the patterns need to be created. To do this, a waxy paste called pasab – made from tree rosin – is applied to the silk using wooden die-stamps, hand-carved in traditional forms.
The buta (paisley) motif is a traditionally popular design. Image: Orkhan Azim
Rosin from Russia composes part of the Pasab for painting onto the silk, which prevents the dye penetrating the fabric. Image: Mark Elliott
As with batik, the pasab prevents the dye from colouring the areas where the design features need to be. Master Abbasali shows us a range of die-stamps, telling us: “Each kelaghayi pattern has a meaning. For example, the buta suggests fire, the circular ‘sun’ shape symbolizes shamanism, triangular ‘mountains’ stand for strength. All these patterns are inherited from our ancestors.”
It’s a very precise art. One slip, dribble, or poorly placed die-stamp will get pasab on the wrong area of the silk, rendering the scarf almost worthless. Yet Abbasali proceeds with remarkable equanimity on a far-from-easy surface softened with old towels.
Once the pattern has been applied, the scarves are submerged in vats of dye. Though labour intensive, the workshop proudly makes its own dyes from natural products.
For example, the sarağan tree (Cotinus coggygria, aka smoke-bush or dyers sumac) yields a strong red-orange dye but only after the intensive hammering of softwood from just within the bark.
Once the dye has taken, the kelaghayi needs to be carefully washed to remove the oils and solids of the pasab paste.
Traditionally younger women would wear kelaghayis in vibrant colours (pink, gold or yellow); darker colours were favoured by older ladies or those who might be grieving, while bright red was specific for brides on their wedding days. At the wedding, the groom might also sport a kelaghayi but draped over his shoulder, not worn over the hair.
In time past, it was widely believed that the soothing feel of the kelaghayi could soothe nerve pain and repel mosquitoes. Not surprisingly, this contributed to the scarves’ pervasive use. However, they are expensive, and during the challenging economic times of the 1990s and early 2000s, few locals could afford them with production geared mainly to a trickle of sales to foreigners and tourists. The situation has changed for the better, however, as the economy improves. Many are now made to order for Azerbaijanis who – helped by the UNESCO status granted in 2014 – are rediscovering the kelaghayi as a symbol of national pride.
 Government schemes to subsidize cocoon production were part of a 2012 national silk strategy. That proved too ambitious and the main factory went bust in 2015. After a restart it had to halt production again in 2016 for a lack of raw materials. This led to a new November 2017 strategy aiming to give sufficient support such that the silk industry could reach a target production of 6000 tonnes a year by 2025.