Healing threads: Weaving workshop revives Iraqi tradition and empowers women

The centuries-old tradition of weaving the vibrant kilim has been affected by wars and economic hardship

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Teacher Eltifat Khrejan Lafta is on a mission in southern Iraq: in her workshop, she is weaving more than intricate patterns into the famed Iraqi kilim – she is threading resilience and hope into the fabric of her local community.

A passionate advocate for cultural preservation, she is not only determined to safeguard the traditional art, but to provide a haven for widows, divorcees and other women in the province of Al Muthana, about 400km south of Baghdad.

“The hardships that we have faced over the past decades have not only impacted our society, and especially women, but also our traditional art which is fading away,” Ms Lafta, 55, told The National.

“I wanted to create a space where not only the ancient art would be revived but also the spirit of those who have endured so much in their life.”

The centuries-old tradition of weaving the vibrant Iraqi kilim lies in the heart of the country's cultural heritage.

With their rich history and ancient motifs, the intricate textiles offer a glimpse into the artistic legacy of ancient Mesopotamia.

Kilims combine both geometric and floral designs with figurative patterns, using deep and highly saturated colours.

Their designs are abstract adaptations of things found in nature such as animals, date palms, flower, as well as domes, minarets, the eight-pointed star or talisman-shaped jewellery.

Each area in Iraq uses different techniques, designs and motifs.

Among the nomadic communities in the north of the country, the Kurds weave sheep wool and goat hair to produce kilims and rugs that are mostly influenced by neighbouring Iran and Turkey.

In central and southern Iraq, elaborately embroidered kilims are the main local handicraft, produced by the indigenous people of the Marshes and other communities.

For decades, kilims were woven by young girls for their weddings and sometimes by mothers for their sons. They can be purely decorative or also used as floor coverings or blankets.

The image of a woman weaving during Iraq’s heyday in the 1970s, particularly her mother and grandmother, still lingers vividly in Ms Lafta’s mind.

She was born and raised in Al Khidir district, nestled along the banks of the Euphrates. It is located about 30km south of Al Muthana's provincial capital, Samawa, and stands near many ancient Mesopotamian cities, including Uruk – now known as Warka – where one of the oldest civilisations in human history flourished.

“I grew up in that world, seeing women compete against each other in weaving – there were at least two or three women in each house weaving kilims to sell,” she recalled.

But decades of war since the 1980s, economic hardships as well as the import of cheap products mainly from China have caused this art to fade away.

Many of them have faced personal tragedies and upheaval and the atmosphere here provides them with a sense of purpose and community
Eltifat Khrejan Lafta, weaver

“All led to the extinction of this beautiful art,” she said. “This art is our history and our identity that has been passed on to us from our ancestors.”

In 2014, she started to gather women in her house to weave and later the municipality allocated a 200-meter plot of land to build a workshop.

The numbers of customers have grown as the project has progressed. Clients are not only locals, but also come from Gulf countries and Europe.

She still uses old techniques in colouring and weaving, but she has also introduced new ways, applying the rich tapestry to cloths and bags, as well as other decorations.

Prices range from 50,000 to 350,000 Iraqi dinars ($32 to $225).

The workshop serves as a refuge where women facing various life challenges can come together to breathe. They sometimes gather just to talk and Ms Lafta offers them advice.

“Many of them have faced personal tragedies and upheaval and the atmosphere here provides them with a sense of purpose and community,” she said.

Updated: December 15, 2023, 6:48 PM