Far north of Bulgaria’s capital city of Sofia, just a few miles from an unmanned stretch of border with Serbia, lies the village of Chiprovtsi. Hardy, friendly, and proud, the people of Chiprovtsi have the same resilience and ingeniousness as Bulgarians across the country. They continue to distinguish themselves with their mountain dialect and traditional handwoven carpets.
On a Friday afternoon, the minibus to Chiprovtsi is packed full of residents who spend their weeks working in larger towns and the capital city, and return to the village only on weekends. Like many small Bulgarian towns, Chiprovtsi is in the midst of a demographic crisis, as young people flee for Sofia or Western Europe. Bulgaria is in the midst of an economic crisis, and no part of the country has felt the pinch more than here, in the rugged northwest.
Rich in resources, Chiprovtsi was an economic and cultural hub in the region for hundreds of years. Today, some determined Chiprovchantsi (as the town’s residents are called) are fighting to keep the town’s distinct tradition of carpet-weaving alive.
Resilience Through Craft
Chiprovtsi has a fascinating history, and only in the last three centuries became known for its vibrant and patterned traditional carpets. The town’s early growth was defined by mining, not weaving, which brought wealth, merchants, and sustained cultural identity. The entire region thrived until an ill-fated uprising against Ottoman rule in 1688 left Chiprovtsi completely destroyed and virtually abandoned. When Orthodox Bulgarians cautiously returned, carpet weaving became instrumental in the rebuilding of the fallen town.
The remaining residents of Chiprovtsi are proud of their storied history, and look back fondly on the days before “the changes,” as the rise of capitalism in the 1990’s is called in Bulgaria. Many of the town’s full-time residents are struggling pensioners, trying to reconcile the sleepy, isolated village of today with the bustling mountain oasis of their youth.
Stewards of Tradition
Yordanka Zamfirova is a schoolteacher and tireless advocate for her beloved town. She does not make the local carpets herself. Yordanka explains, “I was 20 when I married my husband, and my family were not weavers by trade. My mother-in-law told me I was already too old to start weaving!” However, weaving is about the only thing she doesn’t do. Apart from her teaching responsibilities, Yordanka works on tourism and development initiatives, promoting Chiprovtsi carpets throughout Bulgaria and abroad.
Now in her late 40s, Yordanka has already seen striking changes in the town. “When I graduated twelfth grade, the school had nine-hundred students,” she says. “Today, that number has dwindled to about eighty.”
It was Yordanka who introduced me to Yulka Ignatova, a warm, energetic hostess, and one of the town’s last master weavers. Yulka estimates that some 20-30 weavers remain in Chiprovtsi, and she only knows of one person who can still build their traditional vertical looms. Back when nearly every family had a weaver, mothers taught their daughters the craft, as Yulka’s mother taught her.
“My sister was 10 and I was eight or nine. We did our own little pieces, to learn the traditional patterns. Weaving, you can’t learn in a day,” says Yulka. By the time she was eighteen, Yulka was making her own carpets to sell.
Carpet weaving is an ideal livelihood for village women, Yulka says, because of the flexibility and independence of the work. As a young mother, she snuck in time to weave while her children were at school, between tending her garden and caring for livestock. Now 65, she weaves for hours in the evening, after her husband brings the goats in for the night.
Like many who have opted to remain in Chiprovtsi, Yulka and Yordanka both express a determined love for their little town and for mountain life. Yulka says she misses the winters of her childhood, snowier and colder than even the harshest winters of the last decade. As a weaver, winter is the season when Yulka can dive into her craft, when the goats stay in their stables, and the garden chores are finished.
“If the women are weaving in winter,” I asked, “What’s the men’s job?”
Yulka’s cheeks dimpled, “The men’s job is to keep the women warm!”
Stories Told With Wool
Chiprovtsi carpets have two identical sides and rely on a consistent palette of reds and beiges –with blue, yellow, green, and black accents. The warp is usually of a strong cotton, which is completely invisible beneath the wool weft. When looking at a Chiprovtsi rug for the first time, one might feel as if they have experienced it before. The motifs are at once familiar and strange, archetypal yet singular. Many designs have pagan origins, representing family, fertility, or life’s cyclicality.
Yulka insists that her carpets are exceptional only because they’re so traditional. They adhere strictly to the patterns her mother taught her. Looking at the carpets that cover her floors, it’s impossible to distinguish the ones she made from the ones she inherited.
Within traditional methods and motifs, however, Yulka finds room for innovation and creativity. While all her specimens were beautiful, one piece absolutely captivated me, using mirrored triangles and lines in a traditional color palette.
“Those are my designs,” she explained, when she found me gazing down at the rug. “I started with a little green triangle and just kept working outwards, making it up as I went along.” Yulka’s mirrored triangle motif echoes the geometry and color schemes of the original Chiprovtsi rugs, while adding a new, original flourish to the carpets’ history.
For Yulka, Yordanka, and other dedicated Chiprovchantsi, the history of these special rugs is far from over. Yulka has tutored enthusiasts from as far away as Japan on weaving and natural dyeing. She’s also quite proud to be featured in several YouTube videos about her rugs.
Meanwhile, Yordanka is leading the campaign to win Chiprovtsi carpets UNESCO World Heritage Status, which she hopes will drive tourism and renew global interest in these beautiful rugs. It seems daunting, bringing a struggling village and a disappearing tradition into the twenty-first century. But, considering what this community has already survived, there is no doubt that Chiprovtsi’s carpets still have a bold future ahead.
Please note: Since this interview with Yordanka and Yulka was conducted, Chiprovtsi has been at last been added to UNESCO’s Representative List of Intangible Cultural Heritage. You can read more about this announcement here.
Huelo Dunn-Estébanez is an avid American knitter, writer, and former Peace Corps volunteer in Bulgaria who returned to Sofia in 2014 to further her cultural research and outreach efforts in the region. You can follow her keen observations and travel adventures on her blog, Work Even.
This article was sponsored by the Haemimont Foundation in NYC and Sofia, a corporation engaged in not-for-profit activities for the public good, primarily in the areas of education and cultural preservation. Learn more here.