Article: Kelaghayis of Azerbaijan

Photo copyright of Christine Martens and reproduced with her kind permission.

The kelaghayi (kelagayi/kalaghayi) is a traditional silk scarf made in Azerbaijan. In 2014 this was added  to the UNESCO Representative List of the Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity. This video was made by Asif Abramov and Rena Ibrahimbeyova to support the process of adding kelaghayi to this list.

These fine silk headcovers have been produced in Azerbaijan for generations. In 1862 Nasir Abdulaziz from Basgal showed his kelaghayis at the International Exhibition in London, gaining a silver medal for his work. In the mid-nineteenth century the Russian painter Grigory Grigoryevich Gagarin depicted a woman from Shamakhi (probably a musician or dancer) wearing a kelaghayi over a small cap, in the local style.

“Woman of Shamakhi” by Grigory Grigoryevich Gagarin

The silk scarf provided warmth in the cold weather, and protected the wearer from the heat in hot weather. It was produced in a variety of colours. Many believe that older women tended to wear darker colours, while younger women preferred lighter ones. Red was associated with weddings, and black with mourning – with scarves sometimes being used to cover the deceased too. It was tied in a variety of different ways, depending on the region. There were many beliefs associated with the production of these scarves – people should not enter the silkworm-incubation premises wearing gold or silver jewellery or a wristwatch, the scarves should never be folded with the pattern on the outside etc, etc.

Although these scarves used to be made throughout Azerbaijan, production is now centred on Sheki and Basgal. Basgal is also the home of the Kelagayi museum, the walls of which are decorated with some of the traditional motifs used on the scarves.

 Photo copyright of Christine Martens and reproduced with her kind permission.

The scarf shown below was bought by the author in Khiva, Uzbekistan, from an Azerbaijani shop owner. It was made in the Sheki Ipek Kombinat named after Lenin, in Sheki. At one time this was one of the largest silk-weaving centres in the Soviet Union, employing 7,000 people at its peak. The factory closed after the collapse of the USSR in 1995. The twin towns of Sheki and Shamakhi have been silk-weaving centres since medieval times and in the early twentieth century there were 127 silk mills in the Sheki region, employing 3,500 people. The seller told me that scarves such as mine date to the 1970s, but I haven’t been able to verify that.

The patterns on the kelaghayi are produced using a resist technique. They are applied using stamps which were traditionally carved from pear or walnut wood, but were often also made of metal.

Photo copyright of Christine Martens and reproduced with her kind permission.

These stamps are dipped in a mixture of paraffin, resin and solid oil, before being carefully applied to the surface of the silk cloth. Various natural dyes are used to colour the cloths, before the wax is removed with hot water.

Photo copyright of Christine Martens and reproduced with her kind permission.

Obviously the workload and time needed to produce such scarves is increased if several different colours are used. Kelaghayi with six or seven colours were perceived as the most valuable and desirable and are still being produced in Basgal today. Versions of traditional kelaghayi produced in China using synthetic fabric are now entering the market, providing stiff competition for the workshops who produce silk scarves in the time-honoured way.

Similar scarves seem to have been produced in other areas too. The author bought this one in Ashgabat, Turkmenistan in 2001. It had been made in a factory in Chardzhou in the east of the country. The factory had closed after the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991.

Many thanks to Christine Martens for allowing me to reproduce some of the photos she took in Basgal following the “Intersections in felt” Symposium in October 2018.

Some fabulous images, along with an interview with a workshop-owner which really gives a sense of the working conditions, can be seen in an article by Samra Sadraddinli on the Chai Khana website here.

More background information for this article comes from this piece by Emil Eyyabov for the Azerbaijan State News Agency, this article  by Valentina Reznikova for Region Plus, and finally this article by Afat Rustamayova and Ruslan Huseynov on irs-az.com.

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