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Kruja is the center of some of the country’s most skilled and passionate handmade clothing masters, like Ndriçim Guni, who is devoted to the preservation of Albanian tradition in his workshop in the Kruja Bazaar.
The Kruja Bazaar is one of the most famous bazaars in Albania, where the art, culture and history of the country meet. To visit this bazaar is to become instantly familiar with Albania’s rich artisanal tradition. The bazaar’s narrow, cobble-stoned alley is filled with traditional handmade hats, embroideries, rugs and carpets made by some of the country’s most professional artisans. The latter have great stories to tell of how they have inherited their craft through generations. Such is the case of Ndriçim Guni, whose specialty is crafting felt-made items like the famous traditional Albanian felt hat: qeleshe.
Qeleshe, a hat traditionally only worn by men, is so popular that it is being remastered and represented in several contemporary fashion collections. However, the traditional qeleshe retains its historical charm. First and foremost, the hat is only made of white felt. The significance of the material is clear in the name qeleshe, the root of which is “lesh,” the Albanian word for “wool.” The qeleshe-makers of Kruja are not many, which is precisely why they preserve this traditional quite fanatically. They are, indeed, responsible for a tradition that has been passed down for more than five generations.
Ndriçim makes sure to tell us that this centuries-old tradition is still alive because of the artisans’ pure love and devotion to the craft. Ndriçim’s workshop, named “Qeleshe-Maker Hyseni” after his father, has been part of Kruja’s Bazaar for 23 years. His son, Ardian Guni, also a skilled craftsman of handmade objects, is part of this workshop. In addition to qeleshe, father and son make traditional felt shoes or, as the locals call them, papuçe.
Ndriçim explains the process of making felt items such as qeleshe or papuçe, one that includes several phases. The tools used are entirely traditional and, at times, fairly old. In other words, in order to keep the items’ authenticity, Ndriçim uses no modern tools. “Everything, from the cleaning to the working of the wool, using tools that are over 150 years old, is done by hand, without any sort of machinery,” Ndriçim explains.
Ndriçim works hard to produce an attractive and rich variety of items. The workshop’s visitors are amazed by the different shapes and sizes of qeleshe they find there. However, the preservation of this item, which embodies and expresses the country’s cultural tradition, is no easy task. As a result, these artisans are trying to infiltrate the international market. Approximately 80% of the Guni family’s qeleshe production is exported abroad. In addition, the onslaught of imported products makes their survival in the unstable market, difficult and uncertain. As such, traditional masters like Ndriçim and his son are more necessary than ever.
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