THIN BUT STRONG: GEORGIAN SILK

THIN BUT STRONG: GEORGIAN SILK

The FINANCIAL -- Georgian silk production – an exhibit from the Georgian State Silk Museum in Tbilisi. Together with a unique library and a research institute, the museum is part of the “Caucasian Sericulture Station” founded by Nikolay Shavrov in 1887 to restore and promote traditional silk production, as well as related arts and crafts. Nowadays, the Museum is one of those rare places where you can see Georgian silk and hear about its history.

DEEP ROOTS

Silk production, or sericulture, has deep Georgian roots, going all the way back to King Vakhtang Gorgasali, who not only founded Tbilisi in the 5th century A.D. but also introduced Georgia to silk (and silkworms), which he brought from India. 

Silk production is as rooted in Georgia as are wine and honey. According to a survey conducted in 1848, some 210,000 Georgian families were involved in silk production. The industry went into a deep crisis in 1860s, when the ancient Caucasian species of silkworm was practically wiped out by a disease which spread from Europe. Silk production was gradually restored to its former glory with the help of the Caucasian Sericulture Station which was established in 1887 as part of Imperial Russia’s designs for Georgia as a supplier of raw materials for the metropolis.

At its peak, in 1960s, the Georgian silk industry produced about 4-4.5 thousand tons of cocoon, generating 15.5-16.5 million rubles in revenue. Close to 120 thousand families were employed in sericulture, and an additional 5-6 thousand in silk processing. Very impressive numbers for a country as small as Georgia!

An outbreak of mycoplasma decimated Georgia’s population of mulberry trees (known locally as tuta or шелковица) and drastically reduced silk cocoon production in 1969. But the final blow was delivered in 1990s, with the collapse of the Soviet Union and everything it implied: lawlessness, loss of traditional markets, breakdown of established value chains, destruction of collective farms and looting of commonly owned machinery and processing equipment, etc. With survival becoming the name of the game, Georgian farmers switched to subsistence food production. 

Georgia’s silk production thus came to a grinding halt, leaving its beautiful images and memories deposited with the State Silk Museum in Tbilisi.

NEW GLOBAL OPPORTUNITIES

According to information available on the website of the International Sericultural Commission (ISC), while accounting for a very small percentage of the global textile fiber market – less than 0.2% – silk production steadily expands to new countries beyond its traditional base in China and India (which totally dominate the global industry). Though far behind (with less than 0.5% of the world market), Uzbekistan is the third largest producer of raw silk. Brazil, Bulgaria, and Egypt are among the most recent entrants.

Sericulture is quite labor-intensive, which may explain its attraction for developing countries like Georgia. While offering gainful employment opportunities for the rural population, it requires relatively small investment and provides raw material for downstream textile industries. Investment in sericulture seems to make sense given that demand for silk, which is considered to be a durable, environmentally friendly and healthy commodity, is constantly rising. Silk is a multibillion dollar trade, with a unit price for raw silk roughly twenty times that of raw cotton.

NEW LIFE STARTS … IN THE MUSEUM?

Gela Zoidze is a Gurieli farmer from Chibati, a small village in the Lanchkhuti municipality. Gela (51) is old enough to remember how back in the jolly USSR days every family in his village (and the entire municipality) was producing at least 30-100kg of raw silk per season. At 12-15 rubles/kg (almost a tenth of a rank-and-file Soviet engineer’s salary!), an average village household could generate at least 1000 rubles from silk – a very nice addition to a family’s budget. 

Silk production flourished in those days also because it was a great complement for farmers who spent most of their time in kolkhoz tea plantations. While tea cultivation works started very early (in April) and continued through the end of June, silk required a concentrated effort during 45 days from early July till mid-August, after major tea works were over. Moreover, money earned from silk – a nice four digit figure – would be available already in early September, providing another reason (and resources) to celebrate.  

Yet, silk was all but forgotten when back in spring 2014 Gela happened to listen to a radio show hosting Nodar Stepanishvili, a prominent sericulture specialist and the “institutional memory” of Georgia’s State Silk Museum in Tbilisi. The message he got was: silk is a golden opportunity you should not miss. Within days, Gela managed to reach Nodar on the phone. What followed was a series of meetings and consultations, resulting in a decision to re-establish silk production in Guria. 

Serving as Director of the Entrepreneurship Development Center at the Lanchkhuti Municipality, Gela knew that the next logical step would be to issue a call to likeminded people in Guria in order to create a production and processing cooperative. His idea was very simple. People had plenty of mulberry trees on their plots; the knowhow of silk production was still alive; silkworms would not be difficult to cultivate. The missing piece was aggregation and processing. An ad Gela published in a local newspaper generated tremendous response. Everybody were extremely curious to find out more about his initiative. The main worry was whether or not there would be a buyer for their silk. 

A year later, Gela was heading a medium-size cooperative uniting more than 20 farmers in his municipality. Supported by EU’s ENPARD program, Gela’s cooperative plans to move beyond the production of raw materials into processing (production of silk thread). To justify investment in costly machinery, the group wants to establish a sufficiently large (and stable) raw material base, drawing as many farmers into the pool as possible. A very realistic possibility in this regard is joining forces with other Georgian silk farming cooperatives, such as the one established by Manana Elkashvili in Marneuli. 

Nodar Stepanishvili, Gela Zoidze, and Manana Elkashvili are indeed giving the Georgian silk industry a new lease on life. United by their love of this traditional trade, they inspire many more people who are willing to learn new tricks and work hard. And we are sure they will be successful, with a little bit of help from the EU and the Georgian Government.

The article was produced with the assistance of the European Union through its European Neighbourhood Programme for Agriculture and Rural Development (ENPARD), Austrian Development Cooperation, and CARE Austria. The contents are the sole responsibility of the authors and can in no way be taken to reflect the views of the European Union, Austrian Development Cooperation, or CARE Austria.