Albania is one of the most politically isolated countries in Eastern Europe. It’s a very fertile country hemmed in by mountain ranges and has it own distinct and unique identity. It is home to two major language groups: the Ghegs of the north, and the Tosks of the south. Five hundred years of Turkish rule has influenced Albanian embroidery in the use of unusually delicate ground fabrics and various Turkish goldwork and metal thread techniques.
Silk is sometimes locally produced, but Albania has no local flax or cotton farming. The majority of its embroidery ground fabric is therefore imported, mainly from its major trading partner China. There is, however, extensive sheep farming in the mountainous inland areas, and wool is used for both ground fabric and embroidery thread. As well as vegetable dyes such as sumach and madder, Albanian women use green walnuts to obtain brown, ash bark for black and copper sulphate for blue. Traditionally Albanian women embroider on linen or cotton, whereas professional Albanian men embroider on wool.
Albanian embroidery extensively uses goldwork, silver thread or fine flat strips of metal thread laid on the ground fabric and couched with large stitches. Sometimes the laid metal thread is coiled in circles, with one retaining stitch in the middle of each circle, giving the effect of a wheel hub. Other designs include long straight stitches worked as radii to form a wheel. Spherical and tubular glass beads are sometimes attached to the ground fabric with straight stitches.
Most Albanian goldwork embroidery is found in costume decoration. A Gheg man traditionally wears a loose linen shirt, a tight low-necked waistcoat and tight woollen trousers embellished with metal thread embroidery. A Gheg woman wears a full-length, long-sleeved linen dress over trousers, with a sleeveless bodice and a small waist apron. On her head she wears a small skull cap with a shoulder length white veil. Goldwork embroidery is worked in bands around the opening of the bodice, at the cuffs, round the hem of the dress, on the hem of the trouser legs and on the cap.
A Tosk man wears a long-sleeved shirt with a thick waist cummerbund, and either a knee-length kilt or calf-length baggy pants. They also wear two jackets, one on top of the other. These are generally made of wool or velvet: one has sleeves and the other doesn’t. Metal thread embroidery is usually only worked on the jacket. A Tosk woman wears a full-length sleeved shirt, a short sleeveless bodice, long tight trousers and a large muslin waist apron, which is sometimes two layers thick with a scalloped edge. On the head she wears a pillbox cap with coins attached round the brim. Goldwork embroidery is worked mainly on bodice, round the sleeves of the dress, on the trousers and on the apron.
No Gheg or Tosk metal thread embroidery is commercially produced for export. Unlike their other Eastern European neighbours, Albanians have scarcely begun to appreciate the potential overseas market for their exquisite and delicate goldwork embroidery designs.