Everything You Need to Know about Afghanistan’s Textiles Industry

The Afghan government is currently implementing initiatives to revive the country’s textile industry. In this article, we look at the history of cotton, silk, and cashmere production in Afghanistan and potential future growth in the textile sector.

Afghan Cotton

Afghanistan produces more than 59,000 tons of cottons per year. Despite this, the country’s lack of processing factories presents significant challenges. In the past, Afghanistan boasted several major textile factories in Balkh, Kabul, Baghlan, Kandahar, and Parwan provinces employing around 30,000 people, but the industry declined over the last few decades.

cotton

Currently, only 6 percent of Afghan land is being cultivated. Afghanistan is a rugged, mountainous country. Just 12 percent of the nation is composed of arable land. Despite this, more than 80 percent of Afghans rely on agriculture to make a living.

As Afghan Finance Ministry spokesman, Ajmal Hamid Abdul Rahimzai explained to the Fashion Network website, industrialists have recently campaigned to have their recommendations to revive Afghanistan’s textile industry discussed by the high economic council. Revitalizing this valuable economic sector could create economic growth throughout Afghanistan.

Afghanistan and India entered into a Memorandum of Understanding regarding textiles production. As per the memorandum, both countries have pledged their commitment to cooperating, developing closer economic relations, and strengthening bilateral ties in the production of textiles, cotton, clothing, handlooms, and man-made fiber.

Afghan Silk

located on the Silk Road, the Afghan city of Herat has a long history of silk production. After years of decline, Afghanistan’s silk industry is currently experiencing a revival. Silk thread is produced by silkworms. The creature is indigenous to Herat, thanks to the abundance of mulberry bushes found there. These plants provide the insects with a plentiful supply of food.

Silkworms use the silk thread they produce to build a cocoon around themselves. When unraveled, the silk fiber from just one cocoon can measure up to a mile in length. Just 8 kilograms of silkworms can produce up to 48 kilograms of cocoons. Silk collectors earn up to $140 biannually from collecting cocoons. This is a significant income in Afghanistan.

Spinners purchase silk cocoons from gatherers, using the fibers to spin silk thread. Historically, this was performed by hand. Since the process is somewhat protracted, this significantly limited a spinner’s income. Nevertheless, the advent of modern technology has led to largescale mechanization in the trade. A spinner with more than 30 years’ experience, Azatullah Amidi, explained to the Guardian that he was able to double his production thanks to the implementation of mechanized spinning equipment.

Once the thread is transferred onto bobbins, it is transported to other regions of Afghanistan, such as Mazar, Afghanistan’s fourth-largest city. Another celebrated stop on the ancient Silk Route, Mazar remains an important commercial trading center.

Afghan Cashmere

The cashmere goat is one of many native animals in Afghanistan, Turkey, Iraq, Iran, Mongolia, and China. It takes a single goat up to 12 months to produce enough wool to make just one cashmere scarf. For hundreds of years, farmers in Herat have collected the thick undercoat shed by the goat every spring, throwing it on the fires used to cook food and heat their homes. It is only relatively recently that some isolated Afghan communities have learned that this fluff could be refined and spun to make a luxury product.

Cashmere

The discovery was life-changing for Mohammad Amin, a goat herder with a flock of 120. Every springtime, after his nanny goats have kids, they shed cashmere in huge handfuls. As Amin explained to AP News, buyers travel from far and wide to buy premium quality cashmere. He sells the surplus at market. With each animal yielding up to 250 grams, Mohammad Amin can earn more than $1,100 each season. This represents a sizeable income in a country where the national average is under $700 annually.

According to statistics published by the World Bank working in collaboration with the US Agency for International Development, despite the fact that 95 percent of Afghanistan’s 7 million cashmere goats could be used in cashmere production, as few as 30 percent are currently being combed for cashmere in this way. The majority of raw Afghan cashmere is purchased by Chinese intermediaries supplying low-cost clothing manufacturers.

Afghanistan ranks third in the world in terms of cashmere production. Mongolia comes second, producing 15 percent of the world’s cashmere, lagging far behind China, at 70 percent. In recognition of this lucrative market, the Afghan government recently unveiled a Cashmere Action Plan targeting the high end of the cashmere market, where just one sweater can cost anywhere up to $1,000. The strategy forms part of broader efforts enacted by the Afghan government designed to breathe new life in the country’s textile industry.

This Afghan Village Is Famous for Its Amazing Pottery

The small Afghan village of Istalif lies about an hour’s drive north of Kabul. It is perched in the foothills of the Hindu Kush, whose tree-covered slopes rise sharply from the river below.

Istalif is not only a site of incredible natural beauty, it’s also home to a distinctive tradition of pottery-making that stretches back hundreds of years. Read on for a rare glimpse of the unique village of Istalif and its traditional ceramics.

Istalif was once an emperor’s favorite picnic spot.

With its blossoming trees, ancient gardens, and winding river, the village of Istalif has never been short of admirers. Perhaps the most famous of these was the great Mughal emperor Babur, a descendent of Genghis Khan, who captured Kabul in 1504 and ruled the region for decades afterward.

A man who spent much of his life on long and difficult campaigns, Babur was captivated by the peace and tranquility of Istalif. He bought a garden, the Bagh-i-Kalan, on the slopes above the river. This garden became his favorite place to come to recover from fighting and campaigning with picnicking and drinking parties. Later in life, Babur wrote of Istalif, “when the trees blossom, no place in the world equals it.”

According to legend, the potter’s community in Istalif was founded over 300 years ago.

While the history of pottery in Istalif has never been formally documented, local oral tradition has it that the village’s pottery tradition began more than 300 years ago. The founder of Istalifi pottery is said to be Sayed Mir Kolal. This potter from Bukhara (in present-day Uzbekistan) traveled to Afghanistan with his four sons in order to escape political upheaval.

When they reached Istalif and saw its rich clay deposits, abundance of water, beautiful surroundings, and easy proximity to the markets of Kabul, they knew they had found their new home. Today, Istalifi potters still believe that they are each descended from one of Mir Kolal’s four sons.

pottery
Image by egerstner | Flickr

Pottery in Istalif is a family affair.

Given the story of its founding, it’s hardly surprising that the pottery tradition in Istalif is very much a family affair. The secrets of this art form have been passed down from father to son through many generations. From a young age, a family’s sons become potter’s apprentices, training daily with their fathers and uncles.

Every son is automatically considered part of the pottery clan. Even those that never master the art of throwing pots are still involved in the business (acting as salesmen for the family, for example), and are still considered to be “potters.”

The women of the family also take part, applying the glaze and engraving the intricate patterns on the shaped pieces. Today, there are around 50 or 60 families of potters in Istalif. For each of them, pottery is much more than just a profession: it is their very identity.

Istalifi ceramics are known for their distinctive glaze.

The most unique feature of Istalifi ceramics is the special turquoise glaze that is applied to the finished pieces. Made from ishkar, a type of mountain plant only found in certain provinces in northern Afghanistan, this glaze was central to the development of Istalif’s distinctive ceramic tradition.

To produce the glaze, the root of the ishkar plant is burned and the ash is ground into powder. This is then mixed with water and combined with quartz and copper oxide (both of which are easily sourced from the area around Istalif). The resulting mixture, a striking, sea-green glaze, is then used to cover the ceramics after firing.

Istalif was almost destroyed in the late 1990s.

Istalif’s status as a renowned center for ceramics is all the more incredible given the village’s tumultuous past. Istalif was destroyed (for the third time in its history) as a result of the conflict in the late 1990s.

The village itself was burned to the ground, and the residents were forced to flee. Before they left, however, many families secretly buried their pottery tools in the hopes that they would one day return to their homes and businesses.

The village is rebuilding itself and its arts and crafts traditions.

Happily, the renaissance that these exiled Istalifis hoped and planned for has indeed come to pass. Over the past 15 years, potters and their families have been slowly returning to Istalif and taking up their tools once more.

These resilient people have been helped in their efforts to rebuild their artisanal community by organizations like Turquoise Mountain. One of the most important NGOs focused on traditional arts and crafts in Afghanistan, Turquoise Mountain has worked closely with Istalifi potters to revive the village’s ceramic traditions, and to find new markets for its work.

Today, ceramics instruction is one of the main subjects at the Turquoise Mountain Institute. Faculty include Istalifi potters like Abdul Matin Malekzadah and Ustad Abdul Matin.

Spotlight on Turquoise Mountain – 5 Important Achievements

Turqoise MountainIn 2006, the nonprofit organization Turquoise Mountain was founded in Afghanistan with the mission of preserving and regenerating important historical and cultural areas, as well as reviving and revitalizing the practice of traditional arts and crafts. Today, just over a decade later, the organization has made remarkable progress on its mission, transforming the lives of thousands of Afghans in the process. The following are some of Turquoise Mountain’s most important achievements to date.

 

  1. Restoration of Kabul’s Old City

The stunning transformation of Kabul’s Old City, also known as Murad Khani, is perhaps Turquoise Mountain’s most impressive achievement so far. The historic district in central Kabul was once the heart of a vibrant community. However, as a result of years of unrest, it had fallen into significant disrepair. By the time Turquoise Mountain began its rehabilitation project, much of the area lay buried under many feet of accumulated garbage, and the entire district was ranked as one of the world’s most endangered sites on the World Monuments Fund Watch List.

Turquoise Mountain has slowly and painstakingly set to work to rehabilitate Murad Khani. Workers cleared mountains of garbage, lowering the street level by up to 2 meters and uncovering beautiful, though derelict, homes and buildings. Artisans then carefully restored 150 of these structures to their original glory using traditional skills and techniques like mud-plastering and architectural woodwork. Today, Murad Khani is once again home to a thriving community of residents, as well as to the Turquoise Mountain Institute, an artisanal and vocational training facility for traditional Afghan arts and crafts. In 2013, the restoration of Murad Khani was awarded the UNESCO Asia-Pacific Award of Distinction.

 

  1. Implementation of Community Development Projects

The Turquoise Mountain Institute is only one of a number of community facilities and development projects that call Murad Khani their home. In order to better serve and meet the needs of local residents, Turquoise Mountain also constructed a new medical clinic and primary school in the rehabilitated old city. Located on the banks of the Kabul river, the Feroz Koh Family Health Center was established in 2011 to provide high-quality family medicine to some of the city’s most vulnerable populations. Services offered at the center include pediatric and maternal services, radiology, psycho-social counseling, dentistry, and minor surgery. The staff estimates that the center serves more than 20,000 patients every year from cities as far away as Nuristan and Kandahar. The Murad Khani Primary School, which was established in 2012, serves more than 100 students. Subjects that are covered include English, Dari, mathematics, and peace education. Students also learn some traditional arts and crafts such as calligraphy and miniature painting. In order to accommodate even more young students, a new primary school with improved amenities is scheduled to open in 2019.

 

 

  1. International Exhibitions

Turquoise Mountain has sought to not only boost domestic interest in a revitalized Afghan arts and crafts sector, but to raise the profile of these traditional arts on the world stage. With this goal in mind, the organization has successfully arranged and executed a number of high-profile international exhibitions of Turquoise Mountain artisans. From March 2016 to October 2017, for example, the Freer and Sackler Galleries at the world-renowned Smithsonian Institution in Washington, DC, hosted an exhibition titled “Turquoise Mountain: Artists Transforming Afghanistan.” Featuring the work of some of Turquoise Mountain’s most dedicated craftsmen, the exhibition gave hundreds of thousands of visitors a new perspective on Afghanistan and its traditions. In addition, during the summer of 2018, the work of Turquoise Mountain artisans was displayed in the State Rooms at Buckingham Palace in London in honor of the 70th birthday of His Royal Highness the Prince of Wales (HRH is one of the founders of Turquoise Mountain).

 

  1. Prestigious Commissions and Partnerships

For Turquoise Mountain, reviving traditional arts and crafts means enabling artisans to earn a living from their work. To this end, Turquoise Mountain aims to help its craftsmen secure prestigious commissions and partnerships that can bring their work to a wider international market. For example, the first major international commission received by Turquoise Mountain was for the celebrated Connaught Hotel in London’s exclusive Mayfair neighborhood. For this project, Nasser Mansoori, one of the finest woodcarvers in Afghanistan and a master at the Turquoise Mountain Institute, worked with London designer Guy Oliver to create beautifully detailed wood panels and carvings for one of the hotel’s principal suites.

 

  1. Expansion into Other Countries

Turquoise Mountain’s work in Afghanistan has been so successful that the organization has recently expanded the scope of its activities into other countries. As of late 2014, for example, Turquoise Mountain has been working in Myanmar to preserve and restore key historic buildings in downtown Yangon in partnership with the Yangon Heritage Trust. During the first restoration project (of a building at 491-501 Merchant Street), the organization undertook a comprehensive program of vocational training in traditional construction techniques, such as decorative lime plasterwork, alongside the renovation work.