PIROT, Serbia (AP) — A Pirot carpet has magical powers, they say, its colorful patterns and symbols designed to bring luck and protect from evil. Nearly every home in this eastern Serbian town has one — big or small, rolled out on the floor, wrapped around the furniture or hung on the wall.
Yet Pirot's centuries-old craft of carpet weaving is in danger of dying out and a group of women have been fighting to keep it alive.
Pirot carpet-weaving is "in the biggest crisis in its history ... a rare craft on the verge of extinction," the Lady's Heart group says.
Famous for their beauty and part of Serbia's rich heritage, Pirot carpets are made by local women from locally-bred wool according to special rules laid down for hundreds of years.
"It is a very slow process. It takes a long time to weave a Pirot carpet," said Slavica Ciric, who launched the Lady's Heart business several years ago with the help of the authorities and donors including USAID.
Sitting on low wooden benches, the women work gently, using nothing but their fingers to weave through wool stretched on vertical looms. Because the carpets are hand-made with complex geometrical designs, one weaver produces less than a square meter per month, Ciric explained.
Marina Cvetkovic, from Belgrade's Ethnographic Museum, said Pirot carpets are known for their rich colors and composition. There are nearly 100 known Pirot motifs and shapes. Original Pirot carpets are extremely dense, thin and have the same design on both sides. The town, near the boundary with Bulgaria, used to lie on an important East-West trading route.
"We know for sure they existed in the 18th and 19th century, but some experts believe they go back to the 16th (century)," she said.
Weavers have dropped from 5,000 women a century ago to only about ten professionals and several older women today, Ciric said.
Still, she said, they love what they do.
"For most people, those are just colorful carpets, but we see more," she said. "We see a story unfolding through symbols and colors."