Feature: Soufli in Greece strives to revive centuries-old silk tradition

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by Maria Spiliopoulou

SOUFLI, Greece, May 20 (Xinhua) -- For several centuries, the history of Soufli, a small town in northeastern Greece close to the Evros river that marks the country's national border with Turkey, has been interlinked with a delicate product: silk.

The local silk industry, which has survived numerous challenges over the past decades, reached a critical junction recently, some of the last remaining producers told Xinhua in recent interviews.


"Silk was brought here from China. The Byzantines brought it. According to historians, it was Emperor Justinian I who brought it around 550 A.D. The Byzantines loved this product. It was also a symbol of wealth and aristocracy. Only a few people would use silk, mainly the nobility at the palace," George Tsiakiris, owner of the Tsiakiris Silkhouse and president of the Association of Professionals, Craftsmen and Traders of Soufli, explained.

In 1453 A.D. Constantinople fell to the Ottoman Turks, and the Byzantine Empire, the continuation of the Roman Empire in its eastern provinces, came to an end -- but silk production had strong roots there.

It survived the collapse of an empire, industrialization, the arrival of cheap synthetic materials, such as nylon and rayon in the 1960s, followed by the decline of the Greek textile industry, as well as the acute debt crisis, which erupted in Greece ten years ago testing all households and businesses, Tsiakiris noted.

Successive generations of residents of Soufli grew up cultivating the trees silkworms are being fed with, nurturing the cocoons and creating high-quality silk, said Tsiakiris, a fourth-generation silk professional. His great grandmother was a weaver. His father and uncle established the Tsiakiris Silkhouse in 1954.

The local industry flourished in the 19th century and Soufli's silk was exported to Milan and Lyon, he told Xinhua.

Silk production was the backbone of the local economy for the largest part of the 20th century, it was on its deathbed by the mid-1990s and the last major financial crisis, which lasted until 2018, was the last blow, he said.

Today, only two factories, including the one owned by the Tsiakiris family, and three smaller silk houses remain active, employing a few dozen people.

During the financial crisis, an effort was launched to revive Soufli's silk industry. Greek fashion brands and designers started using Soufli's silk products in their creations and Tsiakiris and his colleagues explored new opportunities for cooperation beyond Greece's borders.


"The years of the crisis were a very good test for us. On the one hand, our stamina was tested, on the other hand, we were given the motive, we were forced to look abroad and search for new partnerships and make Soufli's silk fashionable again, because it was out of fashion," he explained.

"Today, we can proudly say that we have kept silk alive all these years. There is great interest today in silk. I think we are at a juncture and I believe that the current momentum prompts us to progress," Tsiakiris told Xinhua.

"Soufli would always rely on domestic clients. Gradually we see in the past 2-3 years that Soufli has started to receive foreign visitors as well. We see Scandinavians, we see Chinese, just a few for now, we see people from France, Spain, Portugal, entire Europe," said Giorgos Bouroulitis, another silk maker representing Bourouliti Silk House and the association's tourism committee.

"The crisis years were difficult for Soufli. Silk is a luxury product and like it happened with all luxury products once the crisis started people cut back on all things that were unnecessary," he said.

Greece formally exited the bailout era in the summer of 2018, but the average Greek is still struggling to make ends meet and the COVID-19 impact on the Greek economy only adds to the gloomy image.

"The financial situation in the country is not helpful for a product which has a high cost, which is expensive. However, there are people who are still choosing it and like it," Bouroulitis told Xinhua.


"I am the youngest in the sector currently. I hope more (young people) will join in. I wish they will join, it is a necessity. Older generations taught us what they should. I hope people will continue to work on this," he said.

In order to promote and preserve the rich local tradition in silk production and inspire a few younger people to continue it, the Tsiakiris family has established one of the local museums dedicated to Soufli's silk industry.

George Tsiakiris is also director of the "Art of Silk Museum," which is housed in a renovated neoclassical building erected in 1886.

"We created this very beautiful space with one purpose -- to introduce visitors to the art of silk, show them how silk is made. We have already welcomed over 100,000 visitors during the 11 years of operation. This has given a lot to this region," he told Xinhua. Enditem

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