Every day is a struggle against red tape, rising taxes, poor cash flow and escalating local unemployment for the women’s cooperatives of western Macedonia in northern Greece.
Members of the cooperatives recently had the opportunity to discuss their current difficulties and challenges with social scientists and women involved in similar efforts in the neighboring Former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia (FYROM) at a two-day international symposium titled “Women of Prespes – Women of the World: The Women of Prespes Do Business.”
The symposium, held in the town of Florina, was part of a bilateral business cooperation agreement between the two countries.
“We are the only cooperative in Greece that makes handmade traditional costumes,” 67-year-old Pandora Vakali, president of the Florina-based Pelagonia Agritourism Cooperative of Women, proudly stated.
Her team meets every day at 8.30 a.m. at the workshop where they work the looms and sewing machines, often taking work home.
“Our region is very rich in traditional costumes,” Vakali explains. “Every area – Prespes, Alonia, Antartiko and Akrita – has its own.”
Vakali was taught the craft by her grandmother and mother, and also attended special seminars. Once the cooperative was established in 1997 by 21 women – friends and neighbors – they set out to interview elderly residents in the region to find out more about traditional dressmaking.
Crafting a single outfit is no easy task, Vakali says.
“It can take months, as it is a combination of different techniques. There’s embroidery and sewing, and then you have to sew together all the different materials and ornaments. Every costume is different and the clients pick the fabrics they want depending on what they can afford. That has always been the case, which is why the ornamentation of the costume reflects the social position of the person wearing it.”
However, business is hard for the craftswomen.
“Demand has dropped and now there are just five of us left at the cooperative. People are not interested in buying because they consider it a luxury,” says Vakali.
Vakali explains that their customers are mainly associations of diaspora Greeks and parents of schoolchildren, the latter of whom now tend to rent rather than buy costumes to wear at parades or on national holidays.
In the first few years of operation, the cooperative received support to buy equipment, but such funds have dried up in recent years too and the ladies have had to fend for themselves.
“As the only guardians of this particular craft, we should have some support from the Ministry of Culture,” laments Vakali. “Seeing the situation, the younger women are not interested in learning our craft and so we have no one to pass on the torch to.”
The women of the Kostarazi cooperative, named after their village near the town of Kastoria, face their own set of challenges.
“There are about 500 of us [in the village] struggling to make a living,” says Vaia Natsouli, who pioneered the cooperative in 2008. “At first we decided to produce batzo, our local cheese, but that failed because we needed to construct a dairy. Then, and thanks to the support of the municipal authority, we turned to loukoum sweets and for a short while made pies as well.”
A lack of basic equipment such as a professional-grade refrigerator and a van to transport products has tied the hands of the cooperative’s five members and limited their supply of goods to the strictly local market.
“The coup de grace for us, however, was the additional tax charged for self-employed professionals,” says the 68-year-old Natsouli, who described economic life in Kastoria in bleak terms.
“The machines at the fur firms [once a major local commodity] have come to a halt. More and more businesses are closing,” she says.
In contrast to the cooperative in Florina, here the younger generation is involved, as Natsouli explains that she is the eldest of the five members, who include university students.
One ray of hope at the symposium was offered by 26-year-old Thomais Tiriakidi, a mechanical engineer who works as a standards supervisor at B&T Composites, a technology firm founded in Florina in 2007.
While this is a family-owned business that manufactures advanced composite components for use in a range of fields, its trajectory is nothing short of impressive.
“We export 80 percent of our output to 15 countries, but mainly Scandinavian countries, Germany and Russia,” says Tirakidi, adding that the company receives dozens of resumes every day from all over northern Greece.
“We are planning to launch a spinoff and a research center by the end of this year or the start of the next,” she says.