Behind Chania’s magnificent and serene Venetian harbour in Crete, there is a labyrinth of narrow streets and passageways. If you know where to look, in one of these is an Aladdin’s cave to tantalise the senses and soothe the soul. Respectful visitors enter quietly and reverently, as over the threshold of a church, inhaling the incense.
Their eyes are treated to an explosion of vibrant colours dominated by red, and their hands gently stroke fabrics that were once yarn, but are now unique works of art. The rhythms of a loom beat the musk-filled air and, if the visitor listens carefully, the 400-year-old loom tells its story. It tells the history of the ancient art of weaving and of the last male weaver on Crete dedicated to keeping the tradition alive.
Aladdin’s magical house is Roka Carpets, nested in a venerable Venetian house on Zambeliou Street. Holding court is the handsome Mihalis Manousakis, a master not only of weaving, but of living. He works in the shop-factory on the ground floor and lives above it with his wife Anja and their two children. Roka Carpets is one of Chania’s central meeting places, where those in the know assemble to socialise, make new friends, meet old ones, drink coffee, sing a song, play an instrument and watch the magic of Mihalis as he patiently weaves and explains his philosophy of life – live simply and as close to nature as possible.
As a child, Mihalis was taught weaving by his mother and grandmother, both of whom knew thousands of patterns passed down from generation to generation. There was a time on Crete when every house had a loom. Weaving was as essential as cooking. Everyone was as self-sufficient as possible, baking their own bread, growing their own food and buying what they could not produce themselves from neighbouring farmers and shepherds and visiting fishermen.
Mihalis is now the only man on Crete making a living at the loom, reproducing the beautiful, intricate patterns from memory. As a boy, he was a shepherd for a time, and as a youth he went to Canada to study engineering. After graduating, he worked there for a number of years and added English and French to his language knowledge.
But, on the death of his father, he returned to Chania and assumed the responsibility of head of the Manousakis family. He put aside his training in engineering and took up the family profession of weaving.
People from all over the world order his hand woven textiles coloured with natural dyes; but the business remains small so that you may have to wait six years for your order to be completed. Mihalis was honoured by the Greek Government when he was asked to make sakouli (a form of Greek backpack) as gifts for the VIPs at the 2002 Olympics. On short notice, he produced 103!
When not weaving 16 hours a day, Mihalis does volunteer work for autistic children in Chania and in the UK. He has also spent time in the Sinai Desert teaching the Bedouin weaving at the request of UNESCO.
Roka Carpets is a treasure trove, a salon for international visitors, a haven, a shrine to the art of weaving and a museum. This is where pilgrims go to hear a quiet, relaxed, competent and strong man talk about a profession that has largely been superseded by mechanisation and a simple way of life that is also threatened by technological progress.
This is a sanctuary where one goes to escape the frenzy of modern life and spend precious time with the keeper of the ancient loom as he weaves his magic with colourful textiles and wise words.
- Chania, a detailed guide to the city of Chania
We met Mihalis in his shop about ten years ago when he overheard us, two Montrealers, speaking French. With that and the fact that my mother was a weaver, an instant bond was formed. Fond memories of this master weaver.
Aurelia, do you produce new pieces regularly for your CRETEgazette? If you do, would you place me on your email list?
I am a South African who has very fond memories of Xania. I met the lovely Cretan woman who became my my wife there 20-odd years ago. I know Mihalis & Anja of Roka well. Your piece about them brought tears of happiness and well-wishes to my eyes.
Your piece was so well written I would like to enjoy whatever else you may come up with!