The omnipresent white skullcaps are for Albania what the kilt is for Scotland and the wooden shoes for Holland. Although the traditional costume for men has disappeared almost completely, many still wear the cap or “qelesh” in daily life. In the souvenir shops the qelesh with the double eagle symbol on it is one of the best selling souvenirs. The travel agency Albania-Holidays used the cap as their logo.
Basically there are three forms of qeleshe: the well-known round one, the flat-topped one and the high one. All three forms however may take different sizes and shapes, depending on region, village etcetera.
The small one as seen in Myzeqare however is not a qeleshe, but a takije and is made in a different way. The flat-topped white qeleshe is often confused with the well-known red fez, but the fez (with or without tassels) came in to fashion much later and was imported from Italy and worn only by the richer people in the towns. The fez went out of fashion again.
The “qelesh” is the white skullcap as worn in north and central Albania, Kosovo and in the Albanian regions of Macedonia and Montenegro, made from wool. They were (and still are) produced by special craftsmen, the “qeleshexhijte” or cap makers. In Kosovo the qelesh is called qylaf.
Xhevdet Grezda was still producing the caps on a daily basis at the age of 87 until he died in April 2010. He was the last of many generations of qeleshexhijte of the Grezda family in Shkodra. In the Marubi collection there is a photograph of a shop in the old (no longer existing) bazaar of Shkodra, showing the Qeleshexhijte or capmakers.
The loose woollen threads are washed with water and soap and kneaded till it is getting the right density and the wool turned to felt. During the process the rough shape of the cap is formed . In the end the material has the required density, colour and shape as well. The kneading of the wool takes a lot of hard labour and is done completely by hand.
When ready, the cap is placed on a wooden (or ceramic) mould to get the right form (different moulds for different shapes and sizes) and roughly cut to shape. The moulds with the caps are placed in the sun to dry. When dry the cap is stiff and almost shining white. The last things to do is cutting it more exact to shape along the rim and to shave the surface to get rid of outstanding hairs giving the cap a really smooth surface.
When a qeleshe is of good quality (not a souvenir one, but a real good one) and fits to the head the qeleshe will stay in place even in up-side down position.
It was common practice in the north and in Kosovo to wear a scarf around the qeleshe. The scarves were often gifts to the bridegroom at the wedding and were used to fasten the qelesh to the head, or worn backwards to protect the neck from the sun. Many of these were heavily decorated and made from the finest materials. In the highland area of the Rugovo district in Kosovo, the scarf changed to a shawl, called “shall”, taking the size of about 420 cm in length, 50 cm broad, wrapped over the head, under the chin. This looks more like a turban, then a shawl. It is said that the shawl is also their shroud, so when they die in combat elsewhere, they can be buried in their own shawl on that spot. Earlier pictures also show this custom of a turban like head cover from other parts of Albania and may have been introduced by the Turks.
During the communist period in Albania the Qeleshexhijte were not allowed to sell their caps. This would be a capitalist act. The old bazaar in Shkodra was also destroyed because of this reason (it was destroyed before in 1913 and rebuild again, but again destroyed on purpose by Enver Hoxha). However, the Qeleshexhijte kept producing the caps and hiding the caps under their arms or clothes they still sold the caps in the region.
In the National Gallery in Tirana is a wonderful painting by Agim Zajmi titled Fushëkosova, Lowland Kosovo. From a distance it looks like a dark city with lights from the houses, but a closer look at the front will show that it depicts a mass of men from Kosovo, sitting on the ground and to the rear you only can see their white shining qeleshe.
See the gallery for samples and other pictures.