Few people give much thought to where what they wear beneath their clothes really comes from, and so it was for Elizabeth Gowing, until a recent visit to an underwear factory run by women in northern Albania.
Bras slither from a table, a heap of knickers are piled in a corner. Am I in a brothel? A teenager’s bedroom?
When I came to Albania I was warned there was an underworld I might all too easily find myself in, but this is nothing like I was expecting. It’s an airy, well-lit industrial unit where 40 workers are intent on combining the intimate details that make up the perfect undergarment.
One table blooms with the padding for bra cups. A sack nearby spills teeny pink rosettes to be sewn on as decoration. Large industrial bobbins of demure white cotton spin and blur like thought bubbles above the heads of the women bent over their machines. One woman is inspecting knicker elastic in a way that in any other context might be considered highly inappropriate.
She is one of over 3,000 people employed in the textile industry in this northern Albanian city. Beneath its imposing Illyrian, then Roman, then Venetian castle, Shkodra has a distinguished literary past. But despite its high-culture heritage and the reputation for intellectualism in the town’s tree-lined boulevards, it now majors in producing underwear.
Shkodra has a long tradition of devout Catholicism and this cultural link with Italy strengthens the relationship with Albania’s main customer.
Mirela, the owner of the factory I’m visiting, speaks Italian fluently – a legacy of the close, if sometimes uncomfortable, relationship between Albania and its neighbour across the Adriatic.
When the country was occupied by Mussolini, Italian was an official language. Later, during the Communist period in Albania, radios were secretly tuned to Italian channels to hear news of the wider world, so to learn Italian was a way out.
In a different way that is still true today. Mirela says the Italian label she works for subcontracts to six so-called fason, or piecework, factories like hers. They are not the only firm with contracts here, and for this company alone annual production across Shkodra is 16 million garments – enough in itself to support the chests of most of Italy’s women.
I am suddenly uncomfortably aware of the hands that my underwear has passed through and I ask Mirela more about the people who work here.
“Ninety-five percent of them are women,” she says, and adds with a laugh: “Men can’t see themselves doing this kind of work.”
More than half of Albania’s fason businesses are female-owned like this on