Oya – Turkish Needle Lace


A Unique Language among Anatolian Women

Handicrafts reflect the culture of a country, and provide a historical document of its development and the formation of its traditions; they are something to be protected and preserved, connecting the past to the present, and are often cherished and nurtured to continue their existence at the very heart of a nation’s people. Textile crafts originally were created to fulfill the most basic of needs: protecting from the natural elements, covering the body, storing produce and goods, decorating homes, and embellishing to beautify.

It is the area ‘embellishing to beautify ‘ where we can place oya, Turkish needle lace – a unique textile craft developed in Anatolia, an area of central Turkey often referred to as an important cradle of civilization. Within the textile crafts of Turkey, it sits in equal place alongside kilims, carpets, knitting, and embroidery. It is admired, collected, used, and made, reflecting the skills of the women who have continued this three-dimensional embroidery art for many centuries, passing down designs from mother to daughter through demonstration rather than documentation.

It seems that the technique of lace-making was known in Europe from the 15th century onwards, and included in the French Academic Directory as ‘dantel’ in 1594. There is some mention, with various names, in old Aegean tales, and according to samples found in the 1905 Menfiz excavations, this craft seems to date back to 2000 BC. Some sources say this craft travelled from Anatolia to Greece, then Italy and Europe in the 12th century. Much research still needs to be done on this subject, and the word oya does not exist in other languages, unlike ‘dantel’.

These days, oya is enjoying a revival in popularity and growing worldwide recognition, although inevitably, fewer and fewer Turkish women make it due to changes in family structures and influences of modern living. However, it is still very much sought after by the young in the form of bracelets, necklaces, earrings, belts and oya adorned bags. Traditionally, the older generation carefully kept and preserved oya-laced bed linens, towels, and headscarves for their daughters’ bridal trousseaus according to family custom. Oya trimmed home furnishings can be found today even in the most modern and fashionable homes, standing in their own exotic world.

Anatolian women developed oya as an embellishment for clothing and home textiles, but probably and especially to edge head scarves made of fine hand block printed muslin. Due to family etiquette and traditions, certain subjects would inevitably be banned from conversation, so as this craft evolved, the ensuing symbolic language emerged accordingly–a secret communication between women. It is a form of expressing one’s emotions, whether happy, sad, or desperate, through specific combinations of colours and designs; a fascinating source of unwritten female chat; a type of gossip where you could condemn your mother-in-law or express your passion for your new husband without being ridiculed by the whole of society. Not only emotions, but also incidents of modern-day life can be observed in motifs such as Ecevit’s eyelash (named after former prime minister Bulent Ecevit) or wonderfully expressive designs like shepherd’s flea, sot’s leg and kaymakam rose. We can only wonder what thoughts went through a woman’s head as she executed these designs.

If an engaged girl sent a scarf edged in a meadow and grass motif to her prospective mother-in-law, it was symbolic of their warm relations, however the reverse applied when she used gravestone motifs. The scarf would be worn at the wedding ceremony showing the girl’s feelings towards her mother-in-law to everyone. Yellow tulips indicate a hopeless marriage, and roses are worn when a husband is away. Tiny wild flowers (a symbol of returning to the earth) would be used by old women, while the young love to wear roses, carnations, jasmine, hyacinths, violets and daffodils.

Examples of the special language of Oya

1. Grass meadow motifs – the wearer wishes to convey a feeling of harmonious relations – as contented as flowers blowing in the breeze in a spring meadow.
2. Hairy fox motifs – symbolizes a bride unhappy with her life.
3. Pepper motifs – worn to indicate a bitter relationship leaving a bad taste in the mouth.
4. Plane leaf motifs – states a desire for a long life full of wisdom
5. Belled tongs motifs – often used to ward off evil spirits and to warn of difficult people in your midst.
6. Wheel of fortune motifs – used by women so miserable they are contemplating leaving their husbands.
7. Hyacinth motifs – symbols of hope, love and virginity.

Oya described according to tools and materials

A. ’Igne oyasi’ – needle lace embroidery is considered to be the favourite of the wealthy aristocratic city dwellers and the most sought after and collectible. It is made using a straight sewing needle and silk thread, starting with loops and knots tightened to make taut, small square and triangular stitches. Oya is worked in three phases: root oya, rock oya and main oya. The design is formed by a combination of these motifs and is usually three-dimensional. If required, nowadays very fine wire or plastic thread is worked in with the silk, cotton or polyester to stiffen the lace. Previously, horse hair was utilized for this purpose, and the lace was sometimes starched with egg whites, syrup or gelatine. As many as five colours can be used, and there are some excellent examples in the Sadberk Hanim Museum in Istanbul.

B. ‘Tiğ oyasi’ – crochet embroidery. This is a much easier technique using a fine crochet hook and slightly thicker threads to work the motifs in the desired colours. Its appearance is simpler, less elaborate and not often three-dimensional, compared to igne oyasi.

C. ’Mekik oyalar’ – shuttle embroidery or tatting traditionally produced by village and townswomen alike. A small shuttle of bone and mica is used to wrap loops to form the edging in one or two colours.

D. ’Firkete oya’ – fork embroidery. This is an embroidery technique incorporating beads or pearls slipped onto the thread before commencing, which are slid into position to form part of the motifs. The result is quite exotic, and produces an entirely different handle, drape and sparkle from the other types.

The two-volume Turk Oyalari Katalogu’(Turkish Lace Embroidery) lists at least 3,000 designs that are documented in detail, including their names and places of origin. I am sure there are numerous others yet to be discovered that await our interest and curiosity.

I have been involved in textiles as long as I can remember, and have been an admirer, collector, and trader of vintage textiles for years. I can honestly say that oya has a special place in my affections and that personally, I am unable to produce one single design even under supervision. Thus, these days I am content to commission skilled oya producers to make their spectacular pieces for sale. The producers of these intricate and visually exotic pieces need to be encouraged; they can be found sitting on their doorsteps creating mini master pieces, seemingly without effort, while watching the world go by.

May we continue to celebrate the charm and hidden messages of this language expressed by women, unique in its history, appeal and beauty, for a long time to come.

Frances Ergen is a British woman married in Istanbul, where she runs a textile business that undertakes marketing for textile co-operatives and artists, and organises trips of Turkey for textile tourists. Contact email: franergen@hotmail.com; http://www.francesergen.com. The author also provides insights into specialist Turkish publications on the theme. This article first appeared in the September 2010 issue of Textile Forum.