East Meets West


A Cultural Exchange Knit Up

A knitwear designer finds a common language through craft.

Twelve years ago, I moved to my husband’s lovely Aegean town filled with Greco-Roman and Byzantine ruins, tourists, and 30,000 inhabitants. While there were other ex-pats around, I didn’t move to Turkey to cling to my culturally American quirks and remain an outsider. Until I learned Turkish, how could I connect with my many new female relatives, none of whom spoke English? They were all wonderful housekeepers and cooks, baking their own bread, using nothing store-bought, skills I appreciated but had no time for with our new business. Yet one fact struck me as I attempted to fit in: every woman in our household was a knitter.

Knitting, my favorite talent, was a lifeline I grabbed with gusto. I’d show them how I put together colors and patterns by making a hat for a nephew; they showed me how they knit those intricate multi-needle jacquard slippers that kept our feet so warm. Every autumn we’d dream up hats, scarves and socks to sell in our vintage textile shop. If shoppers weren’t interested in hand-woven kilims and carpets, they’d snap up our hand knits instead.

The women not only knitted. They embroidered towels, crocheted oya, the decorative floral trim, painted ceramics and wet-felted small rugs. None had time to weave large projects like they did when my mother-in-law was a girl. As Turkey has modernized, the ease of buying mass-produced goods has increased. But clearly the women of our town retained the timeless urge to create beautiful things by hand.

Now that my husband and I have moved to Istanbul, I see how those imported mass-produced items are overtaking Turkish culture, especially in the fiber trades. I also miss the exchange I had with the women of our former town. So I’m starting a new dialogue with the crafting women of this enormous city by offering workshops in our Sultanahmet shop that examine various traditional handcrafts, with the goal of reinterpreting them into modern uses.

I’ve been heartened to meet educated Istanbul women savvy enough to sell their handcrafted goods online. There are also traditional artisans struggling to survive I’d like to assist. Of primary importance to me however are the women who have relocated here from the rural regions of Anatolia so the men in their families can find work. I’ll offer these women the opportunity to earn a living through their crafting skills.

Our dialogue won’t end there. I’m inviting another group to join us: travelers and expats who, like me, have come to Turkey to immerse themselves in cultural experiences beyond visiting the historical sites. Visitors are curious, since they are likely to hear about headscarf controversies and a perceived “Islamisation” of this country. I may be the only native English speaker they meet during their trip, so I’m often showered with questions. Why not bring Turkish women and textile intrigued foreigners together so they can communicate themselves?

We may not speak the same languages, but we do share the language of craft. I’m fascinated to hear what conversations develop in our gatherings. Designing new ideas from the old to establish a cottage industry is challenging – that’s the entrepreneur in me. But I’m also a writer. Of equal importance is documenting the environment in which we share our stories over busy hands and steaming cups of tea, creating a place for bridging cultures, discovering the universal characteristics that compel us to create.

If you plan to visit Istanbul March through October 2011 and would like to take part in a workshop, please use the contact form here. Read more about our “East meets West” project on Kickstarter, a crowd-funding site for the creative arts. Kickstarter is unique in providing a forum for artists to imaginatively finance their dreams.