A traditional approach
Turkish towels are widely used today for their extreme softness, exquisite quality, and unique cultural history. In the past, they were often used during ceremonial baths for a bride the day before her wedding. Modern Turkish baths–known as hamams–use different towels for the head, shoulders, and hips, proving that they are still an important part of Turkish social life.
Traditionally these towels were meticulously hand-woven, and about twenty years ago, there were weaving workshops in the old city walls of Istanbul that made them. However, the art of hand-weaving is nearly extinct, and the mechanization of the weaving process has made it easier for production, putting an end to the need for hand-woven goods. Today the workshops are closed, and the towels are mostly manufactured by machine, except those produced by Jennifer’s Hamam.
Jennifer Gaudet, owns and runs the shop in the Arasta Bazaar in Istanbul. She sells Turkish towels, bathrobes, pestemals (the towel used in the Turkish bath; it can be used as an excellent spa companion serving as a wrap), peskirs (head wrap), natural olive oil soaps, and haman bowls. Her customers know the luxury of Turkish towels and bathrobes, which are known for their durability–often lasting fifteen years. “With hand woven threads the integrity of the towel is much stronger. Since we buy organic threads the natural properties of the cotton are still intact,” Jennifer said.
To produce her towels, Jennifer employs ten families of weavers from the southern to southeastern regions of Turkey. These weavers use the traditional flat weave as well as the looping weave techniques. It is the looping weave technique that creates a towel with loops and piles of threads standing up on the surface of the cloth.
The towels at Jennifer’s Haman need to be soaked for twenty-four hours or boiled in hot water for four hours before they become absorbent. Organic cotton is not automatically absorbent and it has to be soaked first. With subsequent washings, the Turkish cotton becomes even softer, fluffier, and more absorbent. The organic cotton used for Jennifer’s towels comes from Gaziantep, Turkey, which is certified organic through the Global Organic Textile Standard (GOTS). Thread is purchased in Denizli, an area known for spinning organic threads.
One of the major differences between hand-woven towels and those manufactured in factories is the chemical treatment to make them absorbent. Unfortunately, this creates towels that become stiff after they are washed and hung to dry. In addition, fabric softener builds up on the fibers of the cloth, ultimately water-proofing the towels. Jennifer believes “There is no reason to mess around with natural fibers, linen, bamboo, cotton or silk; they’re all perfect on their own.”
Jennifer’s business supports and promotes the time tested art of hand-weaving. Her shop produces the same organic eco-friendly product that were historically used by women in harems, and which supported village weavers. Every single home in the village had a loom dug into the sitting room and the women would weave small narrow pieces for the family. The mother taught weaving to her sons and daughters alike. The women would weave in the home and the men wove commercially. “The culture of teaching is dead because the looms no longer exist in the typical home,” she says and adds an unsettling note that many of these looms have been used for scrap or destroyed. Just fifteen years ago, her weavers’ village “…had 8000 looms, including home and commercial looms; now there are less than 300.” And she notes, the older aunt of one of her weaver’s “…has the last in-ground loom of its kind.”
Yet Jennifer has been fortunate to locate enough looms to support the production for her shop, but she laments, “At this point there are no young people apprenticing on the looms. I am only extending the inevitable death of weaving in Turkey. The only way we will revive weaving is if there are enough customers to push the numbers to the point where young people must be hired to learn the trade.”
Julie Ward is an importer of fine cultural textiles. She travels the world for her business, Gallery Asha, finding unique and exquisite fabrics that represent the richness and beauty of indigenous culture. She is a traveler, writer and photographer. You can contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org and visit her websites www.galleryasha.com and www.chicagojade.com.