Saturday, November 7, 2009

T is for Turkey

IMG_4864T is for Turkey, and as far as I’m concerned, there simply is no other T imaginable. This post has been a long time coming, but I don’t mean for its lengthiness to be a way of making up for my silence. I have very close, fond feelings about this remarkable country, and there is just so much to write! I spent seven formative years there as a child, beginning with my family’s first stay when I was four. We were delighted to return twelve years later, and ever since, Turkey has been in my experience and imagination the dream place of color: peerless hospitality, indescribably delicious fruit (and food in general, really), dreamy poppy fields, otherworldly landscapes, and a perpetual harvest of delightful and magnificent textiles made by talented, inspired artists.

Oya, private collection
Turkish textiles are simply extraordinary—sumptuous, exquisite, complex—as is very well known. Turkish textile culture is a rich, rich field. Its legendary carpets (my favorites are the red & blue Uşak carpets) are widely celebrated and naturally, sought after, but its trove of textiles only begins with those wooly piles. Take the needle-crocheted edgings (oya) on cotton scarves—so delicately wrought—and oh, say, the phenomenal knit stockings that arise from a venerable and tantalizing heritage. Of course there are countless other textile genres practiced in Turkey, and I’ll try to touch on a few, but the knitting is just so compelling, it’s hard to make room for everything.

Glass boncuks
In knitting this “page” for the letter
T (top left), I tried to choose from a few traditional motifs offered in Betsy Harrell’s book (see below). Although Turkish knitting designs are often vertically arrayed on stockings, I made a sampler of horizontal tiers. Each band features a different traditional knitting motif (bottom to top: latticework, hooks, nightingale’s eyes, then two series of charms against the evil eye). The upper registers feature large and small boncuk (pronounced “bon-juke”) symbols. To digress for a moment into another Turkish handmade craft, the boncuk is a talisman that guards against the evil eye. Usually made of glass in shades of blue, yellow, and white, the boncuk is ubiquitous in Turkey, and a must-have for any truck driver or tourist.

Turkish towel
As one of the world’s foremost exporters of cotton textiles (also the most scrumptious nuts, fruits, and olives) and a country that boasts two sheep for every five people, I suppose it’s not surprising that textiles should be so important in Turkey. Turkish carpets and kilims are legendary, of course, as is the “Turkish Towel” (the real Turkish towel is actually linen, often embroidered with gold or silver threads and delicate floral designs). Other significant Turkish textile types include metallic-embroidered velvet, woven silk from Bursa (a western city that has been famous for its silk manufacture since the 16th century), bright-colored, striped satin from Gaziantep, felted shepherds’ capes, cicims (another form of weaving), and so many others.

Turkish stockings from near Bayşehir. Private collection.
Fortunately, Turkish sheep and goat herding is alive and well, and the country now boasts about 27 million sheep and 7 million goats. Among the many artifacts that arise from Anatolia is the Turkish-style drop-spindle. Nomads throughout the country still use it, and it is now gaining popularity in the west as a spinning tool. This month’s Kurban Bayramı, the festival of the sacrifice, is the most significant Islamic festival in this largely secular country. During the four (or five) day celebration, families who are able purchase sheep for slaughter. They have an enormous feast from the meat and distribute any extra to the poor. Traditionally, the sheep’s wool and hide would also be shared with the poor. The feast re-enacts Abraham’s sacrifice of a lamb (a fortuitous substitute for his son, Isaac), and is one of the most important religious holidays in the Turkish calendar. The sheep that graze across most of the Anatolian plains and highlands are fat-tailed red and white Karamans. They are hardy, and produce excellent wool . . . for carpets. For knitting, it’s still a bit rough on the fingers, but quite sturdy.
Turkish knitter in Anamur. I took this by sticking my camera lens into my binoculars.
Many parts of the country—particularly the north and east—experience extreme temperatures, and the climate can be very, very cold in the winter months. Over the centuries, a vibrant knitting culture has developed in which stockings have emerged as the most interesting and practical feature. And although knit stockings are generally considered a traditional folk craft, plenty of knitting still takes place in metropolitan Istanbul as well as in distant Anatolian villages and even in the last remaining nomadic tents. The last time I was in Turkey, which was admittedly in the middle of a very hot summer, I saw only one person knitting, and that was from a distance.

Yarn merchant in the Kürkçü Han in Istanbul; lighting cotton yarn to show that it burns (and is thus natural fiber).
The figure that I’ve seen cited (although I have no idea of its source) is that about 80% of Turkish women know how to knit. There are also plenty of Turkish men who knit, but it’s unclear what percentage. There’s apparently an older gentleman (Ibrahim bey) who spends a fair amount of time knitting at the Blue Mosque in Istanbul, making and selling hats. Most of the yarns commercially available in Turkey are acrylic or cotton, for which Turkey is so well known. But that’s beginning to change. Nako yarns, owned by the Ormo company, produces some natural fiber and luxury yarns that had until recently been quite difficult to find in Turkey. Here’s a classic and oddly addictive video (judging by the oversized sweaters, looks to be ca. 1985) from the Ormo company about their yarns, from factory to runway.

Through Ravelry, I became familiar with the work of Katya Güler, who lives in Izmir and designs beautiful slippers that incorporate traditional motifs into stylish new adaptations. Her Alabora slipper, for instance, features a topsy-turvy (i.e., reversible) motif on a delicate, foot-hugging slipper. In fact, the traditional design is probably a pair of mirrored boncuks.

Entrance to the Kürkçü Han, Istanbul. A touristy water carrier obligingly passed the entrance as I was taking the picture.
In the heart of old Istanbul, the Kürkçü Han, a structure built several hundred years ago as the furrier market, now houses what amounts to a mall entirely filled with yarn.
Inside the Kürkçü Han, Istanbul. Video.

A two-story market built around a large courtyard, it seems to overspill with skeins beyond number. If you’d like directions, the All Tangled-up blog will get you right there from the Grand Bazaar. It is an experience not to be missed! I took a short video from a second story balcony, but it’s very hard to capture the vibrant Kürkçü Han spirit.

In this very rich land of textiles, where knitting is so common, and a robust and complex knitting tradition underlies a thriving yarn culture, you’d expect to find plenty of literature devoted to the history of Turkish knitting. Instead, textile literature is curiously silent on the subject. I haven’t done much research on Turkish publications, but in English, there are really only three books devoted to Turkish knitting.

IMG_5034Kenan Özbel’s book, Türk köylü çorapları, was first published in 1976. Fortunately, it was translated into English and published as Knitted Stockings from Turkish Villages (Istanbul: Türkiye Iş Bankası Cultural Publications, 1981). Özbel apparently spent a lifetime scouring the countryside, collecting textiles of all kinds. He wrote many booklets about various aspects of his research and collection, including a small pamphlet on knitting in 1945, and another (translated into French, ca. 1967) on Turkish peasant socks and stockings. Since these are so rare, it’s been hard to lay hands on copies, but they are out there. Özbel records a number of patterns, naming each one, as well as many folk traditions related to stocking creation and use. He states, for instance, that traditional knitters used symbols to communicate their marital status, hopes for the future, invoke good luck talismans, and generally draw upon a large stock of pictograms to communicate through socks. In fact, Özbel begins his book with a quite striking assertion: “[Stocking] motifs and colours are like the silent language or unreadable inscriptions of a forgotten alphabet.” Although he doesn’t discuss how he did his research (Did he interview knitters? Did he interview weavers and find graphic similarities in knit stockings? Were these symbols widely used in certain regions and unknown in others?), he traveled widely and acquired wonderful examples from across the country for at least forty years. During that time (1930s through 1970s), there were still many knitters keeping traditions alive and actively passing on their knowledge.

IMG_4891Betsy Harrell’s Anatolian Knitting Designs: Sivas Stockings Collected in an Istanbul Shantytown (Istanbul: Redhouse Press, 1981), was written by an American woman who lived in Istanbul. She interviewed many women from Sivas (apparently a hotbed of knitting) and other places in Eastern Anatolia who had migrated to Istanbul with their local knitting traditions intact. She collected patterns, stories, and legends, and brought them together in a wonderful book published by the Redhouse Press, famous for its Turkish-English dictionaries, and the foremost publisher of English books in Turkey. She had read Özbel’s work, and tested out a few of the theories he put forward by interviewing modern, city knitters about the designs they named and demonstrated for her. She discovered that many of them had only vague notions about what the symbols meant. Still, they were able to help her record, chart, and identify dozens of designs, and to discuss customs in which stockings at that time still played a central role (as trousseau elements; as gifts; as preferred color schemes). She also posed the tricky, but fascinating question: do knit motifs emerge from carpet and kilim designs? The answer was yes, but only from the finer rugs.

IMG_4892The third and most recent book is byAnna Zilboorg. Fancy Feet: Traditional Knitting Patterns of Turkey. (Asheville, NC: Lark Books, 1994), and recently republished as Simply Socks. Zilboorg explores Traditional Turkish (“folk”) knitting in a short text, and offers a number of charts for designs that she found in specific regions in Turkey. She also explains the traditional construction method (including the toe-up construction, starting with the famous Turkish cast-on), so if you want to make Turkish socks, this is the best way to find out how! She includes 45 different basic patterns that represent a wide variety of styles, from pointy toe to pointy heel, and all the way up to a choice of decorative bind-offs.

I have a bit of a confession: even though I own this book and love it, I’ve always felt as if Turkish stockings were not something I should make. Maybe that’s because I’m not a sock knitter. I know, I know, I’m sort of defective in that way, and someday maybe I’ll see the light. Perhaps, too, I’ve had too much admiration for the real thing. But now I’m getting ready to forge ahead and see if I can tackle a pair.
Turkish slippers, courtesy of randomthreadsMore Turkish stockings, courtesy of randomthreads
Anna Zilboorg recently lectured on Turkish stockings at last summer’s much-anticipated Sock Summit, where she brought some lovely examples of Turkish-style stockings that she used in her book, as featured in photographs by Randomthreads (source: Flickr).

“a forgotten alphabet”
Kurdish angora goat
mohair stockings.
Private collection
Heel detail
Edging detailToe detail
Now I’d like to let the Turkish stockings speak for themselves in a sort of parade. I will probably add a few pictures over time as I raid my mother’s collection on my next visit. I’ll begin with the most extraordinary: these Kurdish beauties were lent to me by a dear friend who used to visit Turkey regularly for archaeological research. She bought them in northeast Turkey, where they were sold at an open market in Erzurum, and apparently came originally from shepherds in the hills. The fiber is natural mohair in two colors from angora goats, pulled from the bushes, then hand spun. The design is probably a modified horn pattern, with (quite typically) a simple striped pattern on the sole. Kenan Özbel calls these “fluffy stockings,” and offers a startling explanation for their fuzziness: “In order to achieve this fluffy effect the completed stocking is placed inside a warm loaf of bread straight from the oven, and this causes the short fibers to fluff up. This makes the stocking soft and helps to shed rain.” (Özbel, p. 16). I’m not kidding. That was a direct quotation.
Gaziantep stockingsInside out
In Gaziantep (in southeastern Turkey, near the Syrian border), I found these wonderful stockings, handknit from 100% karaman wool in all its delightful scratchiness. I bought them at a touristy little shop in the old market, full of antiqued (but probably not antique) copper and brass pots. The merchant used a pole to take them down from a line hung above the doorway, and was quite surprised that they were the only things in the store that interested me. These stockings showcase a number of traditional features, such as typically unfussy finishing details (colors pulled from row to row, tying of yarns, very little weaving in of ends), a series of beguiling designs, and pointy heels and toes. Neither Betsy Harrell nor Kenan Özbel include the distinctive, foot-like symbols in the middle rung in their lexicon of motifs, although they do appear (unidentified, alas) in one of Anna Zilboorg’s charts. So I’m still trying to work out what it means, and would appreciate any interpretations.

Sivas stockings in cotton & acrylic.
Private collection
Sivas stockings in cotton & acrylic.
Detail of turned-up hem to show
color stranding. Private collection.
Most of the regional museums in Turkey now have shops in their archaeological or ethnographical museums, and most of those shops sell local handicrafts, including knit stockings. This pair, which a friend of mine bought at the Sivas museum, were made from cotton and acrylic yarns, both of which are readily available in any Turkish yarn store (although 100% wool is not).

Gaziantep fabric merchant in Gaziantep
Other textiles
The first Turkic stockings, according to Özbel, were felt (as demonstrated in the Pazyryk burials). As low-tech as knitting is, felt making from fleece is even lower tech, although it does take skill and a great deal of practice to make it properly. I think of Kazakhstan as a great modern center of felt making, but the craft is definitely still alive and well in Turkey. My favorite Turkish felt production is the shepherd’s kepenek, which is often translated as “cape.” In fact, it is a personal tent for shepherds to wear during long hours tending sheep and goats. There are some great examples here (the site is in Turkish, but the pictures speak for themselves) and here.

Two kinds of Gaziantep fabric, in Gaziantep
Although it has nothing to do with knitting, and is not even handmade, one of my favorite kinds of Turkish textiles is the bright-colored, satiny fabric produced in southeast Turkey. It is generally referred to as “Gaziantep” fabric, and I was delighted to buy some there last summer. It is used most often as a covering for shoes, but I also remember seeing Edwina of Absolutely Fabulous wearing it in one of her more outrageous costumes. Although I’m hoping to brush up on my sewing skills quickly enough to pull off a Thanksgiving table runner from Gaziantep fabric, it would also make a smashing lining for a knit jacket.


With all those wonderful models to learn from, I found myself a bit overwhelmed with the possibilities. But I wanted to come up with a smallish project that would at least appropriate some tiny aspect of what I had always loved about—and learned from—the splendors of Turkish textiles and knitting in particular.
My project: how could I not work with T and tea? Turks drink liters of tea every day, and it is such an integral part of daily life there that no transaction of any importance can possibly take place without an offer of tea. Tea symbolizes the legendary Turkish hospitality. Take my trip to the Kürkçü Han: before we were three steps in the doorway, the yarn merchant offered us çay (pronounced “chai”). In Turkey, it is served in small glasses on ceramic or metal saucers, and several lumps of sugar. No milk. No lemon. The tea comes from samovars, not from ceramic teapots, so my project is a foreigner’s take from the outset.

Tea in the Kürkçü Han, Istanbul
Think of it as a traveler’s impression of motifs, remixed into another idiom. I made this in ten separate pieces, beginning with the fun part: the exterior, of Isager wool 1—my new favorite yarn—at about 9 stitches to the inch. At that gauge, the finished pieces were quite thin, so I had to make some insulation. Three strands of unspun Icelandic works very well for extra padding, but it is rather strange to go from using 1.75 mm needles (outside) to 6.5 mm (inside). Although I did incorporate a traditional Turkish motif (lattice, also in the bottom register of my “T”), organized vertically, the overall design looks more plaid than Turkish lattice. I haven’t written this up as a pattern because I doubt anyone else would be daft enough to make all the little pieces necessary for this contraption.

Download pattern for miniature Turkish stocking (pdf, 645k)
Of course I couldn’t stop with that little bit of craziness, so I worked up a pattern for a miniature Turkish stocking (pdf, 645k), which I hope you’ll enjoy! It, too, is made from the Isager Wool 1, which is a great example of very fine, single (i.e., not plied) yarn, and somewhat analagous to (although lighter than) the traditional spun yarns that Turkish knitters have always used. The central design motif is based on a traditional pattern called “written charm, double,” which I have divided in half, vertically. It is also similar to a design called “walnut kernel.” Both patterns are charted in Betsy Harrell’s excellent book.


Handmade slippers from near Eskişehir, featuring a very typically Turkish carnation motif
Blog Postings
Boncuk seller in the Kapalı Carşı (Grand Bazaar), Istanbul

Turkish stockings in America on Christmas morning.


Needle-woven (?) strap or belt. Private collection.

Turkish Arts Bib

Thumb-sized, shelled pistachios at a market in Gaziantep. Wrapped in cotton Gaziantep fabric.
Background Reading

  • John Freely & Hilary Sumner-Boyd. Strolling Through Istanbul (Redhouse Press, 1972, but still in print from Taylor & Francis and others).
  • Irfan Orga. Portrait of a Turkish Family (English ed. 1950, but still in print from Inman Press).
  • Barbara Nadel mysteries set in contemporary Istanbul, especially Belshazzar’s Daughter (1999) and Harem (2003).
  • Jason Goodwin mysteries featuring Yashim, a eunuch detective, in 1830s Constantinople. Loved Janissary Tree and Snake Stone, and looking forward to reading Bellini Card. Be prepared to gain weight: the food sequences are very succulent.

Sunday, February 8, 2009

S is for Suzani

S SuzaniS is for suzani, but also for silk road and ’stans (as in Uzbekistan, Kyrgyzstan, Turkmenistan, Kazakhstan). An essential form of embroidery in Central Asia, the suzani has grown out of a rich textile tradition that dates to the time of the medieval silk road trade, and continues today to represent essential concepts of home, hearth, and female kinship.

Susanne’s suzani
I first learned the word suzani when my parents came back from a Central Asian adventure in 1994. At the time, they were the only people I had known to have encountered the ’stans firsthand. My mother’s big acquisition on the trip was a suzani, which she found in Uzbekistan, and which inevitably became known as “Susanne’s suzani.” So I have always tied the suzani very closely to my mother, not only because her name seems to have drawn her to it, but because as a textile cognoscente(a?), she loves it, and so do I. As I’ve learned more about its traditions, I’ve grown to appreciate how very much the suzani represents the love that mothers and daughters share.

Suzani from Shakhrisabz, near Samarkand
As a central component of a textile-rich culture, the suzani fundamentally represents the silk road. To me, the very word conjures up images of Central Asia in all its historical glory. A specialty of Uzbekistan (particulary Bukhara and Shakhrisabz), but produced throughout Central Asia, the suzani combines the best of the silk road’s trade history with spectacular artisanship. One particularly important suzani center is the Uzbek city, Bukhara. Textiles of Bukhara also include spectacular, distinctive rugs and ikat fabrics, but suzanis are most important of all. A UNESCO world heritage site, Bukhara has a very long and literally colorful history that dates back at least fifteen hundred years, and its strategic position along historic trade routes has brought it under the control of the Persian Empire, Alexander the Great, the Samanids, and more recently, the Soviet Union, to name a few. In 1220, the city fell victim to Genghis Khan, but regained much of its former glory during the time of Timur (Tamerlane), whose empire emanated from nearby Samarkand (also a center of suzani production).

Detail of a silk-embroidered suzani on brown cotton twill, from Shakhrisabz. Detail shows the three-dimensional effect of the chain-stitching.
The suzani generally has a cotton or silk cloth base for its cotton or silk thread embroidery. The name comes from the Persian word, suzan, or needle, and its predominant embroidery technique is chain stitch, done with an instrument called a tambour, which is a hooked needle (something along the lines of a sharp crochet hook) that pierces fabric and draws embroidery thread from behind through to the design side. Like the tambourine, the tambour also describes the embroidery hoop that keeps fabric stretched and taut, as for a drum. Suzani embroiderers also use a regular needle to produce a lovely chain stitch, and over the past century, machines have been used more and more for this purpose.

Detail of a suzani from Samarkand
Design motifs draw from an ancient iconography, including sun and moon disks (possibly delving into deep historical roots in a Zoroastrian past). Flowers (especially tulips, carnations, and irises) and vegetation also dominate suzani design. Organic leaves frequently border central motifs, sometimes emerging from a tiny watering can in one corner and spreading around the edges of the entire design.

suzani detail
Detail of Susanne’s suzani
In Uzbek homes, every surface is covered with textiles in a kind of dazzling horror vacui that warms the space visually and physically. Amid all this riot of color, the suzani dominates. Suzanis are large—either wall hangings or bed coverings—and are the major component of a bride’s dowry. Relying on materials (cotton fabric and silk threads) produced in towns and cities, they are far removed from the wool-based textiles produced by nomads of the Asian steppes. In towns or cities such as Bukhara, a “kalamkash” (suzani designer; wouldn’t that look great on a business card?) sketches an elaborate design on the base fabric, then often divides it into several strips. She then hands over the fabric and directions to a family to distribute the pieces among mother, sisters, aunts, and cousins to embroider separately for the bride to be, much as American friends and family might have divided labor in a quilting bee. After all the embroidery is complete, they piece together strips to form a whole. Hand-embroidered suzanis are labor-intensive projects, so it’s not surprising that needlework begins shortly after a daughter’s birth. Generally, at least four pieces are required for a dowry, including at least one suzani. The suzani, then, becomes a cherished symbol of young woman’s first home and family in her new home.

Short video about chain stitch appliqué technique. Music is Uzbek: “Kosh-Chenar” by Turgun Alimatov.
About this “letter”
I wanted to create something in wool as an hommage to the suzani, but knew that the only real way I could do that was to explore motifs and look for similarities in process. This is a small, knitted experiment. At some point, when my embroidery skills have improved significantly, I’d like to let it grow, and perhaps create a sun disk using some of the same techniques, but this is only a first stab. I used a Danish yarn I’ve only recently discovered: Isager Strik. I knit the small piece at a gauge of about eight and a half stitches to the inch, using a kind of modified intarsia. The central carnation motif I modeled directly on a suzani from Tashkent (Uzbekistan). I applied blanket stitch to outline the carnation, and which seems to me to give it a cartoon-like aspect (which I like!).
My inspiration: a carnation suzani from Tashkent, detail.
The rest of the applied surface design (on the stem and leaves) is chain-stitch embroidery. Trying to mimic the tambour’s piercing and hooking action, I acquired a crochet hook to pull yarn from the under side to the surface. I’ve actually never tried to apply a design on anything I’ve knit (aside from the odd foray into duplicate stitch). Although I’ve learned a few crochet stitches, I’m not very skillful with a hook. Like most knitting purists, I usually focus my efforts on producing the designed material, rather than decorating it afterward. I was, however, surprised to actually enjoy the crochet work and even appreciate its enhancements to the design and free-flowing curves. I will definitely try it again!

Mother & daughter
Mothers & daughters
Although it is a small swatch—really just a token—my abecedarium’s S is a core piece. I have a long way to go before I can produce anything remotely evocative of the storied suzani. And yet, this particular excursion is another of many demonstrations of the love for textiles my mother has given me, and of greater loves she and I share, as do mothers and daughters all over this planet. So S is really for Susanne and suzani.

Sun-disc bolim posh, a suzani-like embroidery held over bride & groom during the wedding ceremony
Suzani Madness
Notable museum collections:
Suzani Bib

Plethora of suzanis captured by Flickr photographers

DSC06814For Suzani Collectors
Suzanis in the Interior Design Market
Venetian Red’s blog entry

DSC06820Knitting & Suzanis
  • Kaffe Fassett designed a beaded “Suzani wrap” in Rowan Summer Tweed. Rowan’s Knitting and Crochet number 41, published in Spring of 2007. His design focuses on the sun-disc motif.
  • Jade Starmore designed a Suzani vest (also available as a wrap on the Starmores’ Virtual Yarns site), inspired by the wonderful collection of suzanis in the Burrell Collection, Glasgow.
  • Marina’s blog entry about her sleeved version of the Suzani vest
DSC06827Historic & contemporary photos of Central Asia