Textile is such a big thing in Turkey. It weights for more than 40% of the total industrial production of the country.
We had many encounters with merchants at the Bazaar in Istanbul but also Izmir, Göreme, Fethiye, Cesme...
There you can find anything from cheap to premium quality clothing (silk, linen...) and of course wedding dresses!
Back in Istanbul for the 3rd time we finally had the chance to meet with Jennifer and her team. Her brand, Jennifer's Hamam, has made a name for itself. They produce handmade towels using a unique technique that was invented by the Ottoman weavers in the late 17th century.
The store is located Arasta Çarşısı, Küçükayasofya Caddesi No:135, 34122 Fatih/İstanbul, Turkey.
Hello Jennifer, who are you and what were you doing before?
"My name is Jennifer. I'm a Canadian. Prior to that I was in Thailand for seven years teaching English. Thailand is also a great place to go to for textiles. In 2006 I moved to Turkey. My first business here was a café and art gallery, which was very successful. There was nothing like this in the area. So we were very lucky, we had great clients. I sold the café in 2009. Shortly after that I had the opportunity to get a shop in the Bazaar, which was a difficult thing at the time."
What happened then?
"At my café everyone kept on asking about the famous Turkish towels. Turkey is famous for towels, because they invented the technique of making loops. And our modern day thick towel is a copy of what that really is. The Turks invented the original technique, and when it's done on a loom (traditional machine), it's much stronger. There was nowhere in sultanahmet (where the Bazaar is) to buy the famous Turkish towels and I kept thinking it was a great idea for the next business. Hence once I had the shop, I decided to go and look for weavers making Turkish Towels the traditional way on looms. Bursa, which is the capital of textile in the country was the first stop, but there was not a single loom left, only big factories. The same unfortunate situation was discovered after visiting Denizli. After six days of driving around the country side almost all hope had been lost and the shocking knowledge that this special art was gone was very disappointing. Then, while wondering on a small village street, I heard the sound of a loom, ‘click-clacking’ away. This one man had several looms going and led me to another 8 people that were still running workshops. That was the meagre beginnings of Jennifer's Hamam."
Can you tell us more about the traditional towel makers?
"From generation to generation mothers were the home weavers, teaching sons and daugthers the tradition of shuttle weaving. Sons would enter commercial settings as apprentices when of age and daughters would grow up to become their home’s weaver and teacher of the next generation and so on… Unfortunately, as industrialized machines starting hitting the scenes and the consumers started choosing to purchase the cheaper, more accessible factory made items, the looms left the houses and we lost all of our women and teachers. For 40+ years now, no one has learned the art of weaving. The few people we found 11 years ago were the last of their kind and were on the brink of bankruptcy. In fact, I met the man who heads the workshops that weave our thick-looped towels just 10 days before an appointment with the scrapyard to give away his looms. Had we not met, that special technique would have been lost forever.”
How did you get the looms?
"Today we have over 600 looms going and many looms have more than one person working them. Most of the looms have been bought from former weavers that had already gone bankrupt before we came on the scene. They had put their looms in storage. We revive them and get them going again. To go bankrupt in your art was a huge shame for the weaver and by storing a loom, he could save face and say, he needed to take a break or retire from the work instead of admitting failure. That said, there was one sad story of a man that had a loom but couldn’t produce anything worthy of sale; I hoped that he would join our other weaver, so he could be successful, but was too proud. Finally, one day he agreed to sell his looms. Half way through the 17 hour drive to go pay for the looms, a call came that he changed his mind and gave the to the scrapyard for pennies on the dollar. For him, to have another weaver operate the looms and produce sale worthy items, meant he was a bad weaver and he would lose face. Luckily those people that stopped weaving many years ago have been willing to sell their looms and some join our team of weavers and come back to their art."
How do you operate today?
"We're proud to say that we have this quality that doesn't exist anywhere else in the world. Because of our traditionnal technique the whole structure of the towel is different. Factories can copy the look but they can't copy the structure. But it's very expensive to do handmade. All the artisans are paid very well, by the piece. I believe in ensuring that all the artisans earn an excellent living for their wonderful talent and the quality they make. We don't pay for advertising, all of our clients have done the advertising for us. Our clients are people that care about the planet, slow fashion, healthy and organic food."
Meet Haci from Jennifer's team
Tell us more about pestamel vs thick-looped towel
"Initially , pestamel (the flat-woven towels) were only used in the Turkish bath. They were thin, absorbent and stayed on the body even when wet. Now, pestamel are known pretty much all over the world and our clients use them for many other purposes: beach towels, curtains, blankets, sarong, pareo, scarf, tablecloth… We cut them into robes and offer custom made robes as well (size, color, design) in less than 24hours in most cases. Depending on the thickness and complexity of the design of a pestamel a weaver can make 10 pieces in one day or 1 piece in 4 shifts. Thick looped body size towels can take anything from 3 - 8 shifts to make one piece depending on the thickness of the towel. We still use today the same thick loop technique that was invented by the Ottoman weavers in the late 17th century. And the benefit of having and using towels like these ones is that they last minimum 20 years. The technique combined with the GOTS certified organic Turkish cotton we use means they are also very absorbant, dry very quickly, and they never ever get that musty smell because there is no chemicals."
What are your plans for the future?
"My goal now is to build a weaving school. We will focus on women, but not exclude men, enabling them to become entrepreneurs. It will help developing local economy and communities and sustainable fashion. We are in the process of establishing a Foundation, so that we have the legal permission to raise money for the project. The school will be located on a big piece of land in the middle of Anatolia and be a place where people can come and visit. It will be a place to observe and if they so choose, learn weaving and we will ensure that the land treated sustainably and we offer organic food."