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Articles

TOWELS

TOWELS FIT FOR A SULTAN

Jennifer


Jennifer's Hamam in the Arasta Bazaar beside the Blue Mosque in Sultanahmet is one of the very few shops in İstanbul (or anywhere in Turkey) that still sells entirely hand-woven towels.

The towels are sourced from small workshops all over the country and Jennifer Gaudet is playing  big part in keeping what was a fast-dying trade alive.

Her shop all sells a range of other bath accessories including a range of thin pestemal towels and kese scrubbing mitts as used in traditional hamams

Edmonton is a very long way from Sultanahmet. How did you come to be here?

Before coming to Turkey I spent several years teaching English in Thailand. I’d planned to go there for a year to get it out of my system after many holiday visits. Then I met the principal of a school who suggested that I might like to teach there. I ended up staying for the next seven years. I wanted to start a business, but Thai law didn’t make that attractive -- as a foreigner I could only own 49 percent of the business and couldn’t buy land. Then a friend suggested a holiday in Turkey. He told me that I would love İstanbul. I stayed for a month and quickly noticed that several things were missing from Sultanahmet. I decided that I’d like to open a cafe and in December 2006 I discovered the place that went on to become Java Studio, a coffee shop and art gallery.

From coffee to towels -- some leap. How did you wind up in the towel business?

It had been brewing in the back of my mind for some time. Turkey was famous for its woven towels, and I wondered if there were still any proper weavers left. I was already in business with a rug and ceramics dealer, and when I received an offer for the coffee shop it seemed the perfect opportunity to move on. My partner and I spent a week driving around from dawn to dusk in search of weavers -- driving, stopping, asking, driving, stopping, asking. We couldn’t find anything in the obvious places like Denizli or Bursa -- everything was factory-made. I was having a fit because we’d already put down a deposit on a shop in the Arasta and time was running out. We visited all sorts of shops that just might have something until eventually one shopkeeper gave us a lead. In the end we found one weaver by the simple chance of glimpsing him through a doorway.

So tell us about the towels.

Most of what’s on the market today is either made in factories or on Vamatex shuttleless industrialized looms and is often passed off as hand-woven. Our towels are made using old-style looms with shuttles, which results in a much stronger fabric. At first the designs were not our own, but now we’re working with 11 families and designing our own products. Two of the families only work for us.

The few remaining traditional weavers work in small private workshops scattered around the villages. Some of their looms are wooden, some part wooden and some mechanical. One weaver uses a bone shuttle that is more than a hundred years old. Another has a loom just like an old Ottoman one. A 72-year-old weaver will be working on a loom in his garden until next year -- when he passes no one else will know how to use or repair that loom. Our weaver’s aunt is the last woman in the village to have a pit loom in her sitting room, although every house used to have one. Women would sit with their feet in the pit and chat to the family while they worked. The pit would be covered with white clay to soak up the dust. Children started learning how to weave alongside their mothers when they were 7 or 8, but now there are hardly any female weavers left since they made items for the home while men made the commercial items. This will be the first generation of children not to have learnt how to weave, which means that the art can be lost very quickly.

The amount of human effort involved in the work is amazing. Changing the size of a towel can involve a couple of days of rethreading the loom. It takes two to six days to weave one big 1.8 kilogram towel and one to three weeks to weave a bathrobe. Most of the women who work with us do things like adding fringes to towels, threading the bobbins, ironing and folding the towels because the work on the big looms is so physically demanding.

Most of our towels are made using certified organic cotton, although we have also started using bamboo, which is very popular in Australia and the US. Cotton needs lots of water and attracts a lot of natural pests, but bamboo grows easily as a weed. It’s our newest green product.

Towels aside, what else do you sell?

We also stock a range of silk products including lots of colorful scarves. We’re working with one huge family of silk weavers who still raise the silkworms and do all the spinning and dying themselves.

In your opinion, what are the pros and cons of being a foreign female trader in Turkey?

In general, other people tend to think the scoreboard works 3-0 in my favor -- I’m foreign, I’m female and I speak English -- and this can lead to some jealousy. But I doubt I would have been able to stay here if I didn’t have a Turkish partner to help me tune into the unspoken trading rules of Sultanahmet. In the villages my lack of Turkish would have been a bigger problem than my gender at the start, although that’s less of a problem as time goes by and I learn more of the language.

With the towels, I’m selling a soft product which might be harder for a man to sell -- the softer female touch probably works better. But I don’t see myself primarily as a seller. I’m passionate about the product, and that passion is contagious. Being a Canadian woman may mean that people are a little more open to trust me.

What do you enjoy about selling towels? How is it different from running a coffee shop?

The coffee shop was my own business, but coffee is coffee and will always be there. Now I’m scared every day that the weaving sources will dry up, that a beautiful art form will disappear. It’s exciting to think that I’m playing a small part in trying to preserve a tradition. It would break my heart if it died out because we will have lost something huge not just for Turkey but for all of us. It’s only recently that some cultures are going back to weaving, and they’ve had to learn it all again from scratch.

Any advice for other foreigners wanting to set up a business here?

Firstly, find a trustworthy accountant who knows people in the local government of the area that you want to work in. This person will be able to help with just about everything, and your relationship with them will be your most important ever.

Second, although you will always remain a foreigner when dealing with clients, to get along you must learn and understand the rules of business in Turkey. This means being very flexible behind the scenes while sticking to your own rules upfront. If you remain too foreign behind the scenes, you will never fit in and will keep having problems. Use the positives of the local system to your advantage and steer clear of the negatives. Things like staffing are completely different here. You can’t change them so don’t drive yourself crazy trying to.

Jennifer’s Hamam, Arasta Bazaar No 135, Sultanahmet. Tel: 0212-518 0648

 

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