Jennifer’s Hamam: Saving a Vanishing Art Form
by Liza Slay; photography Monica Fritz, Liza Slay, Jennifer Gaudet
“Everyone talks about the famous handwoven Turkish hamam towels so why isn’t anybody selling them?” The answer to this question was the impetus for a quest that began in July 2009 for Jennifer Gaudet, a Canadian business woman and owner of Jennifer’s Hamam. Her search for a niche in the Turkish business market evolved into a life’s mission to prevent the extinction of a traditional art form.
Turkish peştamels and peşkirs were easy enough to find, but not hand-loomed from organic, natural fibers. Believing that tracking down weavers would be a simple task, Jennifer’s spirits were high when she started driving from village to village across the country. Her mood darkened six days later because she had found only one artisan still working old-style shuttle looms. At this point in time, weavers were abandoning their craft because they could no longer make a living.
The culture of traditional textile weaving in Turkey was such that mothers were home weavers who taught the skills to their children. Daughters grew up beside their mothers until they married and became the next generation of home weavers and teachers. Sons became weaving apprentices in commercial settings. Forty years ago, movement began from hand-woven to machine-woven fabrics. When consumer choice shifted towards inexpensive items flooding the market place, home weaving was left behind. “A small factory machine is capable of producing five thousand peştamels in a week with one person supervising twenty machines,” explained Jennifer. “A competent weaver working an eight-hour day can produce a maximum of ten small, very basic peştamels.”
The quality of hand-loomed products was also plummeting as weavers could no longer afford the trips to source quality threads. This gave rise to a new profession of traveling salesmen offering inferior mixed or synthetic threads at expensive prices. To add insult to injury, small factory producers had been copying their original designs for years and the weavers were no longer able to compete. Looms were placed in storage or sold for scrap and the art of hand-woven textile production went into decline. Jennifer realized that “the only way to save the art of weaving was to use threads of the highest quality and invent new designs to separate ourselves from the small factory producers.”
When Jennifer’s first shop opened in the Arasta Bazaar in Sultanahmet, she had only nine families of weavers. The early months were a blur of activity, trial and error as they explored the quality of threads and experimented with design. The lessons learned were the foundation of her company’s commitment to quality standards and reducing the carbon footprint. All her towels, peşkirs, peştamels, blankets, and scarves are made from natural silk, linen and organic cotton. The demand for these products led to the opening of a second shop and, later, a showroom. This success prompted some merchants to learn a few words in English like “loom” and “organic” to peddle cheap, factory-produced towels to unwary tourists at artisanal prices. These imitations are threadbare after a few years, while Jennifer’s towels will last several decades, if not longer with proper care. She loves to show a cleaning rag handwoven by a Turkish grandmother that has endured more than one hundred years of hard use. When they do meet their end, they will not lie for eternity in landfill; natural fibers are biodegradable and will not contaminate ground water or soil.
Linen has been woven into the fabric of human history for millennia. Harvested from flax plants, it requires less than half the water of conventionally grown cotton. It is valued for its antibacterial and stain resistant attributes, natural durability, and luster. Mother Nature’s wicking fiber, it is even more absorbent than cotton and sheds moisture quickly. However, it is challenging to work with. The movement of looms causes pure linen’s sinewy and uneven thread to tear apart, disrupting the rhythm of weaving. To endure the strain from factory machines, it has to be twisted tightly, intensifying the inherent inelasticity of the fabric. The natural thread in Jennifer’s hand-loomed towels creates a soft, but durable finished product that will last at least thirty years. Once a major industry, the demand for linen has fallen globally. In Turkey, few farmers grow it in the quality that Jennifer’s Hamam requires. For all its desirable qualities, linen is an endangered fiber.
Organic cotton does not naturally wick moisture. It has to be taught to drink by a series of soaks in cold water that makes it increasingly absorbent. Organic cotton farming prohibits the use of toxic chemicals, fertilizers and GMO seeds. According to aboutorganiccotton.org, it is 80% rain fed, while 2,700 liters of irrigated water go into one t-shirt made from conventionally grown cotton. Jennifer’s Hamam is the only company I have found in Sultanahmet that can show clients a valid transaction certificate from Global Organic Textile Standard (GOTS), the international certifying authority that is recognized in Turkey.
Ahmet Bey, one of Jennifer’s weavers, combines the beauty and functionality of these two fibers with a hand-loomed technique that is unique to Turkey. With natural linen on one side and organic cotton on the other, it demonstrates the fact that linen always feels cooler to the touch than cotton. The looping technique, developed by Ottoman weavers between the 15th and 17th centuries, creates luxuriously thick towels that can be mimicked by factories in appearance only. Machines cannot replicate the looped structure which, when combined with natural fibers, produces textiles of incomparable quality.
“We will stop at the Grand Bazaar, but we cannot guarantee the authenticity of what is sold here,” cautioned an Istanbul tour guide. Machines using digital design are in-creasingly sophis-ticated at copying selvedges and tassels that are the signatures of handloom weaving. The exquisite “100% silk” scarf I purchased looked and felt like the real thing, but there is only one way to know for sure: the burn test. Natural and synthetic fibers react differently to fire. The color and smell of the smoke varies. Some are resistant to a spark, while others flare with surprising ferocity. Naturals tend to burn relatively slowly, while synthetics like polyester melt. Acrylic is completely consumed in the blink of an eye. Natural linen and organic cotton burn similarly, but the former exhibits a writhing tail of ash. A single strand of pure silk will only burn while held directly to the flame. Remove it from the source and it immediately self-extinguishes, leaving a soft bead of dark ash that reduces to a fine powder. The flare of the test on my scarf consumed the thread so quickly that it burned my finger before I could react. It left a solid, melted glob in its wake, proving that if there was any real silk there at all, it was mixed with a high volume of synthetic thread. This test can easily be performed before purchase and Jennifer’s staff have never hesitated to prove the purity of their fibers.
“I feel like I’m hugging my mother,” cooed a Serbian friend wrapped in one of Jennifer’s soft, cotton peştamels. The three-story showroom was a treat for her senses. Her eyes took in colorful stacks of meticulously folded textiles. Her nose detected the delicate scent of olive-oil-based soaps mixed with ingredients like bay laurel, jasmine, fig, and Moroccan argan. Her fingers touched the rough texture of exfoliating kese mitts that are woven from tree bark or silk with goat hair. Custom-made robes and tunics can be made from the towels allowing clients to surround themselves with these sensations all day long.
“Fixed prices are a knife in the heart of a Persian!” gasped an Iranian friend upon learning that the prices at Jennifer’s Hamam are set in stone. An alien concept in a region where haggling is obligatory, this is how Jennifer keeps traditional weavers in business. By pulling artisans from the brink of bankruptcy eight years ago, she has helped keep six hundred looms in operation. Unfortunately, this is a temporary solution that has not addressed the root of the problem: the forty-year gap that now exists in skills that are no longer being handed down to the next generation. Turkey has come to the last of its mother weavers teaching at home. Without them, the art form is doomed.
All too often, I leave Jennifer’s Hamam with a sense of mourning because they have sold the last of an extraordinary textile. Ömer Bey was a master weaver in central Anatolia whose eldest son took over the family business. He mechanized the workshop after his father’s retirement. When Jennifer met the famous patriarch, they understood each other. “See,” he snapped at his son. “This is what I’m always telling you. You must go back to the old ways!” Ömer Bey showed Jennifer textiles unlike anything she had seen before that he had woven decades earlier. “The piece that really caught my attention was two layers of shimmering silk and the softest wool woven together with multiple colors across one weaving line.” When Jennifer learned that the looms still existed, they agreed he would bring them out of storage, repair them and put them back to work. The organic cotton Seven Wonders towels and blankets at the store were handwoven under Ömer Bey’s supervision until he passed away. Tragically, his one-of-a-kind looms were dismantled and sold for parts. The equipment that made the Seven Wonders is lost to the world, and the skill that designed it was buried with the master weaver.
The raw and reeled silk scarves at Jennifer’s Hamam are made by Meta Bey, who learned the whole process as a boy from his “silk mother”. Adult silk moths have a life span of only three days, during which they mate and lay eggs. Meta Bey carries the eggs in a pouch beside his heart, the perfect temperature for incubation. To feed the voracious worms, he gently covers them with mulberry leaves piled fifteen centimeters high, which they devour in as many minutes. The sound of their eating, which is eerily comparable to rainfall, is as intense as the speed. Meta Bey’s reeled thread is drawn from the strands of fifty cocoons with fingers so sensitive that if just one strand drops, he immediately feels it and brushes in another. The self-healing attributes and arrangement of its molecular hydrogen bonds make silk pliant and one of the strongest materials on earth, tougher even than steel, “pound for pound”. A “vampire fiber”, its only vulnerability is prolonged exposure to direct sunlight. A scarf woven with pure silk thread is almost as stiff as cardboard when it is cut from the loom. It softens after boiling in a vat of water to which bay laurel soap, natural dyes or ash have been added. “Much of the silk making process is not pretty,” observed Jennifer. “It is often only after the final step of ironing that the beauty of the piece emerges.” None of the children in Meta Bey’s extended family have learned the tradition. Centuries of method, skill, and design have come down to this one son of the Silk Mother.
If you ever see tears in Jennifer’s eyes, you know Turkey has lost another gifted weaver, an irreplaceable loom, or both. To prevent this cultural legacy from vanishing entirely, she is preparing to open a weaving school stocked with organically-grown raw materials. Her priority is women, who are under-represented in the Turkish labor market and have traditionally taught the art of weaving to children. By example, she strives to raise public awareness to the value of quality artisanal work that is inclusive of women and sustained by eco-friendly practices from start to finish.