A Turkish Cultural Experience

A Turkish Cultural Experience

During my last travel blog, I described the day we spent in Turkey visiting Ephesus, the 4th largest city of the ancient world. But our day wasn’t over when we boarded the bus to return to the ship. Our guide announced that we had a cultural experience in store for us. And it certainly was spectacular!

One major part of Turkish culture that the government is trying to preserve is the practice of hand-making rugs. The history of hand-made rugs in Turkey is so extensive, no one is entirely sure when the practice started. But the oldest fragments we have come from the 13th century. Marco Polo described Turkish rugs in his writings about his expedition. And they were highly prized in Europe for their detail and durability. Apparently they can even be spotted sometimes in Renaissance paintings.

Turkey is not the only country known for hand-making rugs. Many beautiful rugs also come places like Persia and China. But Turkish rugs are unique in that they use a dual form of knotting, instead of the single knots used in Persia and China. That makes their rugs more durable.

Historically, the making of Turkish silk rugs is considered an art form as well as a business. Turkish nomads use them in the their camps and tents, living practically their whole lives on top of them. Traditionally, they appear to have been made mostly from wool and other natural materials. Silk appears to have been added later. But with the onset of factories making mass production cheap and easy, the practice of hand-making these fabulous rugs has become at risk of going extinct.

From Worm to Silk

Our Turkish rug experience began with a demonstration. At the behest of our host, we gathered around a small vat to learn how silk is extracted from silk worms in a large enough quantity to weave thread. It starts with the gathering of dozens of silkworms in their pupae stage. They then have to be soaked for a 24-hour period in hot water.

Silkworm cocoons are made from thread of raw silk. Each contains roughly 1,000-3,000 feet of silk fiber. It takes roughly 2,000-3,000 cocoons to make one pound of silk.

I can’t describe exactly how the silk is extracted, because the demonstration happened so quickly. But our host essentially used a specially designed wooden prong-comb type thing to hook onto the threads of the pre-soaked cocoons. Once she had grabbed dozens of the tiny threads with her tool, she hooked them into a motorized spooling device that pulled the threads into a singular bundle, essentially unwinding them from the cocoons into raw silk.

We did not watch the entire process, of course. But after the demonstration, our hosts asked us to touch a bundle of raw silk. Unlike the final product, which goes through more refinement, the raw silk is coarse, hard and even sharp to the touch. Not the kind of material you would want to work with – and certainly not something you would want to wear!

Once the raw silk is extracted, it is soaked again until it takes on the soft texture it is better known for. Before the thread is used in weaving it will also likely be soaked in a vat of dye. Depending on what color the weaver is attempting to create, the silk thread may have to soak for several weeks before it sucks up enough color.

How a Turkish Rug is Made

Once we had been educated about how silk thread is woven, we shuffled to a different part of the demonstration area. This one was set with a loom and the beginning of a rug in progress.

Our hosts were a husband and wife pair, the owners of the shop giving the demonstration. Several weavers work for them, but the wife is an award-winning silk weaver. The wife did not speak English, sadly, so her husband did all of the talking. But she was the one who performed the entire demonstration.

While we watched, she settled at her loom and took up her thread. Her husband explained that each rug has a specific design pattern, and each weaver who works on a rug will receive the pattern as well as the thread necessary to complete it. The kit reminded me a lot of cross stitch, with a color-coded pattern to follow. Except in cross stitch, I tend to use each of my thread to completion whereas rugs need to be woven by ordered rows.

Our host was quick to point out that although there was a design for the rug as well as a bundle of colors, the weaver had chosen to use a different color than the one depicted on the pattern. This is encouraged, as ultimately each rug is the project of its weaver and the end result reflects their creativity.

It was mesmerizing to watch the weaver work. Her hands moved so quickly, I could barely trace them. She would select the needed color of thread, wrap it around the loom and knot it before cutting it. Then, when she finished a row, she would use a specially designed hammer to flatten it all into place.

The History of Turkish Rug-Making

Hand-making a rug is a time consuming process. Due to the nature of silk and the adverse affects it can have on the weaver’s hands, they will work only 3 hours each day on their rug. And that 3 hours includes breaks in between.

Only one weaver works on a rug, because the rug is their project. If they are ill, no progress is made until they are well again. Large rugs are made by two weavers working side by side, but each still only works on their portion for the allotted time period. Thus it will take 10-18 months to make a single rug, depending on its size.

This also doesn’t account for the silk-making or dying process. As it was later explained to us, some dyes take much longer to seep into thread than others. Black, for instance, that does not come naturally from black wool is rarely used because it takes months for a thread to absorb enough dye to be considered properly black. Incidentally, that also makes rugs using black dyed thread much more expensive.

Because of the way these rugs are made – because they are woven and hammered down row by row – they look different depending on the angle from which they are viewed. From the side they were woven, the colors look evenly distributed. But when viewed from the opposite side, the colors seem to fade. This is a natural and anticipated part of the process. My in-laws even rotate their rug so that it will look darker or lighter at different times during the year.

The Full Rug-Buying Experience

The process of buying or selling a Turkish hand-made rug is no small thing. When our demonstration was finished, we were invited into the showroom and offered drinks. First we were offered a sweet tea, which was delicious! We were also offered some local alcohol (though I didn’t indulge).

This is part of the process, and it would be rude to skip it.

While we sipped our drinks, our hosts displayed their rugs. Rugs of all shapes and sizes were unrolled for us, and we were encouraged to touch them as well as look at them. We started with wool rugs, since weavers are required to work with wool for several years before they are allowed to ever touch silk.

Each and every one of the rugs was spectacular. Not just the silk ones. (Though the silk rugs are softer.) I can honestly say there were dozens of rugs I would have loved to bring home, though most were too large or too expensive. Because of the way these rugs are made, none of them are cheap. In fact some of the prices scribed on the back of the largest rugs might buy you a small house somewhere. But it certainly was magical to see them!

Of course, at the end of the demonstration, the selling began, and our hosts certainly knew what they were doing. Never in my wildest dreams did I ever imagine we’d be able to bring one of our products home with us. But there seemed no harm in browsing.

So, did we end up bringing something home with us?

Here’s a peek at our living room post cruise to answer that question.

Since it was Christmas, we spent the next two days at sea, but that didn’t make them any less magical!

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