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Volume 58, Number 3May/June 2007

In This Issue

The Skill of the Two Hands

Written by Caroline Stone
Photographed by Alexander Stone Lunde

“Money vanishes, but the skill of the two hands remains.” So says a favorite proverb on both sides of the Mediterranean; it surely reflects why girls throughout that region were taught to weave and to use the needle.

As a result, some of the most charming embroideries were produced to embellish homes, demonstrate skills, to while away otherwise idle hours and provide the pleasure of self-expression. Among them are the embroideries from throughout the Ottoman Empire, known as işlemeler (pronounced eesh-lem-eh-LAIR) and often referred to, rather loosely, as “Turkish towels.”

The earliest surviving Ottoman embroideries—“Ottoman” is more correct than “Turkish,” since they come from different parts of the empire—were almost certainly made professionally or in the palace workshops at Topkapı Palace in Istanbul. They show bold, stylized repetitive designs: trellises, medallions, pomegranates, carnations and, of course, tulips. These, from the 16th century, held a special place in Ottoman gardens, poetry and art, so much so that that period was known as the Lâle Devri, “the tulip age,” and the passion spread to Europe.

In the past, embroidery was a relatively cheap means of decorating cloth, and embroidery designs often imitated those on brocades and other more expensive woven textiles. The early Ottoman pieces with a pomegranate design may have been copied from luxury textiles from Italy and Spain. In a similar way, patterns from Chinese silks were adapted in Iran and moved west from there.

As well as large, formal embroideries, which have much in common with the suzanis still produced in Central Asia, there were smaller pieces, often far more varied and personal, that were made at home. Almost certainly, they existed before the 16th century, but no examples that old have survived. Marco Polo mentions women embroidering in the city of Kirman, then under Tatar rule:  

The gentlewomen and their daughters are adepts with the needle, embroidering silk of all colors with beasts and birds and many other figures. They embroider the curtains of nobles and great men so well and so richly that they are a delight to the eye. And they are no less skillful at working counterpanes, cushions and pillows.

Around 1550, a traveler from Genoa, whose name has been lost to us, described an audience with the Haseki Sultana, the mother of the sultan’s sons. His account includes an early mention of the Ottoman custom of offering a guest a tray of beautiful textiles on departure. (See box titled “This is how the English writer Julia Pardoe described her experiences in Istanbul in the 1830’s”) The sultana was almost certainly Hürrem, also called Roxelana, the wife of Süleyman the Magnificent, who was famous even in Europe for both beauty and wit. She was an ex-slave, most probably of Russian origin, and it is in her tomb and in that of her son, the Şehzade Mehmet, who died in 1543, that the oldest surviving examples of these more personal embroideries have been found: five handkerchiefs.

A century later, the great Italian traveler Pietro della Valle wrote, “We find it hard to believe in our country that work on white cloth is held in such esteem and value in Turkey, and that they make such a lot of it. The reason is that the women are usually kept shut indoors and that they have no house work to do, unless they are employed to do something, so they pass their time at embroidering white cloth.”

Down the centuries, Europeans commented on the quantity and quality of Ottoman embroideries. From the Hapsburg court in 1598, the Archduchess Marie-Christine sent her mother a ribbon, noting in the accompanying letter that it was “only a simple ribbon and plain, but am sending it because I know well enough that Your Highness likes Turkish things. My Turks have sewn it.” Turkish embroideresses (bulya) were highly valued at the Hapsburg court and in fact throughout Hungary: The loan of one to help prepare a trousseau or some other special piece of work was a common request between friends. In 1660, one young noblewoman had no fewer than seven bed-sheets embroidered in the Turkish manner. Later, sashes and handkerchiefs also became popular.

Embroidery was a socially approved activity that gave women scope for creativity.The quantity of embroidery produced is not surprising. In a society where slaves and servants performed the harder domestic tasks, where women were sequestered and rarely went out, where they were often illiterate, and where music, drawing and painting were not conventional accomplishments, there was plenty of time. Embroidery was thus a socially approved activity that gave scope for a measure of creativity. It was one of the rare permitted areas in which a girl could express herself—and even attract attention. Her embroideries would be admired on outings to the hammam, or baths, proofs that she was skilled and hardworking. They would be shown off as part of her future dowry, and when she married, they would join other family treasures to decorate her house. In times of hardship, needlework could be sold for cash, and a woman could take on such work to support a family.

In his memoir Portrait of a Turkish Family, which recalls Istanbul of the early 20th century, Irfan Orga describes his elegant mother, always at home, always working at her beautiful embroideries. He suggests that they were her great comfort, and that they were an outlet for the creativity and emotion that she was not free to express elsewhere. After the disappearance of his father and uncles in World War I, the family was left penniless, and she used her embroidery skills to keep them from starving. Versions of this story must have been repeated thousands of times down the centuries.

Nearly 300 years earlier, in 1638, Evliya Çelebi wrote in the Seyahatname, compiled on the orders of Murad IV, a vivid description of Istanbul’s guild procession. Every craft is mentioned individually: 

The handkerchief-makers (yaghlikjián) are one hundred men with sixty shops. The first lady who worked a handkerchief was Balkis, the Queen of Saba [Sheba], and wife of King Salomon. In the Prophet’s time, Selman, the Persian, sewed handkerchiefs and sold them. They [the Guild] exhibit…a show of all sorts of handkerchiefs.

Yağlık is often translated as “napkin,” and these shops presumably wove and sold the basic article, and perhaps the handsome, block-printed handkerchiefs in dark colors used by men throughout the Ottoman Empire when taking snuff—especially after Murad IV first banned smoking and then made smokers liable to the death penalty.

Further on in the procession Evliya mentions the embroiderers: 

The embroiderers of handkerchiefs [nakkáshan] are twenty-five men with twenty shops. Their patron is Serraj-ud-din…. His tomb is near Damascus. They embroider with variegated silk cushion-cloths, handkerchiefs, towels, shirts and sheets. My mother was famous in this handicraft. They pass embroidering.

This is one of the very few times in his chronicle that Evliya Çelebi mentions a female member of his family: Clearly the detail was an important one. His catalogue of the crafts of the city enumerates the men in each one, and it is striking how few were producing handkerchiefs, as opposed to, for example, the 800 men engaged in the production of belts. This was because handkerchiefs were generally made in homes, whereas belts, particularly those used for uniforms or embroidered with gold, were typically made by professionals. The same can be said of the dival embroidery worked in metal thread on the sumptuous velvet robes worn by both men and women, and also on horse trappings, slippers, sheaths, pouches, covers and other items still made, especially in North Africa, using classic Ottoman patterns.

The European Discovery of the Modern Bath Towel

The towels in Ottoman hammams were much commented on by foreign visitors, who were struck both by the plain linen towels, made up of three or four narrow strips and richly embroidered at the ends, as well as by the towels woven with a loop pile, so that they were much more absorbent than normal flat-weave material—in other words, modern “Turkish towels.” Pietro della Valle, writing in the 1620’s, praised not only the embroidery, which he said would delight the women of Rome, but also the pile towels and the bathrobes, which were something new in his experience: “Nor must I omit mentioning a certain kind of cloth produced here (and made best of all in Salonika, where I have already arranged to be well furnished with it), which, as woven, has a pile on one side, namely the part of the lining; with the long thick nap on the fabric just like our velvets; and from this sort of cloths they make various kinds of towels, large and small, and certain other items, not shirts but rather like jackets open in front, with loose sleeves, to put on over the naked skin when one comes out of the bath; for with this pile, when it is inside next to the skin, these garments dry one at once quickly and well all over. This is truly marvellous after bathing, either swimming or in the hot bath, and for women when they wash their hair, and deserves to be imitated in our country, though how I do not know.”

The Ottoman Empire had strict sumptuary laws, which meant there was considerable standardization of dress in the different regions. Uniforms were made both in Istanbul and Bursa and in workshops in Janina (in modern Albania). The effect of these regulations, and the powerful influence of the court, meant that patterns spread across the empire. Similar designs are thus found in both East and West, although specialists now recognize certain distinctions between Balkan (rumeli) and Anatolian designs. One major difference is that the pieces made by the Christians under Ottoman domination are more likely to have animals or even figures—for example, the beautiful ships from the Greek islands, or the elaborate covers and curtains for the marriage bed with stylized figures representing the bride and groom. Towels from the Balkans are often woven in elaborate geometric patterns and then worked with bulls or birds, a motif found again in Greece.

Handkerchiefs, napkins and other embroideries on linen (or later muslin) were made by women at home either for domestic use or, as several travelers describe, for sale by Jewish or Christian women who had more freedom of movement, and who could peddle them to the houses of the wealthy or in the bazaar.

A Visit to the Wife of Süleyman the Magnificent

When I entered the kiosk in which she lives, I was received by many eunuchs in splendid costume blazing with jewels, and carrying scimitars in their hands. They led me to an inner vestibule, where I was divested of my cloak and shoes and regaled with refreshments. Presently an elderly woman, very richly dressed, accompanied by a number of young girls, approached me, and after the usual salutation, informed me that the Sultana Asseki was ready to see me. All the walls of the kiosk in which she lives are covered with the most beautiful Persian tiles and the floors are of cedar and sandalwood, which give out the most delicious odor. I advanced through an endless row of bending female slaves, who stood on either side of my path. At the entrance to the apartment in which the Sultana consented to receive me, the elderly lady who had accompanied me all the time made me a profound reverence, and beckoned to two girls to give me their aid; so that I passed into the presence of the Sultana leaning upon their shoulders. The Sultana, who is a stout but beautiful young woman, sat upon silk cushions striped with silver, near a latticed window overlooking the sea. Numerous slave women, blazing with jewels, attended upon her, holding fans, pipes for smoking, and many objects of value.

When we had selected from these, the great lady, who rose to receive me, extended her hand and kissed me on the brow, and made me sit at the edge of the divan on which she reclined. She asked many questions concerning our country and our religion, of which she knew nothing whatever, and which I answered as modestly and discreetly as I could. I was surprised to notice, when I had finished my narrative, that the room was full of women, who, impelled by curiosity, had come to see me, and to hear what I had to say.

The Sultana now entertained me with an exhibition of dancing girls and music, which was very delectable. When the dancing and music were over, refreshments were served upon trays of solid gold sparkling with jewels. As it was growing late, and I felt afraid to remain longer, lest I should vex her, I made a motion of rising to leave. She immediately clapped her hands, and several slaves came forward, in obedience to her whispered commands, carrying trays heaped up with beautiful stuffs, and some silver articles of fine workmanship, which she pressed me to accept. After the usual salutations the old woman who first escorted me into the imperial presence conducted me out, and I was led from the room in precisely the same manner in which I had entered it, down to the foot of the staircase, where my own attendants awaited me.

—excerpted from “A Genoese Letter” in Eva March Tappan, ed., The World’s Story: A History of the World in Story, Song, and Art, Boston, 1914.


The domestic embroideries, which began to survive in large numbers from the 18th century, are much less formal than the earlier ones, and they show best the imagination and individual taste of the women who created them. The Islamic prohibition on representing living things, though by no means universal, was often observed in Ottoman lands, and Marco Polo’s beasts and birds had largely given way by this date to flowers.

One of the earliest patterns shows a flower—often it is a rose—with the leaf curled over it to make the pattern known in Turkish as kambur (“the hunchback”). It is not unlike the teardrop-like boteh pattern that characterizes paisleys and many Kashmir sA favorite subject was an idealized “civilized” landscape with pavilions, gardens, cypress trees and water.hawls. A line of these embroidered in a rather limited range of delicate colors is often found along the edge of a napkin, sash or towel.

Another favorite is a flower vase containing a posy, a symbol of good luck and happiness from China to England. In the Ottoman world, it was so much the emblem of a woman that it was often the form of her tombstone, just as the turban was for a man. There are literally thousands of variants, ranging from elaborate, professionally worked compositions enriched with gold and silver thread to simple but charming hyacinths, tulips, wild cyclamen, roses, carnations and even strawberries, each with its own popular symbolism and, occasionally, social connotations. This was the period when the “language of flowers” was also enjoying a great vogue in Europe, and posies were often designed to convey a message.

This is how the English writer Julia Pardoe described her experiences in Istanbul in the 1830’s:

“We returned to the great centre saloon where the other ladies awaited us, surrounded by a crowd of slaves, one of whom carried upon a salver a pile of handkerchiefs, worked by the fair fingers of the two younger Hanoums [ladies], with gold thread and colored silks. This gift, which had been prepared for me, was accompanied by a thousand kindly comments. I was desired to examine one piece of needlework, and to remark that I carried away with me the heart of the donor. Upon another I was told that I should find a bouquet of flowers, and discover that they had presented me with the portrait which they should retain of me in their own memories.”

Flowers were not always shown in vases. Sometimes they were arranged in geometric compositions at the ends of the napkins or sashes. Other times—on what are often professionally worked sheets, coverlets and towels— they form rich, deep borders of solid embroidery.

Less common than flowers, but also popular, were bowls of fruit, a symbol of abundance and hospitality particularly suitable to offer to a guest. Dishes of figs were a favorite; so was a melon with a knife stuck in it. Edgings of vine tendrils and fruit are found both along the Mediterranean coast and in the Greek islands—all grape-growing areas.

Another favorite subject, often so stylized as to be almost unrecognizable, was a variation of an ideal civilized landscape: Usually this meant a kiosk or the purely Turkish touches of pleasure tents, gardens, cypress trees and water.

Water motifs were particularly suitable for towels, and the occasional piece has views of fountains, aqueducts and even a well with a waterwheel. The Art Institute of Chicago has an unusual example on which three rows of silver fish swim against a seaweed-green background.

Elaborately profiled borders and delicate garlands of flowers are sometimes inspired by European textiles.

In the late 18th and early 19th centuries, muslin, rather than homespun linen, became popular for women’s headscarves, and this was often worked with elaborately profiled borders and delicate garlands of flowers along the edges and in the corners. The patterns are sometimes copied from European textiles, especially French ones, which were beginning to be imported at the time.

Calligraphy, while it occurs, is rare, and because many of the women were illiterate, it is often “pseudo-calligraphy” when it appears, resembling writing but actually meaningless. There are exceptions, where the embroideress copied a pious phrase, such as the bismillâh (“In the Name of God”), perhaps from a text or a tile panel; others may have shown a tuğra, or formal signature. For two types of work, however, the writing must have been drawn on the cloth by a scholar for the woman to embroider over: talismans to hang in the house, and protective shirts worn by the sick or by men going into battle. In these cases, verses from the Qur’an, prayers, one or more of the 99 names of God or selections from other texts were embroidered on plain linen, usually without decoration.

Embroidery, then, was a field for artistic expression. It was a potential source of income when times were hard. It was also one of the very few areas in which a girl could win the respect of her society and over which she had at least some control. Her work would be seen and admired (or criticized) at the hammam, at home when guests came to visit, and on major occasions when the family’s finest embroideries would be put on display. Importantly, such displays gave potential mothers-in-law a sense of a young woman’s skills and the quality of her trousseau.

A rather crude drawing dating from between 1645 and 1650 and entitled “Bride and Her Trousseau” shows a female figure and above her what looks like a washing line displaying a few small towels or napkins with flowery borders. This was indeed a common way of showing off işlemeler, which are difficult to display to advantage except when they are used, as was originally intended, as napkins and towels. The problem with this was pointed out in 1718 by Lady Mary Wortley Montagu while she was in Constantinople with her husband, the British ambassador. She wrote to a friend: 

I went to see the Sultana Hafiten…. She gave me a dinner of fifty dishes of meat, which (after their fashion) were placed on the table but one at a time, and was extremely tedious.    

But the piece of luxury which grieved my eyes was the tablecloth and napkins, as finely wrought as the finest handkerchiefs that ever came out of this country. You may be sure, they were entirely spoiled before dinner was over…. After dinner, water was brought in a golden basin, and towels of the same kind as the napkins, which I very unwillingly wiped my hands upon.

This no doubt explains the frequently indelible stains on so many antique işlemeler!

Visits to the hammam, the Turkish bath, were some of the few excursions permitted to Ottoman women, and they were enjoyed to the full. Not only was the visit an opportunity to meet other women and exchange news and gossip, but it was also the occasion for beauty treatments and a massage, and refreshments would often be brought along as well. Besides the cosmetics and other paraphernalia, a woman would be careful to choose some of her best embroidered towels in different sizes, as well as wrapping cloths (bohçalar) in which to carry her clothes and other possessions, since this was an occasion when she would be under scrutiny.

Textiles were mostly put to practical uses, but they also had more ceremonial ones. For example, it was common for the Qur’an to be wrapped in or covered by a particularly beautiful cloth, which both protected it and showed respect. Julia Pardoe described this: “Along a silken cord, on either side of the niche, were hung a number of napkins, richly worked and fringed with gold; and a large copy of the Koran was deposited beneath a handkerchief of old gauze, on a carved rosewood bracket.”

Men’s turbans, too, had importance, since they indicated rank and status conferred by the sultan. When not in use, they were kept covered by a special cloth, usually worked with a circular pattern, to keep the dust off and, again, to indicate respect. So symbolic were turbans that a man’s tombstone often would be cut in the shape of a turban that indicated his social status.

For different reasons, cloths were used to keep mirrors covered when not in use. This was said to discourage vanity, but it also accorded with superstitions associated with mirrors. Mirror covers were generally long rectangles of light material, densely embroidered to hide the reflecting surface effectively.

Fine cloth was also used to hold an object or a gift, as was also the custom in Japan and other countries. What Charles White wrote in the 19th century would also have been true earlier:  

Muslin and cotton handkerchiefs…are employed less, perhaps, for the purposes to which such articles are applied in Europe, than for that of folding up money, linen, and other things. In the houses of the great men, there is always a makrami başı, whose principal duty is to take care of these and other similar articles. No object, great or small, is conveyed from one person to another, no present is made—even fees to a medical man—unless folded in a handkerchief, embroidered cloth or piece of gauze. The more rich the envelope, the higher the compliment to the receiver.

Traditional embroidery changed during the 19th century, when machine-made cloth began to replace hand-loomed, and in the same period a fatal disease wiped out much of the indigenous silk industry and led to the importation of silk thread from China. Although good enough in itself, it was different in type from that which had been produced in the Ottoman Empire. Later still, mercerized cotton, in a wide range of artificial colors, and often accompanied by giveaway pattern books, meant that the work tended to become more brilliant but coarser, and the repertory of embroidery motifs changed. Finally, from the 1920’s onward, as Atatürk opened up the country, freed women from the harem and gave them education, jobs and a measure of independence, girls no longer had so much time for needlework, and—with new, exciting and productive opportunities available—they no longer saw it as their major creative outlet.

Caroline Stone Caroline Stone divides her time between Cambridge and Seville. She and Paul Lunde have just produced a selection from Mas‘udi’s Meadows of Gold for the Penguin “Great Travellers” series; their translation of Ibn Fadlan and other Arab travelers to the North is scheduled to appear later in 2007.
Alexander Stone Lunde is studying economics and politics at Bath University, UK, and has been involved in several photographic projects. A selection of his work can be seen at www.phototropic.net and www.alamy.com.
Marvel at the Embroideries

This article appeared on pages 30-37 of the May/June 2007 print edition of Saudi Aramco World.


Check the Public Affairs Digital Image Archive for May/June 2007 images.