Let’s face it, we take towels for granted. We can buy them cheaply in all manner of color and thickness, in person or online. We drape them casually after they drink up wet beads from our skin, never thinking about their origin or maker.
Towels are part of our everyday existence, mostly unremarkable in their function and form.
This wasn’t always so. Towels were once precious textilian pieces of art produced by artisanal looms and nimble hands. Today, handwoven towels are on the brink of material extinction.
A Short History of Towels
Somewhere in Asia Minor 27,000 years ago, people began flat weaving textiles.
During the Turkish Ottoman Empire, craftspeople applied their exquisites loop technique and revolutionized what a towel was.
When done on a shuttle loom, the towel’s structure is strong, and it can last for decades.
For hundreds of years, Turkish mothers held the tradition of shuttle weaving and taught their sons and daughters.
The sons went on to weave on looms that produced luxurious towels for buyers across the globe. The thick, looped towels were woven from the threads spun from natural fibers such as linen, cotton and silk.
The daughters went on to become mothers and once again teachers of the handwoven art.
From generation to generation they loomed, until a mere 40 years ago towel production became industrialized. Towels could be produced cheaper and faster on machine-driven looms.
Almost overnight only one person was needed to supervise twenty such machines.
The old hand looms were set aside, moved into storage or sold for scrap. For the most part, mothers and daughters forgot the art of teaching. Their sons went on to become workers of the modern world.
In this way, the colorful handwoven Turkish towel may soon become a relic of the past.
Who wants to value a towel and the years of history and culture it represents?
One Person isn’t Throwing in the Towel Yet
Jennifer Gaudet, owner of Jennifer’s Hamam, is the maven of organic Turkish handmade towels. She is also the spearhead of a project aimed to protect this ancient tradition.
Originally from Canada, Jennifer established her business in 2009 to work with the last of the commercial handloom weavers in Turkey. The artisans, who were teetering on the brink of bankruptcy just eight years ago, are once again thriving, as evidenced by the fact that they began with only nine families but today have over six hundred looms in operation.
Jennifer buys all the threads to ensure quality standards are met. She purchases locally-sourced 100% organic cotton threads certified by the Global Organic Textile Standard (GOTS). She also sources the best quality linen and hand-spun/reeled silk from the last family in Turkey still doing the entire process of silk for end products. All the textiles are made on old-style shuttled looms including towels, peştamels, peşkirs, scarves, throws, blankets and bed linens.
I first came upon their towels in one of the crowded bazaars of old Istanbul. From the shop, I was led down ancient streets to a four-story haven of craftsmen towels. The quality and colors, the textures and designs made me heady. Towel fever gripped me, and soon my checked luggage overflowed. I so wanted to share the rare luxury with friends and family.
The craftspeople at Jennifer’s Hamam make all of the textile products, including pestamel, towels, bedcovers, bedsheets, robes, and scarves on old-style shuttled looms, and most of what they have is limited edition.
They work only with natural materials. Anything with cotton threads is Global Organic Textile Standard (GOTS)-certified organic Turkish cotton, which certifies that their cotton threads are organically grown, processed and dyed.
Beyond the environmental benefits of using organic cotton for the earth, the water table, and the people who pick the cotton—organically-processed cotton is more absorbent and releases moisture more effectively and has its own natural bacteria-fighting ability, which has not been damaged by chemical processing. Therefore, it will not smell musty, go hard over time and will be easier to clean.
I mustered a bit more restraint the second time I visited the four-story showroom. On this second visit, I met Jennifer, a vivacious businesswoman, seeking to preserve the ancient hand-loomed traditions.
Her vision for the project is expansive. With her dream of forming a non-profit, she wants to build a self-sufficient, ecologically-friendly Weaving School & Ranch Project to preserve a traditional and cultural art form by forging a new era in weaving practices.
Jennifer said, “We intend to create good jobs for staff and graduates by integrating them into global value chains. The priority is women who are under-represented in the labor market and have traditionally taught the art of weaving to their children. Male students, of course, are welcome and will also be employed.”
I was inspired that the school will be supplied with quality, organically-grown raw materials for classes and organic meals from an adjoining ranch.
Locally-hired staff will be trained in eco-farming, grass-fed animal husbandry, solar power and alternative waste and energy management to reduce the carbon footprint, making the school self-sufficient.
The proposed property will be wheelchair accessible for students and visitors with physical limitations that do not preclude the ability to work a loom. A full-time, on-site physician will be employed. The doctor will extend services to patients from surrounding villages, offering additional benefits to neighboring communities.
Jennifer will be personally buying land in Turkey to establish her Foundation (Vakif) to achieve her vision. Once the right property is purchased, the funds for the building of the project must come from outside donors.
At this moment, it isn’t possible to support the project directly other than spreading the word on these luxurious towels and their rich history.
If you are ever in old Istanbul, it’s well worth your while to visit her showroom.
Let’s not let this ancient hand loomed tradition be lost forever.