A short flight out of Istanbul found us braving a series of bracing frosty mornings in the villages of mountainous western Anatolia. A picturesque setting worthy of a travel brochure with whitewashed buildings and sinuous cobblestone alleyways. Vegetable dye guru Harald Boehmer was taking a knot of keen international ruggies through his beloved traditional weaving area. We saw the plump and hard working village women in action lighting fires and boiling dyestuffs in great cauldrons while the men smoked and looked on: Madder for reds and purples, camomile for yellows and indigo for blues and so on.
A quiet revolution is underway as age-old traditions reassert themselves. Younger women can now choose to remain in their ancestral villages rather than joining the urban poor in the cities. The international oriental carpet buyer is becoming more discerning, demanding natural dyes and genuine traditional weaving. This means the traditions established thousands of years ago continue to develop.
After years of exhaustive research Bruggerman and Boehmer published their findings on the dyes in antique carpets in 1980 and went to work right away with Josephine Powell and others, reinforcing natural dyestuff methods in traditional villages. Most of these villages had slowly embraced a range of chrome and acid dyes peddled by European fertilizer firms, in the process losing their famous individually hued palette. But now no longer uncomfortably straddling the first and third worlds, these villagers are now self sufficient and quite well off, with a pride and cultural self-confidence that sets them apart from the tourist meccas of the nearby Mediterranean coast.
Harald Boehmer also published the indispensable “KOEKBOYA - Natural Dyes and Textiles. A colour journey from Turkey to India and beyond.” He has since passed away. Thanks for everything, Harald.
Back in “The City” as Istanbul is often referred to we knew that Josephine Powell had died before the ICOC and so made a beeline for the exhibition of her exemplary collection of naturally dyed flat-woven rugs called Kelims, which was especially warmly welcomed by attendant ruggies. The most stunning exhibition in Istanbul, however, was one of the most important collections of the carpets in the world, the Seljuk and early Ottoman Carpets in the state museums. Also very popular was the Yastiks - the jewel-like bolsters of traditional village households.
A visit to the Topkapi Palace of the Sultans left us wondering, “why?” “With so much wealth and this is all you could do?” Like the story of the Texan boasting to the Afghan, “we have the biggest, the best etc. etc.” The Afghani replied, “yes but what have you done with it?” Now the Afghans are making some of the best carpets of the last 100 years with the knowledge of natural dyestuffs first disseminated by Harald Boehmer. There are now sophisticated natural dye-works in Shiraz, southern Iran where the tribal women can take their hand spun lambswool and for a small barter get their choice of colours, naturally dyed. It certainly beats going to the alchemist, a shark who could give you any mix of cancerous substances and wool destroying stearates, all ready to fade and run as soon as you breathe on them.
Back to the International Dealers Fair to dodge European Armani suited, black stockinged salespeople, over-aggrandising quite respectable carpets that for the most part are perfectly capable of speaking for themselves. When the carpet is good the sales pitch is redundant. Both the “cold stare down the nose” and the “wall of words” were too noisy for us and belonged with the garish synthetic dyes endemic to the Grand Bazaar.
One thing everyone agreed upon was the Turks really know how to eat and the mantra “fresh is best” sees a wonderful regard for the natural flavours of foodstuffs. One wonders at the synchronicity, the simpatico with the desire for natural colours by these wonderful people.
Thanks Istanbul, thanks villagers, thanks Harald Boehmer, thanks Turkey!
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