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Traditional table napkins
2003 /June

Turkey is a cradle of civilisations, and Ottoman art which developed and matured here created syntheses whose roots stretch far back in time. Textiles are a particularly fascinating example of this process, with their extraordinary diversity of materials, colours, designs and techniques. They have been woven by Anatolian women over the ages, and their origins can be traced back nearly three thousand years to the Phrygians, a people who arrived in Anatolia from Asia and settled around Gordion near Ankara. In the 8th century BC Phrygian textiles were so admired that the people of Pontus set about learning the technique, and so the chain of Anatolia's weaving tradition began. Table napkins known as peskir are a traditional Ottoman textile that today have fallen into oblivion in towns and are becoming steadily rarer in villages. At one time these napkins were used by everyone in Ottoman society, from sultans in their palaces to nomads in their tents.

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Traditional table napkins
2003 /June

Decorative as well as functional, peskirs were presented as gifts to those who officiated at wedding ceremonies, served as wedding invitations (known as okuntu) sent to friends and relatives by the brid'si family, were among gifts taken by the newly wedded bride when paying courtesy visits to the friends and relatives of her husband, and a part of every brid'sd trousseau, which included numerous different examples. Sometimes a single long peskir was laid over the knees of those seated around the table, and these were of different lengths depending on the number of people. These long peskir for 12 or 24 people were known as dolak, and used at meals for large numbers, such as wedding feasts, meals on religious feast days, and large family gatherings. Small rectangular peskirs for just one person denoted social status, and these were used by the sultans, men of rank, and by grandfathers and grandmothers as head of the family.

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Traditional table napkins
2003 /June
Newly married and young couples used a double peskir symbolising the hope that they would enjoy a life-long marriage together. These napkins woven in many colours and patterns protected the clothing of the diners from being stained and crumbs from being scattered on the floor. They were also used when carrying covered copper dishes of hot food to the table to prevent the hands from being burnt, and also to dry the hands after washing at the end of meals, for which ewers and basins were taken to each person in turn. In addition, when serving coffee after meals, it was customary for servants to hang an ornate peskir over their left shoulder. Until a century ago every home, even in Istanbul and other large cities, possessed one or more handlooms on which the women and girls of the family wove garments, household linen, carpets, rugs and kilims. Girls learned to weave as children from their mothers, and became dextrous at handling a shuttle wound with coloured yarn.
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Traditional table napkins
2003 /June

Girls who won a reputation for weaving expertise in the neighbourhood were sought after as daughters-in-law, and so found husbands easily. Like artists working on canvas they wove their paintings on the loom; using yarns coloured with vegetable dyes as their paints, and shuttles as their brushes. But with the mechanisation of the textile industry, this ancient craft gradually went into decline, unable to compete with imported European textiles which began to fill the shops and markets of Turkey in the 19th century. First the handlooms of the cities, then those of provincial towns and villages were abandoned, even in areas where weaving had once been an important part of the local economy. So handwoven textiles silently made way for mass produced goods. Unlike stone and metal artefacts, which can survive unimpaired for thousands of years beneath the ground, to be discovered by archaeologists, textiles are fragile and quick to disintegrate.

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Traditional table napkins
2003 /June

Ancient textiles are therefore extremely rare anywhere in the world, only surviving under unusual conditions. For textiles to survive even a few centuries they must be carefully protected from light, damp and other harmful conditions. Fortunately traditional handwoven textiles have not died out in Turkey altogether, and those that still continue to be produced are a precious and vivid link with past centuries. Today lovely examples of traditional textiles are woven in villages around Denizli and Buldan in western Turkey, and in June every year a textile festival is held in this region. Peskirs decorated with flower motifs made of needle lace, table mats, table cloths, bedspreads, sheets, pillowcases and curtains woven at home by girls and women are displayed here in heaps, all having a charm that factory made textiles cannot match.

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Traditional table napkins
2003 /June

Those made for trousseaus are particularly beautiful works of art, and are displayed separately at the festival. The photographs seen here are of antique peskirs dating from the 19th and early 20th centuries, each of them an invaluable document of historical, artistic and social interest.

* Sabiha Tansug is an ethnologist, researcher and writer.

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