Yemeni shoes and kutnu fabrics

Flat-heeled ‘yemeni’ slippers and colorful ‘kutnu’ fabrics are a dying art nowadays, victims of our changing consumer habits.

Gaziantep Market is one of the most vibrant in Anatolia with every tone of red, yellow and green in evidence. Fiery spices, gleaming copper, blue, red and purple ‘kutnu’ fabrics and blood red ‘yemeni’ slippers. And add to all these the gaily painted doors of traditional Antep houses, walls painted with pictures, and courtyards turned into living spaces, and the streets suddenly burst into a rainbow of color. If you are passionate about colors, you won’t be able to tear yourself away from here.
The gleam of metal will catch your eye at the entrance to the bazaar. Copper, both pure and as tin alloy, is worked by old yet skilled hands. Oil lamps, samovars and vessels of every shape and size fill the shop windows, waiting to take their place next to the mother-of-pearl boxes that adorn every house. At the spice market you’ll see suspended strings of dried aubergines and peppers. And the scent of luscious red peppers, bright yellow saffron and dusky green oregano in their big burlap sacks will make your head spin.
Leaving the spice vendors behind, you’ll be struck by two shops on the right some ways ahead. Clusters of ‘yemeni’ slippers hung on strings literally vie with the dried aubergines and peppers. Until recently two neighboring yemeni makers ran these shops side by side, but now one of them owns both.

When I first heard the word ‘yemeni’ in this city, I was thinking I would find the usual gaily printed slippers with embroidery along the edge. I was therefore quite surprised to encounter a variety of shoe with soles of water buffalo hide and goatskin tops. Four generations of yemeni makers pursue their ancient trade at Hayri Usta’s shop. If you have time, sit down and listen to the experiences, the hardships and the joys of the masters straight from horse’s mouth, Hayri Usta’s son Orhan Çakıroğlu. All were employed at other jobs when they suddenly realized that this craft of their forefathers was slowly dying out, so they decided to save it. Part and parcel of Islamic culture, the yemeni has preserved its existence here for 600 years in styles and with names unique to each locale. Yemenis are also made in the neighboring provinces of Kilis, Kahramanmaraş and Elazığ, but unfortunately their fate is no different from those of Gaziantep.
The leather, which comes worked and tanned, is cut for different shoe sizes using ready-made lasts. The leather pieces are moistened to soften them up and then sewn with cotton thread that has been waxed with beeswax. The softened leather is easily shaped. While only the natural colors of the leather were used previously, black and reds were later added. And now yemenis are produced in every color from brown and orange to green and blue. Some are open in the back like sandals, while others are actual shoes. Even boots are made and dispatched to Hollywood film sets! The leather boots worn in the film ‘Alexander the Great’, for example, were produced and supplied from here.
The shop denizen, Ismail Usta, can always be found perched on his low stool hard at work. Quietly adding pieces to the pile rising in front of him, he can sew twelve pairs of yemenis in a single day! Nor should this figure surprise you. A pair of size 38-39 yemenis requires approximately 120 knots. Ismail Usta raises and lowers his arms in a steady rhythm, first stretching the thread taut, then tightening it.
I hope against hope that every knot he ties will be one that will keep this ancient art from being lost forever.

Among the red, blue and orange yemenis, my attention is drawn to those that are covered in kutnu cloth. If you’ve ever gone to the Grand Bazaar in Istanbul, you’ve surely noticed the slippers covered with this shiny, gaily colored striped fabric. I tell my friend Ismail Usta how I stepped into the tiny shop of kutnu maker Cevdet Usta, who has been producing his colorful threads and textiles in a labor of love for 69 years. Spools of thread and bales of textiles line his shelves. The kutnus piled up on his counter range from striped to floral prints. When I unrolled some of the fabrics and wrapped them around me, Cevdet Usta just looked at me and smiled. “They’re woven thread by thread, knot by knot”, he explained.
Woven in Gaziantep since the 16th century, kutnu fabrics were produced mainly for use by the Ottoman sultans, whose most valuable garments were the caftans made of this cloth. Later on fashionable apparel in Anatolia was always sewn from kutnu textiles, which even made it as far as Europe and America in the hands of merchants traveling outside the Ottoman Empire. The workshop where the thread is spun from raw silk is on the top floor of an old khan. An enormous hoop takes up almost the entire room, while the floor is covered with bobbin after bobbin of thread. Generally made today from a blend of cotton and artificial silk, the thread is hand-wrapped onto the hoop, or ‘dolap’, by Ishan Usta. With every seven turns of the hoop, 104 threads are joined together. Later removed from the hoop, the thread is wound into a hank and, after being colored with natural vegetable dyes, is sent to a special craftsman known as the ‘mezekçi’ who checks it for weak points. In the final stage the threads are carded.
In another room, of a different khan this time, we visit Ihsan Eren and Ismet Bey, two master carders, who have been carding thread for at least fifty years. The carding implements with their comb-like teeth are adjusted for the color and design. The threads are then are stretched over the loom and the shuttles begin to move back and forth as the kutnu is woven knot by knot. The priority destination for the textiles is the Grand Bazaar in Istanbul, while others go to fabric shops in Anatolia. Usually woven with stripes and in color, some kutnu fabrics, albeit few, are flower prints. “We call them ‘mecidiye kutnu”, Ihsan Usta chimes in. Sultan, Mecidiye, Hindiye, Kemha, Darıca, Zincirli, Sedefli and floral prints are the varieties of Kutnu fabric. Whether floral or striped, the kutnus are pressed and placed on the shelves. We know that these textiles are going to remain alive as long as the demand for them continues. The master-weavers want neither yemeni slippers nor kutnu textiles to go the way of Turkey’s other lost handicrafts and are striving with all their might to bring them back to life. As I emerge into the street with my kutnu textile in hand and my new orange yemenis on my feet, some lines from Gaziantep’s tragic writer, Onat Kutlar, spring to mind: “Days we lived tossed hither and yon / You are definitely going to ask this question / What part of us is left behind, what part?”