From Byzantine to the bath, beach and beyond.
The handwoven Turkish towel (‘peshtemal’ or ‘fouta’) is a unique product that is finally having it’s moment. From A list celebrities such as Gwyneth Paltrow to Oprah Winfrey to interior stylists and online line fashion stores - many are extolling the unique benefits of these centuries old products.
And as we become increasingly environmentally and ethically aware of how and where our goods are produced, it is only a matter of time before the peshtemal becomes a valuable, if not essential everyday item for savvy and eco-friendly consumers.
In an age of high consumption and disposable, throw away living the peshtemal offers a much needed antidote.
Some of the best quality towels are produced in the Denizli region of Turkey, where master ateliers weave on shuttle looms, with locally grown, spun and dyed natural cotton.
Highly absorbent and quick drying they are perfect for the bathroom and being lightweight they don’t take up much room in bags or suitcases so make the ideal travel, festival, gym towel or as a baby blanket.
Being woven from cotton they are gentle on the skin, and also a little kinder to the environment as they take up less space in the washing machine and do not need to be laundered as often as traditional towels.
Peshtemals also come in a stunning range of colour and patterns so can also be worn as fashion accessories. They are great for layering as seasonal scarves and wraps, and when those warmer summer days and holidays come they make great sarongs and dresses.
Less, in this case, is definitely more!
And it’s not just the versatility of these towels that is compelling but their history and culture too.
The history of the peshtemal starts in the 14th century, when the first hamams, or public baths were built. To this day hamams include hot steam rooms and cold water for bathing and provide both relaxation and socialisation, whilst ridding the body of toxins providing a number of health benefits.
The ‘flat woven’ peshtemal, became prevalent in the 17th century and was used in the hamams as it could be wrapped around the body to protect one’s modesty whilst at the baths as well as being perfect to dry the body after bathing. Handwoven on shuttle looms the peshtemal was originally long and narrow but now commonly measures around 90 x 170cm.
They were also used during ceremonial baths for brides the day before their weddings where different towels were used for the brides head, shoulders and body.
As the Ottoman Empire grew, so did the use of the towel. Weavers were asked to embroider more elaborate designs, aided by their knowledge of carpet-weaving. By the 18th century, towels began to feature loops sticking up from the pile of the material. These looped towels became known as havly; over time, this word has changed to havlu, the Turkish word for towel.
Like many hand crafts the looming industry was hard hit by mechanisation and the introduction of machine manufacturing, at one point looked sure to destroy this artisan industry. (Machines could produce thousands of towels in the same time that took an artisan to produce just one by hand).
That coupled with modernisation and mobility also meant that younger generations were increasingly keen to leave their villages to head for the opportunities that city living afforded them, leaving no-one left to pass their centuries old traditions down to.
But…that mobility has, in part led to the revival of this art form, as more people travel for work and pleasure the handwoven peshtemal has since somewhat of a resurgence, which has, in turn provided an increased demand for these original, high quality handwoven products.
The traditional shuttle looms are back in business, producing towels of a quality that the machines simply can’t compete with. Their high speeds stressing the cotton fibres resulting in a rough, poor quality feel. In comparison the gentle click-clack of the shuttle loom respecting the cotton and create a luxuriously soft towel, that with the proper love and care can last a lifetime.