The click-clack-click-clack of looms moving in rhythm filter out into the cobbled streets from the brightly-painted houses sitting snugly side-by-side. Above it you can catch the tinkling of metal spoons on tea glasses and other melodies of small-town Turkish life, but the looms are the bass, the heartbeat of this place. Buldan, sitting atop a hill amongst pomegranate, fig trees and grape vines on the Aegean coast, is the unassuming character at the centre of a story of luxury, style and tradition. It’s here that a multitude of textiles from organic cotton towels to silk scarves to woollen throws are produced as they have been for centuries. And it’s with these fabrics that Multilocal’s story began.
Buldan is found in the region of Denizli, from where beautiful textiles have been woven and distributed throughout Anatolia since the second century BC. Just half an hour drive from Buldan, the cotton-white stepped travertines of Pamukkale gleam against the hillside as water heavy with calcite, produced from the hot volcanic springs from the mountain, trickles down to the bottom of the hill. Once known as the ‘Holy City’ of Hierapolis, these springs gave modern-day Pamukkale not only the reputation of being a place one could heal, but one of the most successful textiles industries of the ancient world. The high mineral content of the spring waters formed the pools and aided the production and dying of textiles, particularly wool. Fabrics were made from the ‘raven-black’ breed of sheep native to the area, whose wool was vastly softer and superior to those bred in the surrounding areas. Antique authors put this softness down to the rotten-smelling water the sheep drank! Today, sadly, due to the mass use of the spring water by surrounding spa hotels and the pressures of tourism and the textile industry over the years, the water flow has dwindled so much that only a few drops reach the pools.
Back in Buldan, it can be hard to imagine this small town was one of those at the centre of a textile industry that produced fabrics for kings and sultans, but its ancient roots are announced in a sign stating that Sultan Beyazid 1’s kaftan was produced here. The Buyuk Menderes river runs from Hierapolis to the port of Ephesus and this created a trade route to export woven apparel to the Mediterranean. In time the area became famous for its ready-made garments, and garnered a reputation for dressing Roman and Byzantine emperors, thus beginning the enduring association of this area with imperial luxury.
Much more down-to-earth are the families who greet us with warmth and figs freshly picked from their gardens. For us, children of Turkish migrants who had embarked on our own journey with our venture Multilocal, sitting with Buldan’s small family producers and listening to stories of generations of participation in the looming community in Buldan – where almost every household earnt their ‘ekmek parasi’ (bread money) from the trade – the feeling was as familiar to us as the slightly bitter taste of the deep brown çay we were handed in endlessly-refilled glasses. Our producers chatted away, pulling us into their stories, as they proudly pointed out the faded black and white photos of their relatives at the old traditional wooden shuttle looms.
Buldan’s textile craft suffered a decline in the 1970s and the younger generations chose not to learn the trade and began to leave town to pursue other careers. Fortunately, a few visionary artisans remained, determined to expand their businesses. Over the years the wooden looms have given way to semi-automatic looms as families upgraded their equipment to keep up with demand and rising customer expectations. “We had families to feed, children to educate, to marry and buy homes for,“ says Ibrahim Usta, fingering the fluffy black and white ‘Hera’ bath towel in front of him. Now the trade is the preserve of ateliers and small factories, mostly managed by the grandchildren and great grandchildren of those figures in the sepia photographs.
The range of textiles produced in Buldan is impressive. Turkish towels made using organic cotton, recycled cotton, silk scarves, woollen throws and blankets and peshtemals (aka Hammam towels) are amongst the range and a multitude of fabrics. Atelier tables are piled high with textiles in a riot of colours, from vibrant turquoises to sunny yellows and soft pinks.
Standing in front of the loom machines, shouting above the noisy back and forth of the shuttle, seeing the textiles gradually take shape, we delved deep into the technicalities of the product as well as the stories surrounding it. This is at the core of what Multilocal is. We know the history of this craft – not just the wide sweeping chronicles of royalty who dressed themselves in the fabrics produced here, but the stories of the real people who live and work here. The tassels on the towels are even hand-rolled and tied by ‘teyzeler’ (aunties) sitting in the sun outside their stone houses. These producers have expertise in their fingertips and they use it to craft rich fabrics that they know will be used in places far from Buldan. Their story, to yours. Through ours.