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TURKISH EMBROIDERY

The art of embroidery, which belongs to an ancient tradition with roots extending from the dawn of history to the present day, has traditionally occupied an important place in Turkish life. Needlework found a particularly wide range of applications, among the Ottoman Turks, especially in the court and its circle which produced embroidery of such high quality that it has all the characteristics of fine art. This is true even of terms used in the daily life of the palace, such as men's and women's garments, for example robes, kaftans, underclothing, a variety of decorated headscarves, numerous kinds of headgear, such as head bangs called kaştıbastı; and, also waist bands, belts, and handkerchiefs. The most striking examples of Turkish embroidery, however, are those that were used in the furnishings of the palaces-divan and cushion covers, floor coverings known as nihale, wall and door curtains, and covers for the throne. Embroidery, however, was not an art limited to the palace. On the contrary, because textiles of all kinds were so closely connected with the Turkish way of life, embroidery was produced and used at every level of society, from the most exalted to the humblest. Whether made for a sultan or a peasant, it added color and beauty to everything from military campaign tents to the most delicate hand towel. 

Although the Ottomans must certainly have used embroidery from an early date, there are no surviving examples from the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries. It is not until the beginning of the sixteenth century that we find documents listing master embroiderers among the salaried artists in the Ottoman court. This group, called the Cemaat-i Zerduzan, worked almost exclusively with gold threads (zerzud). Generally numbering between six and seven, they worked in a section in the first court of Topkapı Palace and produced their most outstanding works during the sixteenth century. Although the term zerzud was originally applied only to the gold thread itself, it has come to be particularly associated with one of the techniques in which these embroiderers specialized. Thus, zerzud refers to a couch in which the entire surface of the fabric, usually satin, is covered with parallel lengths of gold metallic thread. The thread does not pierce the fabric but remains entirely on the surface, anchored in place by regularly spaced stitches in a perpendicular fashion. In some cases, silk threads were also added in certain parts for color and definition of the fabric. Rare examples of these superb embroideries are still preserved in the Topkapı Palace Museum, the most outstanding of which are two kaftans which belonged to one of Sultan Süleyman's sons, Prince Mehmet, who died in 1543, sashes thought to have been worn by the chief servants of the privy chamber, and the cover of an illlustrated manuscript dated 1584. The zerduzan's also worked in other techniques using gold threads. One of these, called dival, involves the winding of a single or grouped metal yarns back and forth in parallel lines over a motif cut from stiff leather. As in zerduz, the metal yarn never pierces the fabric but is held in place by separate threads, in this case stitched only along the motif's edges. This technique produces patterns which have plain fabric ground with an embossed appearance. Still another type of embroidery called sarma, literally wrapping, consists essentially of a satin stitch worked in gold, with one side of the finished product virtually indistinguishable from the other. All three of these techniques were used to embellish such varied items as saddles, horse covers, quivers and bow bags, as well as garments and furnishings. Some of the latter, especially those used in the Arz Odası, or Audience Chamber were fashioned with precious gold. In these throne covers, curtains, and floor covers the art of the embroiderer is combined with that of the jeweler. Only a very few of these outstanding pieces have survived to the present, some still on display in the Arz Odası. They were embroidered with golden rubies, and their branches and leaves were made entirely of pearls. 

Other groups of objects thought to have been produced by the zerduzan's are worked in gold yarns on materials less traditionally associated with needlework. One of these groups consists of leather objects, stitched with gold in a variety of techniques. A jewelry box and a mug-shaped cup are two of the rare remaining examples of this sixteenth century type of work. Willow shields, probably ceremonial in nature, comprise another unusual group. It was actually a process in which a fabric was created and therefore cannot be considered embroidery. The work was presumably carried out by the zerduzans. These shields, which survive in large numbers, are made by coiling colored silk and gold threads around a code of bundled willows. In order to achieve better definition and a finer contour, the needle occasionally pierces the core. With this difficult and laborious technique. The artisans produced a wide variety of rich designs in the vocabulary of classical Ottoman art, sometimes even adding Koranic inscriptions to provide further protection for the bearer (TSM 1/2571). 

In the sixteenth century, as well as in subsequent periods, embroidery in colored silks was the most widespread type of needlework, whether produced for the court or by young women for their own homes. In work of this type, a great variety of stitches was applied to fine fabrics of cotton or linen. A group of handkerchiefs in pistachio green, pink, blue, or ruby red, and occasionally highlighted with gold are among the most beautiful examples of sixteenth century court work of this type. A particularly striking example of this type of work is a fine linen bedcover embroidered with classical Ottoman tulips and carnations in a technique known as kum ignesi literally 'sand needle`. Kum ignesi is a form of darning stitch in which the path of the embroidery thread follows exactly that of the warp and welf, producing designs that at first glance appear to be woven rather than made with a needle. This work, which is identical on both faces of the fabric, is usually associated with various kinds of covers. From documentary sources we know that the palace placed orders for covers of this type from workshops outside the palace but because the work was so fine, there was great difficulty in finding embroiderers to do it. From this we can deduce that kum ignesi was very expensive and highly prized in its day. 

The designs for this and other types of embroideries made for the palace were drawn by court designers (nakkas). With patterns consisting of flowers like the tulip, carnation, rose and hyacinth, as well as stylized flowers and cloud-bands indicating a Chinese influence, the cintamani motif tiger stripes and leopard spots, and the lanceolate leaves typical of the saz style, these embroideries are superb reflections of the tastes of the time.

In terms of design and composition, embroideries from the first half of the seventeenth century differ little from those of the sixteenth. During this period, however, a few new plant and floral motifs are added to the classical favorites, notably the pomegranate and the leaves of the grapevine and the plane tree. Whether produced in Istanbul or in other centers, these motifs are generally arranged in the classical court style, enclosed within ogival medallions, a compositional form that echoes the format of tiled panels and woven textiles. A change in the color palette mostly distinguishes embroidery of this era from that of the classical period. The ruby red predominant in the sixteenth century gradually gives way to a brick red by the mid seventeenth century and bright pistachio is replaced by a darker green. A large number of bedcovers and other covers used for a variety of purposes dating to this period survive in museums and private collections throughout the world. Most of these are worked either in kum ignesi or a similar stitch called pesent igne, another type of darning, usually worked by counting threads of a fine linen fabric and producing a completely reversible fabric. An interesting group of embroideries from this period is a series of bohca's, or cloth wrappers, all of which share the same composition and colors and are executed in the same rather careless fashion on identical pieces of fabric. Each is so like the others that one is left with the impression that they must have been produced by the same hand, or at least in the same workshop. Labels found attached to the wrappers indicate that they were made for storing the garments of the deceased sultans.  

Although the labels have no dates, the textiles appear to have been made toward the middle of the century. These bohça's, of which there are numerous examples in the Topkapı collection, occupy an important place in the history of Turkish embroidery. In spite of their somewhat slipshod workmanship and the fact that they are damaged in spots, they are valuable records of the Turkish embroiderer's concept of design.

In the second half of the seventeenth century, the influence of European art began to make itself evident in the arts of the Ottoman court. By the beginning of the eighteenth century, this new trend was fully assimilated, giving rise to a distinctive new style. The style was quickly adopted at court and gradually filtered down to the capital city and the people as a whole. Floral motifs were again favored but they now consisted of small bouquets arranged in rows or scattered over the fabric. In addition, as a result of an increasing interest in the cultivation of flowers at this time, many new flower types began to enter Turkish embroidery. Bouquets tied with ribbons, plates filled with fruit, and shadow painting that attempted to produce a three-dimensional effect in murals and illuminated manuscripts were echoed in embroidery and enriched Turkish design. To achieve the illusion of space and dimension produced in representational art, the embroiderer used silk threads in several tones of the same color. As before, embroidery found a wide variety of applications. Fabrics prepared for the clothing of women of the court and wealthy classes, waist bonds decorated with small scattered flowers, borders of head scarves, and sleeves and collars of undershirts were all adorned with fine and elegant stitching. In addition a variety of utilitarian objects such as tobacco bags and hand and bath towels are also outstanding examples of the new taste in color and design. Household and palace furnishings worked in gold thread were also in use, particularly on special days such as holidays or the birth of a baby. 

Ample testimony to the beauty of Ottoman embroidery during this period and to its importance in Turkish life is provided in the writings of various Europeans who traveled to Turkey during the eighteenth century. One of these was Lady Mary Montague, the wife of the English Ambassador to the Sublime Porte, who writes in her letters that she was given a fine embroidered handkerchief on taking her leave from visits to Hafize Sultan, the wife of the deceased Mustafa II (1695-1703), and Fatma Hanım, the wife of the palace's chief steward. Another person, Constantine Mouradagea d'Ohsson, wrote on Turkish manners and customs and tells us that almost all women gave great importance to embroidery, not just in their own personal dressing, but even in everyday goods they used in their homes. He goes on to explain that everything from towels and napkins to handkerchiefs and sashes was embellished with embroidery.

The influence of the West continued to increase steadily throughout the nineteenth century, giving rise to new preferences in design. Embroidery was influenced by a new style called Turkish rococo, in which garlands of flowers, large acanthus leaves, bouquets springing from baskets and vases, jasemine, violets, and roses became the dominant theme. Motifs of this type decorated a variety of objects such as prayer rugs, the borders of bedcovers, bohças, and cloths spread under low dining tables. The borders of towels and napkins as well as other articles of silk-thread embroidery were usually worked with other favorite motifs of the period, such as blossoming branches, fruit-filled plates, landscapes, and representations of cities. The most striking and realistic renderings of an architectural theme can be seen along the entire length of a four-meter divan cover and its matching cushions, on which are depicted palaces, pavilions, houses and mosques, among them the summer palace and the Sahilsarayı in Beşiktaş. During this century embroidered figures makes its first appearance in the court. Important examples of this are cushions displaying portraits painted during the reign of Sultan Selim III by Constantine Kapıdağı and painted in London as the Young Album during the reign of Mahmud II. As in the preceding periods, the majority of embroideries made for the court were executed in fine gold wire or gold thread wrapped around a silk core. Their designs contain all the favorite motifs of the era-- curving branches, garlands, ribbons, flowers, rays of light, coats of arms, and tuğras, the gracefully stylized signature of the sultans. These embroideries are usually worked on heavy materials-silks, velvet, or leather. Some particularly interesting examples of leather stitched using the dival or sarma technique include document cases and cases for carrying sections of the Koran, for coffee ewers, small hot pads for the table, and slippers and shoes. This type of work was very widespread, produced at court, in Istanbul, and in cities like Kütahya in northwestern Turkey and Maraş in the southeast, which was famous for the bindallı type of wedding gown worked on velvet. It was the fashion among wealthy families to include bedspreads and bohças made in the dival technique in their daughter's trousseaus. This extravagant work found a wide range of applications in the Ottoman court, from clothing to the furnishings of the palace rooms, such as curtains, divans and cushion covers, and floor covers large enough to carpet entire salons. It is known that during this period, the carton and leather forms made for use in dival work could be obtained from certain shops in Istanbul's covered bazaar. In addition, embroideries worked with coral and pearls were particularly prized in the palace. Examples like cradle covers, belts, covers for coffee services, and special engagement bohças are still preserved in the Topkapı collection. Specially made chenille threads and scattered sequins added extra texture and glitter to the object.

Local sources as well as accounts of travelers tell us a great deal about embroidery which was made in Istanbul for commercial purposes during the late nineteenth century. Establishments in Samatya, Yeniköy, and other villages along the Bosphorus, besides those in Istanbul itself employed hundreds of male and female workers. Numerous documents indicate that the Sadulla Robert-Levy firm in the city for example, had as many as six hundred embroiderers.

In the second half of the nineteenth century, the founding of the Teacher's Training School for Girls in Istanbul and the subsequent opening of similar girls' schools in other major cities, introduced embroidery into the curriculum and taught it in a systematic way. Special exhibitions of needlework were held in an effort to spread the craft.

Mehmet Özel
Director General of Fine Arts,
Ministry of Culture




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