Weaving traditional Ottoman patterns for the first time in half a millennium
Images courtesy of Ottoman Silks
Today, when you think of luxury textiles – countries like France and Italy hold sway – but many fail to acknowledge the design and technique for weaving came from the Ottomans.
In 2011, when Ros Pollock moved with her family to Turkey, she first encountered the collection of sultans’ caftans at Topkapı Palace, Istanbul, and her interest and respect for Ottoman heritage took hold.
Unable to find these same Imperial designs anywhere in Turkey, she commissioned one of the best silk mills in Bursa, Turkey’s silk capital, and began weaving these exquisite patterns again for the first time in half a millennium.
With the help of her friend Carol Karadağ, the collection was officially launched in 2014 and Ottoman Silks was born.
A RICH HERITAGE
During the Ottoman rule, which spanned six centuries and three continents, the Sultans’ immense power and influence inspired generations of weavers and artisans to produce opulent and luxurious textiles to reflect their imperial status. The height of Ottomans weaving and textiles occurred at the same time as the Renaissance – and there was a fantastic energy and expertise focused on a different artistic field or platform. According to Islam, you couldn’t paint or draw people, so fabrics were woven with beautiful embellishments and traded like cash. Cloth was currency, and the Ottoman weavers, dyers and designers were the elite of the elite in the Ottoman court because they were the ones creating the currency. If you wanted to buy a horse or land – you’d be able to trade cloth for that.
As a show of the empire’s wealth, elaborate ceremonies were often conducted through the streets of Istanbul. Emerging from the Sublime Porte of Topkapı Palace and dressed in a new silk design for the occasion, these spectacular parades involved every member of the court; from the children and family of the royal household, to the Grand Viziers, right down to the Sultan’s elite soldiers known as the janissaries. The output of this incredibly visual art form, and the motifs on these caftans spoke a language to the members of the court, and was a way to reassure the community about the status of the empire:
Tiger stripes and leopard spots (çintemani) motifs came from Mongolia, and symbolized power and strength
The iconic tulip symbol represents abundance – both in strength and wealth
Carnations represent eternity – ‘we are here to stay’
Pomegranates are a sign of unity and community – ‘I am here for you’, and ‘we are all in this together’
The ogival layout demonstrated continuity of the empire
When a sultan died his most lavish caftans were treated with a cocktail of cloves, cinnamon and special herbs to protect and preserve the silk. They were then wrapped in tight bundles and placed around his sarcophagus where they remained untouched for many hundreds of years in the treasury under Topkapı Palace.
Known as a hub for sericulture (silkworm cultivation) well before the rise of the Ottoman empire, Bursa was Turkey’s silk capital, where silk was weighed, graded, dyed and taxed. Deploying a brilliant combination of motifs, colour, and composition, the most talented artisans and designers were sent to Topkapı Palace to weave these beautiful fabrics into soft furnishings and clothing for the Imperial Household. These sought-after fabrics were also made into honorific garments for courtiers, foreign ambassadors, and visiting merchants who supplied secular and ecclesiastical robes to the palaces and churches across Europe and especially the Orthodox church in Muscovy. These silks were the very finest to be found anywhere in the world during the 15th and 16th centuries.
Today, Ottoman Silks seeks to emulate the opulence of those iconic designs and turn them into contemporary pieces of wearable history. With over 2,000 Ottoman designs to choose from, Pollock worked with Dr. Nurhan Atasoy, a Turkish art historian and author ofİpek, and Sibel Arca, curator of the Topkapı Sultan’s Costume collection to curate the wardrobe.
The fabrics in the collections are still woven in Bursa on jacquard silk looms and tailored in their Istanbul workshop near Topkapı Palace. With the help of a master craftsman, they are able to turn these luxurious fabrics into tailored garments of the very highest standards. Details include fine interior pockets inside every caftan, hand-covered buttons and hand-stitched lining.
After leaving Turkey, Pollock moved the business to the UK and is slowly building the company and brand into something that will last and have respect. “The clientele who buy Ottoman Silks are generally older, well-travelled, wealthier and understand significance of the history of textiles – you are buying history. I only make 100 metres at a time, so you won’t find it anywhere,” Pollock noted.
“Our vision is to expand the collection and safeguard the heritage of these 500 -year old Ottoman designs, by re-establishing an independent silk hand weaving school in Turkey to pass these skills on to the next generation of hand weavers,” she added.
Items from the Ottoman Silks collection can be found at the Glyndebourne Opera House in the UK – “The opera crowd love the silks,” Pollock mentioned; the Metropolitan Opera will use the collection in the shop, and you can also see items from the collection at the Museum of Islamic Art in Doha, the Aga Khan Museum in Toronto, and the Hermitage in Moscow is going to be displayed in a special showcase.
Each fabric design of the collection is carefully chosen from the Palace archives at Topkapı Palace, Istanbul, before being expertly woven on jacquard looms by the best silk mills in Bursa. With over 500 years of history, these intricate designs encapsulate the imperial luxury of their time. Like their opulent beginnings, they have been tailored to produce a unique collection to delight and impress in equal measure and are held in high esteem by contemporary academics and traditional textile produces alike.