Alexia towel stars in latest Will Young music video

By Paul Ashford
on August 06, 2015

I haven't been the most prolific blogger of late but this one we simply had to share. I hope you are enjoying the current Will Young song "Thank You" - at Ailera we certainly are. If you've seen the footage you'll be able to see that our Alexia hamam towel is pretty much the only thing all the participants are wearing. 

The song was officially released on 24th July and is the latest to come from Will's number one album "85% Proof". Back in May we were contacted by the wardrobe people working on the production, who said they adored our hamam towels and were looking to use some in a music video. After some decision-making as to specific design and colour, we settled on the Alexia towel in olive colour and 25 or so were shipped off to London.

The video is shot at Porchester Baths, Queensway, West London. This is a proper old-school spa and Turkish Bath complete with steam rooms, dating from 1929 and refurbished in 2006. 

(Photo: Time Out London website)

Having seen the location and the video itself I think the more subtle and traditional look of the Alexia towel works perfectly - and for someone who spends all his time marketing hamam towels as a beach or travel accessory this is a brilliant and compelling reminder of exactly what a pestemal was (and still is) actually used for. Aside from the odd vest or two, it is the only "costume" for both male and female dancers throughout the song - and it works brilliantly. For most punters the Hamam experience is a little more sedate.

Ailera would like to thank Will, the Director Nick Bartleet and the entire production team (especially our contact Susan Hildebrandt) for choosing Ailera's towels to feature in this video. If you haven't seen it yet here it is:


 (warning: strong expletive at very end of video)

And here is the Behind the Scenes clip, with some interesting footage:

 (warning: strong expletive at 1m 30s)

How to Make a Crushed Pestemal

By Paul Ashford
on June 23, 2013

Now that I've finally got round to uploading everything onto YouTube I'm able to share some lovely new footage and images from my most recent trip to Denizli. Please also check out the Facebook page as I'll post an album of a visit we made to a tiny museum which contains two wonderful old manual looms (pedal powered!) as well as a semi-automatic handloom in excellent condition. All of which makes you think it's tragically sad when you hear of these looms falling into disrepair or being turned into scrap metal. 

On this visit I was able to see some red Crushed Pestemals being woven, which gave fantastic insight into how this extra-special hamam towel is made.

The first bit of "atolye" or "workshop" footage shows the loom operating. Here's an interesting fact - it takes 55 minutes to weave a single Crushed Pestemal, versus around 25 minutes for a more standard hamam towel. The shuttle movement in the clip is really clear, and watch out for the weaver placing a quill with red yarn on the loom so he can change over and create the next red stripe in the pattern. The shuttle makes 115 picks (journeys) for every 10cm of the woven product, so there are several changes required for the multiple narrow (2-3mm) stripes in sections of this product. It's very meticulous work. 


Note also how this hamam towel doesn't yet have the signature crush / crinkle effect, as this only comes into play after washing. But it was fascinating to see first hand exactly what makes the "special yarn" special (as we describe it on the product page itself). If the yarn is gently pulled through the hole in the nose of the shuttle, held by the end and then released it tries to curl / twist upwards since it's deliberately over-wound. Also note that this pestemal is woven larger than usual and with less loom tension. As a result the shrinkage at first wash combines with the high twist to create a permanent crush effect. This gives rise to the more "scarf-like" appearance of this wonderfully unusual version of a hamam towel.

Now take a look at these photographs of the heddle frames I saw hanging on the wall on a previous visit. You can clearly see how the remnants are all tightly coiled up and twisted like ringlets. 


You can also see some of the eye-holes through which all the warp yarns must pass so they can be moved up and down during weaving. This setup is typically a 2-day process, and can involve threading as many as 1900 yarns through these eyes. The photo on the right gives a good idea of the amount of work involved. The next short clip shows how these heddle frames work together to raise and lower the warp yarns of the Crushed Pestemal we saw on the loom, making the "shed" for the shuttle to pass through and creating the actual weave:


 The last clip is really the icing on the cake in terms of learning what goes into the making a Crushed Pestemal. Every hamam towel or tasselled terry towel we sell is knotted by hand - there is no machine that can do this. I'd been wanting to see how this is done for ages! So here is some nice footage of one of the village ladies hand-knotting the fringe of a blue Pestemal towel. This is the more intricate process - watch how the yarns are split into two and rolled first one way then the other to ensure they are tightly twisted together before being knotted at the end:

Meanwhile at the other end of the table another worker is hand-knotting a different pestemal product, using the more basic form of knot:


Both of these ladies and the weaver you can see in the earlier clips are members of the same family, from the same village. The weaver is the son of an original "master weaver" and although still a young man he has already been weaving for some 14 years. It's this potent combination of being able to help keep these old looms working, support the maintenance of traditional skills and work with fascinating variants of such a timeless product (the pestemal) which I find so rewarding. We've stated elsewhere how we want our products to tell a story and I hope this article has been informative in giving some insight into how a specific product we stock is created. 

Events in Istanbul

By Paul Ashford
on June 15, 2013
1 comment

There are more than a few raised eyebrows at the moment concerning the news coming out of Turkey, especially Istanbul. I don't wish for this blog to become involved in political discussion, however I will say that the true origin of the protest (over-development) has real merit, because every time I visit Istanbul I am both amazed and terrified at the amount of construction and the great seas of concrete which are enveloping the city as it grows. The over-proliferation of shopping centres and the development of ever-more spectacular residential compounds - which themselves contain shopping centres - is frankly incredible. 

During my time in Istanbul I worked in the north of the city near an area called Levent, where a large shopping centre known as Metro City was constructed. Then no more than a year or two later a second huge mall known as Kanyon was built practically next door. If you look at either of these locations on Google maps, then look at the scale at the bottom left you'll note they are approximately 400m away from each other!

Subsequent to this an enormous blue tower known as the Istanbul Sapphire was built just north of these malls, on the same stretch of road. It is yet another spectacular residential tower with its very own retail mall at the base. The sheer quantity of these developments springing up all over the city feels endless. 

It's in this context you have to focus on the events in Taksim Square - there are certainly prettier locations than Gezi park in Istanbul, however it is located in one of the busiest possible locations on the European side of the city. Several of the major international hotels are located in the proximity, and Taksim is a huge cultural / transport hub. Therefore a bit of greenery and some decent trees provide a welcome sight, even though in terms of size and actual usage Gezi is more like one of the larger "oasis" Squares in London's West End rather than a fully-fledged "park". 

As I write the Guardian is reporting that the Turkish PM has suspended the redevelopment plans, we can hope that things calm down and that the authorities begin to address this redevelopment issue in a more measured way. I visit Istanbul frequently and see with my own eyes how the city is changing. Some projects have real merit and do address serious problems: easing traffic congestion at the main airport entrance or building a tunnel from the Bosphorus to the outskirts at Kagithane are two recent examples. However others such as the huge new Zorlu Centre ( made me wince when I first saw the sheer scale of it and where it was going to be built, in a prime spot on a hill above the Bosphorus looking down over the iconic first Bridge. 

The Taksim demonstrations certainly seem to have served as a lightning conductor for other issues, however I think it's important not to lose sight of the original purpose. I hope this short piece serves to give some insight into why for many "istanbullus" this proposed redevelopment seemed to touch on a raw nerve. 

The Pestemal: practical or versatile?

By Paul Ashford
on April 08, 2013

Hamam towel sales start to pick up this time of year but because the weather has been so cold some customers frown and say it's hard to imagine something so "thin" getting you dry. But as I love saying to visitors at Smithbrook, switching to using a pestemal simply means taking on board a different way of getting dry. It's more of a poolside or gym thing, rather than that desire to envelop yourself in a big fluffy towel on a cold winter's morning. 

Every seller of hamam towels will make mention of how these lovely products also double up as a sarong, scarf or throw (and more). But to turn to the main point of this article, I want to stick my neck out and stress that what makes pestemals really work is how they are a supremely practical product. 

The latest review of our Coast Pestemal - together with a series of recent feedback comments from store visitors - got me thinking about whether a hamam towel is versatile, practical or both. Or whether this is an irrelevant distinction or whether actually it matters quite a lot in terms of how a hamam towel is used

So first up I warmly invite anyone reading this to engage in debate as to whether there is a distinction between a versatile product and a practical product. I would argue that practical is what you are really paying your money for. Why is this relevant? Because of the number of visitors who have never come across pestemals as a product, and with whom I find myself engaged in ever-enthusiastic conversation about them. Increasingly, this conversation centres on practical considerations.

For example, we have three young children and use pestemals all the time on holiday because it's less to pack. One reviewer has taken Aegean pestemals on a cruise, where it's a perfect solution to take a product which frees up luggage space and has more uses. Many customers buy these products as gifts for friends or family who are going travelling. In this context, for me the most practical consideration is how a hamam towel can be recycled extremely quickly. Use it, wash it, dry it and use it again all in a very short space of time. Great for family holidays or those travelling short on space. It's also been argued that there is a valid ecological point to this since the entire cycle is friendlier to the environment. 

Pestemals are a great product full stop. But if I say a hamam towel is practical versus a hamam towel is versatile does it make you think differently? How so? Is either of these features more or less likely to help a customer make a purchase? Our website product descriptions make mention of both, but this is a static description. When talking directly to customers in more depth, I'm convinced it's practical that counts. 

Childhood memories from a Fan

By Paul Ashford
on February 04, 2013

We're starting the first article of 2013 with a "guest speaker". I received an email a few days ago from Istanbul and it was just a delight to open it and read it. I've asked and received permission to post this, so please do read on:

Hello Paul,
Greetings from Istanbul. This is Inalcan, I have been following your website and referring it to my peers, friends and loved ones for long.
Although I am an Istanbulite by birth, my family's hometown is near Denizli.

I would like to thank you for this great exposure of the town. The September posts on your blog page, especially the short clips of the looms, have reminded me of my childhood, when almost every single alley in the town was filled with the buzz of these looms. I greatly enjoyed, and still enjoy, watching people and their looms make these exquisite products.
I wish you the best for your business, and please keep up the good work.

This email came to me completely out of the blue, and it's just a lovely testimonial. If you haven't done so, please do have a look at the loom footage and read the earlier September blog. Weaving these products is a real craft.

Father Christmas and the Bishop of Myra

By Paul Ashford
on January 17, 2013

First posted 5th December 2012
The subject matter of this blog could not be more topical, given that tomorrow - December 6th - is St. Nicholas' Day. And did you know that this person (who is the inspiration for the modern-day Santa Claus) actually came from the south of Turkey?
In the ancient region of Lycia, near Antalya there is a town called Demre - if you visit in the hot summer you will be amazed to see a rather incongruous-looking statue of Santa Claus on a column in the middle of a square, dressed in full winter Christmas attire. This statue (see photo below) is situated in front of the old Church of St. Nicholas.
Baba Noel Statue in Demre
Demre used to be known as Myra and during Byzantine times this was the home of Saint Nicholas, Bishop of Myra. Nicholas was born in Patara in AD 300 and died around 50 years later. It is believed the original church was built over his tomb. 
Bishop Nicholas became famous for secretly giving gifts to the poor. According to legend, he would put coins in shoes which children and the poor left out for him. A famous tale has him dropping bags of gold down a chimney (!!), thereby saving three girls from being forced into a life of slavery because their merchant father could not provide the money for a marriage dowry.
After his death, Nicholas over time became patron saint of (among other things): children, sailors, merchants, archers, pawnbrokers and repentant thieves. He is of course also revered by Christians, both Western and Orthodox. The association of St. Nicholas with gift-giving is now firmly embedded in Northern European culture, to the extent that in countries where the tradition is strong (such as Germany and the Netherlands) the 6th December marks the day when shoes or stockings are left out to be filled with treats or small gifts. 
To read more, visit the website of the official St Nicholas Centre
In modern Turkey Father Christmas is known as Noel Baba. Despite the country being 99% muslim and the 25th December being just another working day, Father Christmas still puts in a very strong appearance in shopping malls and the like. The Turks have simply and somewhat cleverly bolted the commercial aspect of Christmas on to their New Year holiday celebrations. So if you want to wish somebody "Merry Christmas" you just say "mutlu yıllar", which means "Happy New Year". 
Turkish New Year WreathGourd Christmas decoration from Demre
A huge, heartfelt  thank you goes out to everyone who has supported us in 2012, either by visiting us at Smithbrook Kilns, by making online purchases or by providing invaluable feedback in any shape or form. We have had an incredibly exciting year and are looking forward to developing our hamam towel and home textiles business - both at retail and wholesale - hand in hand with our much-valued customers. 
Ailera would like to take this opportunity to wish all our customers a very Merry Christmas and a happy and healthy New Year. 

Handloom Workshop Footage

By Paul Ashford
on January 17, 2013
1 comment

First posted 18th September 2012
Following on from our previous blog, here is some footage we shot of products in the process of being woven at the workshop. To watch the clip more than once, simply reload the page.
The first short clip shows the weaver loading the shuttle and starting the loom.
The second clip below shows the loom working, weaving a terry product (this is the combination towel which we stock, where terry stripes and flatweave combine to create the structure and design). Watch the shuttle whizzing in and out at the beginning, and as the camera moves to the right you can make out the wooden stick at the right of the loom which knocks the shuttle back into play again. 
You can also see the weft thread woven into the warp yarns and then getting beaten into place. This is actually being used to hold a new row of terry loops in place. There is a second roller behind the loom which is feeding in more cotton a little bit faster, so it makes a loop which is then fixed in place by the pick (the shuttle journey). The thing I always find fascinating is the enormous number of heddles moving up and down - I love the swishing metallic noise, and I can only admire the amount of work involved in setting a loom up - passing individual threads through the eyes of all those needles.
The third clip shows how the cotton is wound onto the quills from the large bobbins. There are always containers full of these quills next to the looms waiting their turn to be loaded into the shuttle. 
I've shared many a ride to the weavers or to a factory with packs of these large bobbins in the car. I love the photo below showing neat stacks of used bobbin inners. All in all, a great way to spend a few hours - seeing your own product being woven is just thrilling.
Used cone innerscotton cones

Workshop Visit

By Paul Ashford
on January 17, 2013

First posted 8th September 2012

In an earlier post I mentioned that at some point I would try to get to see some villages near Denizli where weaving "atolyes" still function. This Summer one of my suppliers obliged, and took me to his workshop in a small town which is historically one of the most important weaving centres in Turkey

I was a very lucky boy as it was a Thursday just after the end of Ramadan. It's the custom for a lot of people to take the whole week off since it really is a huge holiday (four and a half days, so essentially a week), similar to the Chinese New Year where everybody goes back to their families. So I was privileged to spend a good 2-3 hours with a weaver who was locally-based and who delighted in my desire to deepen my first-hand knowledge and watch these wonderful old looms in action. 

We took lots of photos and I really hope they give visitors to the Zarafet site a flavour of how much work goes into the making of handloomed products. For example you need one weaver to watch over every working loom. Since the processes aren't highly automated there is a lot more to keep an eye on: not least manually reloading the shuttle (you need to suck the thread through the holes at the end), ensuring the shuttle is moving correctly  and making sure the pattern or looping (for terry/towelling products) is being followed correctly.  

                                Cotton is spun onto lots of quills to make them ready for the shuttle

The work is meticulous and because it is not a sophisticated power loom there needs to be more hands-on focus and manipulation to ensure the quality of the finished product. You could argue that for a weaver the process can be likened to flying a small aeroplane manually versus piloting a highly automated and much larger commercial airline. I have a relation who does indeed fly smaller planes in Canada and I know he loves the notion of working independently, of working more hands-on and of "real" piloting. It's the same for these small workshop weavers, so I hope the comparison works for you. 

Examining an idle loom still fascinates me - it's like a fragile work of art, with thousands of individual warp threads delicately suspended through the "kasa" containing the heddles, or needles through which the threads are held. This then leaps into life when the loom is functioning, holding yarns up in various configurations to allow the shuttle to bomb through the gap or "shed". The looms I saw working managed around 120 picks a minute (a pick is a full journey by the shuttle from one side to the other). 

              Shuttle and weft yarn, the gap it passes through, overhead view of heddles holding warp yarns

I hope you find these photos interesting. I simply adore the level of workmanship and attention which goes into the making of these products, for me they are magical and have been made with a little bit of extra love. 

                     Weave detail showing selvedge and single blue weft yarn, woven product beneath loom

The Fast-evolving Turkish Hamam Towel

By Paul Ashford
on January 14, 2013

First posted May 26th 2012

The weather is brilliant so it's the perfect moment to talk about Turkish Hamam Towels (often written as "Hammam" Towels).
The actual Turkish name is Pestemals (pronounced "peshtemals"), and a dictionary defines them as a waistcloth or a loincloth - so a very traditional and simple wrap-type garment associated with the Hamam culture. But these lightweight towels are a great example of how a really traditional product has leapt over into fashion territory.
Villages in Southern Turkey have been making pestemals for literally centuries. I've read recently that villages around Denizli are the home of the Pestemal, and I'm hoping to finally explore some in a few weeks' time. I never managed it during my time at El Corte, because we were always working in the city of Denizli itself. If any mass-produced towels state "made in Turkey" there's an 80-90% probability they were made there. 
For me, pestemals are such an interesting product for a number of reasons. Firstly, they are extremely versatile. Everyone should try them on holiday one year and see whether or not they go back to a velour beach towel. Customers have even said to me "I'm going to buy this because it's so lovely. I'm not even sure what I'll use it for". (Our Coast Pestemal, for readers who might be interested).
Secondly, there is an ever-increasing variety. Start with the composition:100% cotton, cotton-linen, 100% linen, cotton-bamboo or silk blends, add the texturing or washing, throw in the size variants and the wonderfully creative designs which are being developed and this makes for a fascinating evolution of a totally timeless product.
The last reason typifies where I want to be with our young business. A lot of pestemal manufacture is still very much a cottage industry, so for example whilst terry towels are mass-produced in Denizli itself many pestemals are produced on handloom or semi-handloom machines in little "atolyes" (from the French "atelier", or "workshop") in the surrounding villages. So a producer might have a loom in a garage or an outhouse, and they are essentially working from home. The resulting pestemals are then sold through a co-operative. At the same time they are maintaining a weaving tradition (handlooms) and producing a product which has been around for hundreds of years. 
I've already had the good fortune to see how this arrangement works for myself in the context of handmade "Turkmen" carpets. We travelled to the village where a batch was being woven and were fascinated to see first hand how they were produced, knot by knot and loom by loom. So I'm enjoying developing my contacts with the weavers who are making my Pestemals. For me there's nothing like going to the source of a product - it is a fascinating and enriching experience.

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