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. 

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. 

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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