“For the first time, our community witnessed that our traditional work can be an income generation tool and that women can contribute to the family and local economy.”
To Husniye Aydin, the master artist who leads Soma Artisans of Turkey, higher education is valued. “Getting into a good public college depends on the private tutorial the students take,” but it is costly. So are the repairs that her home desperately needs.
Through working with community artisans to create, market, and sell beautiful handmade goods, she is able to earn extra income for her family and pay for both.
Originally from the Erzincan Province in Eastern Turkey, Aydin is now based in Soma, Turkey, a town surrounded by ancient ruins and olive farms. She originally moved there with her husband who was a miner. In order to supplement their income, she regularly worked embroidering, crocheting, and sewing. The town of Soma has built an economy around the lignite mining industry, but byproduct fills the air with throat-burning toxic smoke.
Tragically, in 2014 the town experienced a terrible mining disaster that killed 301 workers. The tragedy left hundreds of widows and their children to fend for themselves, as well as more than 2,000 miners without a source of income. That is why Aydin and more than 39 other women came together to form Soma Artisans, a cooperative under the auspices of the Washington, D.C.-based Anatolian Artisans. For 18 years, they have long been working with low-income artists such as Soma Artisans. The organization helps groups with product development, micro-business management training, and marketing.
Possessing courage, a strong work ethic, trustworthiness, and top-notch artistry, 49 year-old Aydin was tapped to be the Soma Artisans group manager. Both she and the other women create what they call “beautiful, useful objects in traditional styles with modern flair.” That includes stunning pieces featuring Oya, or the decorative embellishment that many call ‘Turkish Lace.’ This technique has been utilized in various regions of Turkey since the 16th Century and is believed to have its origins in 8th Century B.C. Anatolia. One can traditionally find Oya on women’s headscarves, necklaces and bracelets and on other items, even recycled or re-purposed ones.
Steeped in family tradition and folklore, Oya serves as a symbol of nonverbal communication. Historically, rural women would wear scarves as protection from the sun while working in the fields. “They began decorating the edges of their scarves with Oya as a symbol of status or to tell a story,” Aydin explains. The embellishments can be used to convey status, a pregnancy, a troubled marriage, reflect a period of mourning or nearly any emotion in life. Fine Oya work on silk fabric is used on special occasions like weddings and other celebrations.
Soma Artisans sources all of its materials, such as cotton, or silk fabric and threads, needles or hooks from within Turkey. Artists hand-weave silk or cotton thread with a crochet needle then they create the distinct Oya edging with only one needle and a single strand of thread. Each stitch is knotted but looped as well. A flower motif emerges with elements such as petals, leaves, stems and stamens. By stuffing and stiffening materials, the dimensions are enhanced. Its most striking feature is its very fine three-dimensional appearance.
Aydin has a family history with Oya. It is common for young girls to have the technique passed down to them. “In my family, three generations of women make this art…I’m sure it goes back many generations.” After learning the basics, Aydin improved her artistic range by copying more intricate designs.
It is the beauty and intricacy of the designs that are catching the eye of people all over the world. “It makes us happy to know that people across the ocean like our folk art and buy them…and they know that Turkish women can make such fine work and that they have a beautiful artistic tradition.”
While tradition is important to the women, Soma Artisans is always trying to innovate. Designers have shown them trendy colors so that they can more effectively market their work on an international level. Recently, the women learned how to use leftover scraps of traditional kutnu cloth and then hand-stitch them together to form colorful fabric that they use on part-denim bags. The group continues to explore ideas for incorporating Oya, including making necklaces in wool rather than in the traditional cotton. Their toys are not traditional, but the animals they create reflect what is popular in Turkish culture and paintings such as donkeys, elephants and cats.
Their local and international sales at venues such as the International Folk Art Market (IFAM) | Santa Fe and now at IFAM | Online are helping them earn year-round incomes, allowing the group to grow and add new members. The interest that their pieces have received from around the world has shown that traditional work can generate income and that women too can contribute to the economy. “I and my friends in the cooperative earn income for the first time in our lives and this income makes a big contribution to our family budget.”
The income is helpful, but the collective experience of working together is changing how women in the town see themselves and interact. Most rural Turkish women don’t work outside of the home. Aydin’s new goal is to encourage more women to work in the cooperative and help enrich their lives both socially and economically. “Women don’t have any social gathering places except for their homes. They love getting together at the cooperative and sharing their problems and joys.”
On a personal level, Aydin says it empowers her to know that both her husband and her children are proud of her achievements. Both she and the other women work hard at what they love because they believe it is important to pass on tradition to new generations of women to continue “to add beauty to daily life.”