Wednesday, October 27, 2010


Jerry and I arrived in Istanbul at the beginning of summer. Until the flat that was to be our home for the next year or so was ready for us, we lived in the Hilton Hotel overlooking the Bosphorus for six weeks. Jerry immediately was picked up for work every day by a young man assigned to be our driver, and it pretty much left me with nothing to do except to sight-see. We knew no one in Istanbul and didn't know a word of the language. Apprehensive about being alone in such a huge city, I mainly did my sightseeing on foot and in the area close to the Hotel.

When we arrived, there were only two MacDonald's restaurants in town, and one was within walking distance. Often I used that as the base I operated out of. When I got frustrated, or tired, or confused -- and initially there were lots of those times -- the familiarity of a Big Mac, fries and a coke did wonders for my spirit.

In my wanderings, what I mostly found of great interest were all the little handwork items on sale in the tourist shops. I knew these were merely representations of the "real" stuff, but until I got a better feel for proper pricing, I figured I couldn't go wrong with what the tourists were offered. I found some pretty gauzy cotton "block-printed" scarves with some interesting floral trimming on them and I bought myself a couple. The pink one, shown above, became my favorite, and when winter came I nearly wore that scarf out wrapped around my neck and tucked down into my warm jacket while I roamed the city, now much more confident on my own.

It was not long before I learned what these scarves really signified. It was not the scarf that was important, it was the edging, called "Oya." In a 1992 article in Skylife, written by Mine Erbek, she says "Oya is the secret language of Anatolian women, in which they express their feelings to friends and family. Whether she is in love or unhappily married can be read in the oya lace around a woman's headscarf."

Oya can be done by needle, crochet hook, shuttle, and hairpin, to name a few ways it is created. Although I have never seen it, the most beautiful examples of oya were usually made with a sewing needle and silk thread. Each design has a message with it. In the rural villages girls as young as six learn to make oya and are taught the significance of each flower, each color and each motif. As they age, what edging they put on their scarves sends a message. As an example, when a newly married woman visits her mother and father after her marriage, she will wear a pepper motif if she is unhappy, a pansy or meadowgrass motif if she is happy.

The message of the oya varies from area to area too, depending on the climate, local traditions an factors. An orange motif is common in the Mediterranean regions; in central Anatolia it is replaced by the tomato or apple motif.

At one point I found a long string of finely crocheted red peppers wrapped on a piece of cardboard functioning as a spool. They were really lovely and I bought them; I had no idea what I was going to do with them, but even if they weren't on a scarf, I liked them enough to include them in the little treasure chest of Turkish handcrafts that I was collecting. Many years after we came home I gave most of my little collectibles to a high school librarian who was trying to figure out what kind of a display to put in her school's display case. I figured that in seeing these thing, maybe young people would become more interested in learning about the area (Asia Minor) through which all of Western Civilization passed in its development.

The pictures I've used in this blog are also from that same issue of Skylife and are credited to Artcamera. If you want to see other very different forms of oya, you can find lots of them on Flickr and by doing a Google search on "Turkish Oya."

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