The art of silk-making was a secret for thousands of years, and it has never lost its luxurious mystique. Take a trip along the Silk Road that stretches from Turkey to Mongolia.
By Joshua Bruce Allen
An English expression first recorded in the sixteenth century says, “You can’t make a silk purse out of a sow’s ear.” The proverb’s power comes from the contrast between the crudest material and the most refined – which is silk. Despite its global reputation as one of the most luxurious fabrics, few people know exactly how silk is made. Luckily, Istanbul is a perfect place to start a journey into the story of silk: this was the Western-most stop on the Silk Road connecting Europe and the Far East.
Chinese records date the first silk production to around 2,700 BC, but its secrets remained hidden to the rest of the world for millennia. Roman writers mention silk in the first century AD – and even then the Romans did not learn how to produce it. Historians claim that two Christian missionaries from the East smuggled silkworm larvae to Bursa in the fifth century. This Byzantine city by the Marmara Sea had the perfect climate for the mulberry tree, which is the silkworms’ preferred food. Bursa’s silk soon became a status symbol for the Byzantine and European elite.
This trade continued in the Ottoman era, and remains embodied in the city’s fifteenth-century Koza Han – whose name means “Cocoon Caravansary.” Records show that 85 silk factories were active around Bursa by 1860. An Ottoman Armenian called Kevork Torkumyan studied modern techniques in France and then became director of the Bursa Silkworm Institute in 1888. This building fell into disrepair after the 1970s and was restored by Bursa Municipality in 2008. But with the opening up of China in the late twentieth century, Bursa’s silk producers could no longer compete. Today most of the shops in Koza Han import their silk and then work it into local styles.
But since almost dying out at the start of the new millennium, silk production in Turkey has begun to recover over the last decade. The Ministry of Food, Agriculture, and Livestock states that silk cocoon production increased by 35 percent between 2002 and 2012. Turkey reached the highest level of silk cocoon production in the European Union and eighth place in the world. The ministry has encouraged the industry by distributing silkworm eggs for free and then buying back the cocoons from producers. Around 40 percent of the country’s cocoon production happens in the southeastern province of Diyarbakır, where the ministry has financed two warping workshops and a 1,750-square-meter silk thread production facility.
One Turkish brand that has pioneered the modern face of this ancient fabric is Silk and Cashmere. “Back in 1992 – when Turkey wasn’t the country it is now and China was very closed – my mom had the idea of creating a brand that specializes in these materials,” Ferhat Zamanpur told The Guide Istanbul. “The story of that goes back to my mother’s childhood, when her own mother got a cashmere sweater as a present. She loved touching it because it was so soft and beautiful. About 25 years later she travelled halfway across the world to China and then took a 17-hour train ride to Inner Mongolia. There she found these facilities where the highest-quality cashmere is being made.”
The bond that connects silk with cashmere, according to Zamanpur, is the value and status that both materials possess around the world. “A silk scarf is a silk scarf anywhere,” he explains. “In the Western world or the Eastern world, since its inception it’s been a very noble gift. That’s why when you look at top brands around the world, you’d have to look very hard to find one without its own trademark silk scarves. Hermès, Gucci, Louis Vuitton – they make sure to have their branding on silk scarves, because the material elevates them.”
However, Silk and Cashmere is constantly finding new designs and techniques to adapt the ancient fiber to modern fashion. The women’s Tulip Shirt takes the classic silk shirt and gives it a bold dimension with long slashes down the sleeves. “Silk is normally very thin and light but we’ve developed ways to weave it much thicker, so it feels almost like cashmere,” says Zamanpur. “But silk hasn’t gone out of fashion for over a millennium now, so I’m guessing it has at least that much more left.”
Although the majority of the brand’s silk is produced in Inner Mongolia, the company does not neglect smaller producers in Turkey. One such project saw Silk and Cashmere working with traditional felt makers in the Aegean region, and another cooperates with women in the southeastern province of Diyarbakır. “We work with a social organization there that supports women’s growth socially and in the workplace. Our special range of scarves is made with the silk that is produced there and hand-woven there by these women,” Zamanpur says. “These scarves were sent to tens of stores in Turkey and marketed as the products of those women in Diyarbakır. All the proceeds were sent right back into the project, so it became a nice sustainable circle.”
Where to find the finest silk in Istanbul
- Vakko: This long-standing name in Turkish fashion offers a range of quality silk scarves and shawls in designs that bridge the classic and the contemporary.
- Rumisu: Founded by sisters Pınar Yeğin and Deniz Yeğin Ikıışık, this company produces silk scarves with uniquely whimsical illustrated designs.
- Silk and Cashmere: Along with its new Tulip shirts with a dashing cut-sleeve design, Silk and Cashmere has a range of silk scarves, shawls, tops, cardigans, ties, and bed sheets.
- The Black Ears: The Black Ears specializes in men’s silk pocket squares, all of which are finished by hand in Turkey.