Coming Together: Türkiye International Meeting and Weaver Visits

Label STEP hosted its annual international meeting this April in Istanbul, Türkiye. Members of our teams took the opportunity to visit with the weavers of the Kirkit Rugs workshop in Uşak as well as at several rural workshops throughout the Kütahya and Manisa provinces to learn more about their experiences as weavers and their outlook on the future of the craft.

STEP’s Annual International Meeting in Türkiye

One of STEP’s key strengths is our localised approach, with dedicated teams on the ground across all of our major rug-producing countries to verify the weavers get the specific care and the fair trade working conditions they require. A secondary benefit of this distributed network is that it allows us a unique opportunity to learn from one another, to share what works and what doesn’t toward coming up with the best methods for improving the lives of weavers everywhere. During the first week of April 2024, STEP Country Representatives from across Nepal, India, Pakistan, Iran, and Afghanistan came together in Istanbul to meet with managing director Reto Aschwanden. Through country-specific presentations and seminar sessions, the team took great strides toward bettering existing initiatives and developing new ones.

One such initiative is STEP’s WeaverApp, a first-of-its-kind tool designed to connect buyers, producers, contractors, and weavers across disseminated carpet supply chains, support production management, and improve quality control. Wages remain core to STEP’s agenda, so the teams implemented a plan to conduct even more robust Living Wage Surveys that are specific to the realities of carpet weaving across each country, incorporating factors such as carpet type and quality. Environmental issues, such as waste water management, formed the basis of another session, where new strategies and methods were developed for practically implementing resilient strategies for improvement. Another stand-out workshop was dedicated to communications strategies, with the aim of enhancing internal communication for timely reporting on programs, alongside developing storytelling skills to effectively capture the personal narratives of weavers. Finally, as STEP’s Weaver Empowerment programs continue to grow and succeed, the teams discussed how to expand future programs to better address weavers’ overall well-being.

Visiting with Weavers

Our visits began with a stop at Kirkit Rugs’s outstanding workshop in Uşak, where over 20 weavers are employed on a full-time basis, receiving a salary, health insurance, and retirement among other benefits. Nearly all of the weavers live within walking distance of Kirkit, making it easily accessible and integrated into their daily lives. In talking with the weavers, we learned that most had been weaving since childhood; however, many such as Hatice did not actually work as weavers until Kirkit opened for the simple reason that they could find better paying jobs elsewhere. Others, like Duygu also highlighted that in addition to the money, it was the community that she really cherished most. In many ways, Kirkit’s model, pioneered by founder Ahmet Diler, establishes that in order for this craft to survive there needs to be better working conditions, incentives, and socialisation surrounding the craft that are more in line with Türkiye’s current economic situation.

Life for the weavers is a little different in the more rural villages throughout the Kütahya and Manisa provinces. Rather than working year-round, it is overwhelmingly the practice that the women weave for around seven consecutive months during the winter and its shoulder seasons, and then farm in the summers. As we arrived in the first village, some of the weavers, including 71-year-old Habibe, were in the process of finishing off a rug that they had been working on for a month. They granted us the great pleasure of allowing us to cut it from the loom. Habibe speculated that they could probably finish one more before they stopped for the summer in a month’s time.

Weavers’ Experience

Everywhere we went, whether in Uşak or more rurally, the weavers had mostly all learned from their mothers as children and had over thirty years of experience. A few had taught their children, but the overwhelming majority expressed that, in addition to their children not being so interested, they also wanted more for them. In fact, many of their children had already left the villages to pursue other work and/or education. This was the case for master weaver Ayşe, who told us that her children work for the government in a larger town. Similarly, Kirkit Rugs’s weaver Halime’s daughter, who is studying to become a dentist, noted that she’d like to learn weaving but more as a hobby. This proposes an interesting problem for the future of weaving in the region, where if more is not done to support weavers, there is bound to be a significant decrease in skilled craftswomen in the generations to come.

Still, this is balanced by camaraderie and pride for those who have made it their life’s work. When asked what she likes about being a master weaver, Ayşe replied that “she enjoyed working with her fellow weavers.” A sentiment that was swiftly echoed by the other weavers. For Ayşe, weaving has become an integral part of her life, something she expects to continue doing for as long as she’s able “Of course it is work at the end of the day,” Șerife, a weaver at Kirkit told us, “but you have to like it to really be good at it.”

A Day at the Arkas Carpet Collection in Izmir

We had the pleasure of spending a day with some of the weavers from Kirkit Rugs, as well as their children, visiting the Arkas Carpet Collection in Izmir. We received a guided tour from the curatorial team, who taught us about the museum’s rare examples of Anatolian carpets from the Classical Period, Anatolian tribal carpets, and Ottoman palace carpets among others. The weavers enjoyed examining the different motifs that were both familiar or novel to them. Amid the ancient carpets at the Arkas Carpet Collection, we chatted with weavers about their craft, and their expertise were evident as they noticed subtle intricacies like how flower motifs varied in clarity on a specific carpet. Aysel, a weaver, wondered if the weavers’ skills evolved throughout the completion of that particular carpet, which is believed to have been crafted by around ten individuals – showcasing not only collaborative effort but also the diverse skill levels involved in its creation. Following our visit to the museum, we went to a local restaurant to share an iftar – the fast-breaking meal after the sun sets during Ramadan.

Learning Together

Between the productive seminars and the meaningful time spent with weavers, STEP’s visit to Türkiye was a success. The collaboration and learning that is possible when together in person is unparalleled as it spurs new perspectives and ideas that benefit weavers in the long term. While the weavers in Türkiye face a particular set of circumstances, their experiences have much to teach about the future of the handmade rug industry as a whole. Including how the long term sustainability of the industry depends on creating conditions and compensations that make weaving an appealing career choice that is celebrated within thriving communities. We look forward to implementing and expanding our programs, while continuing to envision novel ways to action upon all lessons learned. 

STEP will be returning to Istanbul June 6–9, 2024 for ICOC XV, where Reto Aschwanden will be giving a presentation on the state of weaving today.

Weavers in Manisa province, with master weaver Ayşe (centre left).

Words by Kate Kolberg.
Images by Jana Hesse.

Read: Leading the Way: The Women Shaping the Future of the Handmade Carpet Industry

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