As the Sadberk Hanım Museum celebrates the art of embroidery, Min Hogg marvels at the motifs of palaces, fruit and flowers, sea and cityscape, wrought stitch by stitch, to adorn every Ottoman home
Sultans of the Ottoman court were madly picky as far as embroidery was concerned, which is hardly surprising considering what a major part it played in their sumptuous clothes and furnishings.
The words “palace work” did not necessarily imply needlework made in Topkapı itself (although as early as 1550 there was a school in the palace where 200 little girls were taught the intricacies of stitching). Rather, it indicated the strictly controlled and sophisticated standards of design and quality imposed upon the massive quantity of embroidery orders farmed out to teams of master craftsmen in town guilds all over the empire.
Domestically, too, embroidery dominated the lives of women and girls, who, rarely permitted to leave the house, were much in need of an occupation. Females of several households would gather together and stitch their days away.
From grand to humble, Turkish houses shared such a minimalist style of furnishing – the sum total being low platform divans around three sides of a room and a few recessed cupboards – that, rather in the way graffiti artists cannot abide a blank wall, the Ottoman compulsion was to introduce colour and pattern by embroidering absolutely everything they could lay their hands on.
In the 16th and 17th centuries design inspiration came from nature, finding expression in flowers and fruits in stylised shapes and repeating patterns with swirling arabesque stems and predominating shades of red and blue. The 18th and 19th centuries brought freer, fantastical, almost abstract elements and a greater variety of colour, with much metallic thread wrapped around cardboard to give a cushioned effect. Architectural and maritime motifs, including amazing city panoramas, were also fashionable, as were portraits of sultans.
The fact that so many of these beautifully embroidered treasures survive suggests that many were made as ceremonial status symbols and scarcely, if ever, used. Nobody in their right mind would willingly sleep on a gold-thread-and-pearl-encrusted pillow, and European lady travellers recoiled from wiping their hands on the fabulously embellished napkins on offer. In any case, it was de rigueur to dab only the tips of your fingers very, very lightly.
Min Hogg is editor-at-large of ‘The World of Interiors’
See www.minhogg.com for her exquisite wallpaper and fabric designs
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