One of the best stories we’ve come across is the impossibly romantic tale of Abit and Catherine of Bazaar Bayar, who are selling their authentic Turkish textiles and rugs in our Vintage Shop right here. While visiting Turkey on her own in the late ’90s, Catherine—who was on something of a shopping excursion—met Abit, a local textile purveyor and unofficial historian. The rest, as they say, is history. From their home in Istanbul, Amit and Catherine filled in some of the details of how a chance meeting and lifelong passions became a happy life together on the other side of the world.
Catherine, what was it that initially drew you to Turkish textiles? Many people admire them, but few find themselves traveling the country on their own and studying them in depth!
I’m an anthropologist at heart—I love to study how people live and especially what they make with their hands. A Danish designer I’d worked with had a large collection of vintage kilims. His love of the colors, the natural dyed wools, the stories the patterns told, and how they were made by ‘ordinary’ village women was infectious. He helped me buy my first pieces and his mum re-taught me to knit, which sparked my knitwear design passion. I was always drawn to embroideries, lace and other ‘women’s work’ of previous centuries, and Turkey is rich in these traditions. The women here are still doing them.
How did you and Abit first meet?
Catherine: I was on a solo trip to explore more of Turkey than what I’d seen of Istanbul during my clothing design trips. I was just off a bus, exhausted and staggering up a street in Selcuk—the town next to the Greco-Roman ruins of Ephesus—and Abit asked if he could help me find my hotel. I rudely brushed him off but he was extremely polite… Of course, I saw him at a sidewalk cafe the next day and felt so guilty I agreed to let him join me.
Abit, what did you notice first about Catherine?
The overstuffed duffel bag she was lugging. I knew she must be a shopper!
Catherine, there must’ve been something about Abit that caught your eye, even if you did brush him off initially.
I did think Abit was dressed far too well in a good suit and a fine-gauge sweater for this tourist town where the major occupation is farming!
So it’s safe to say that it wasn’t love at first sight. But you first met over 10 years ago and are still very happy together. How do you explain it?
Catherine: I’d say we are happy because we recognized kindred spirits in each other pretty immediately. I was only going to stay in Selcuk for two days, but ended up staying a week. Abit knew everything and wanted to show me everything—from ancient ruins to the most amazing textiles—without trying to “sell” me. That’s rare here in Turkey. He knew what I liked because he liked it too; we both respond strongly to a sense of authenticity. I’ve worked with so many creative people over the years, and it’s not easy to find someone with the same aesthetic sense—much less a straight man! That’s probably Abit’s best treasure-hunting skill—a sense of what people will want or need, even before they do. But to be completely honest, I fell in love with Turkey long before I met Abit. People presume I came here for love, and I did, yes—but for all of it.
Love certainly can certainly make us do crazy things! Were you ever hesitant about moving to Turkey, Catherine?
Honestly, no. The logistics of moving across the planet were daunting, but it was such a natural decision and I felt so at home here. The culture shock challenges came from moving in with Abit’s large traditional family, but having our own businesses helped me establish my own sense of purpose and rootedness.
You moved again, to from Selcuk to Istanbul, in 2010. What is your favorite time of day there?
Catherine: Any of the five prayer times. Because we live in the Old City, the interweaving of so many voices from the Blue Mosque, the Hagia Sophia and a multitude of smaller locations makes me stop and listen, to appreciate where I am and what I’m doing.
What is a typical day for the two of you?
Catherine: Since it’s winter, we are mostly working at home where we have a sea view, and only a few days a week in our current dusty, drafty workspace a few blocks away. (Rugs are messy!) That will change next month, when we get our new shop space in the old artisan quarter up and running. Because we are in the midst of the Grand Bazaar district, everything and everyone we need are very nearby; there’s no need for appointments or to drive, and public transport is easy here when necessary. Work time in Istanbul is quite suited to be flexible—which is perfect for us, since we’re not morning people! But the day almost always ends with Abit cooking up one of his big pots of soup or stew.
Can either of you choose a favorite kind of textile? Is there one in particular that just makes your heart beat faster?
Catherine: Most anything handmade, where a little soul from the artisan is visible. A certain combination of color, texture and pattern will do that—the fact that someone took the time and had the skill to make something of such beauty that was not intended for show or sale—simply to grace a family home or to give to a daughter for her dowry—is awe-inspiring.
What are some of your most prized treasures?
Abit: There have been so many over the years, but the kilims my mom and her sisters wove in the ’60s and ’70s are definitely favorites. Talking about how kilims and carpets are made, the meanings behind them, and inspiring someone to take them home to live with is a lot of fun too.
Can you tell us more about the workshop for local artisans that you support?
Abit: We live in the former Ottoman artisan quarter, but there are only a few fiber artisans left because new hotels and high rent prices are pushing them out. A few of us are banding together to retain their workshops here and bring others in. Our work with repurposed kilims and carpets is mainly to support the wealth of talent of the local women. Not so much weaving these days, since that’s been overtaken by tourism and commerce, but those who knit, crochet and embroider—those “home skills” that are undervalued but loved by women around the world. So many visitors want to have hands-on learning about these crafts, which provide a means for communication between cultures. Our workshops teach oya, the Turkish art of needle lace, as well as knitting, felting, ebru, embroidery, block-printing. This year we are focusing on the tulip.
Finally, what are you most excited about in the coming year?
Catherine: The fiber arts and culture trip we’ve planned for visitors in May, with time here in Istanbul, and also in Abit’s southeast home region as well as Ephesus. Hands-on textile experiences throughout! Come visit!