German-native Harald Böhmer is modest about his role in turning the carpet industry on its head 25 years ago when he revived the use of natural dye in Turkish carpets. He is co-hosting an annual carpet show this weekend in Galata, featuring demonstrations, videos and photos.
Böhmer and his wife Renate have dedicated the last three decades to developing natural dyes to use in carpet weaving, a tradition that had been lost since the 19th century. But in 1982 there was no market for these labor-intensive rugs. Not only did the Böhmers establish Turkey’s first women’s cooperative to produce them, they traveled to the U.S., Europe and Japan to create a demand for the naturally dyed rugs where there was none. More than 30,000 carpets later, their success speaks for itself.
In their Istanbul apartment near the Galata Tower, hundreds of dyed wool color samples dominate the space in sets of neatly labeled transparent drawers. Even though his extensive testing led to the use of only a handful of dyes, the samples remain as primary scientific data.
Plants ultimate primary source
As a young German chemist settling his family into Istanbul again in the 1970's, he was fascinated by the bright natural colors in the old carpets he saw in museums. But he found that the new carpets didn’t match their vibrancy.
Then it occurred to him that with the loss of the natural dyes, a craft and art form dating back thousands of years had also been lost. He set out to do something about it. Böhmer discovered in the late 1970s that all of the colors in old Turkish carpets can be sourced from plants still thriving in Turkey.
Thirty years ago in a Range Rover, Harald and Renate searched thousands of kilometers of Anatolian roadsides equipped with only black and white photos of plants as their guide. "We brought the seeds back to our balcony in Bebek and planted and raised them before taking them to the villages," Böhmer said. The women in the first cooperative began using the plants in 1982.
In 1981 the German Ministry of development agreed to support Böhmer’s work on the condition that they develop a foreign market to support Turkey’s weak economy rather than making rich Turks richer. Establishing healthy markets for the DOBAG carpets in Scandanavia, Ireland Australia and recently Germany, the project began cutting checks directly to the women weavers.
Driving around with rugs spilling out of their car, they started out giving door-to-door demonstrations of the merits of the naturally dyed carpet. They had a trial-by-fire lesson in marketing. "We had to find dealers willing to explain the difference to customers and media willing to write about it," Böhmer said. For three decades, Böhmer, often consulted with late colleague, ethnographer and photographer extraordinaire Josephine Powell, who helped create secret dye processes and the second weaving cooperative.
Not only did Böhmer’s efforts result in the founding of the DOBAG project and a revival of a lost art, his dye samples, plant seeds and gentle pioneering spirit changed the face of carpet weaving. Today DOBAG rugs are renowned worldwide and have been exhibited in a number of museums from the British Museum of London to the DeYoung Museum in San Francisco.
Another measure of the project’s success is the hush that falls over carpet merchants in Istanbul’s Grand Bazaar when asked about natural dyed carpets. A clammed-up carpet dealer is rare indeed. Their universe of middle men and paying weavers far less than fair wages have made the cooperatives difficult to replicate.
Takes a village to make a rug
There are two co-operatives in the DOBAG project: one in the Ayvacik region of Canakkale province and the other in the Yuntdag region of Manisa province. Both are self-funding and owned and run by the weavers and their families. The co-operative in the Yuntdag is a women’s co-operative, the first in Turkey.
Although weaving is women’s work, the men of the village play an important role as shepherds, tending their small flocks each day to find suitable grazing. Wool from 10 sheep is required to weave one square yard of rug. It takes a whole village to make a carpet and the process can take many months.
Women are more self-confident now, Renate said. "In the beginning the woman was earning the money but her husband was taking the checks," she said, adding that the villages’ economies have directly benefited from the direct export trade. Later the cooperatives convinced the women to take the checks directly to the bank. Several of the cooperative’s weavers have traveled abroad to meet with dealers and clients. "Thirty years later, the women always celebrate Renate’s arrival whenever she comes to the village," Harald said, as she searched for another resource that he couldn’t seem to find without her.
Böhmer has stayed on as a key advisor to DOBAG since 2005. He and Renate spend most of their time in their wooded home in Oldenburg in northern Germany. His book, "Nomads in Anatolia: Encounters with a Vanishing Culture", is now available in Englisüh.
Crimean Memorial Church near Galata Tower and the German High School. (free) Nov. 29, 9:30 a.m.-4:30 p.m. and Nov. 30, 12:00-4:30 p.m.