Afyon’s craftsmen resist modern times

Afyon’s craftsmen resist modern times

Wilco Van Herpen
Afyon’s craftsmen resist modern times

The craftsmen of Afyon resists the modern times as they try to continue to do their jobs properly.

The first time I met Yaşar Usta was three years ago. Last week I had to be in Afyon and of course I wanted to pay a visit to my friend Yaşar. When I went to his shop the door of the shop was open but Yaşar was doing his Friday prayer. I walked around a bit and returned half an hour later. Yaşar had just finished his prayer and when he saw me he welcomed me with a big smile on his face. “Wilco, how nice to see you again. I am really honored that you pay me a visit,” he told me.

The workshop of Yaşar usta is very sober; one or two small stools and a very old office chair, a couple of tables covered with small carpets and one desk with all different kinds of things on it. He hands me one of the stools and I take a seat. While talking I hear a banging sound and the whole building vibrates. I wonder how long an old building can have such a vibration because this machine must be working….

Beings craftsman in Turkey

Yaşar Usta (“usta” stands for craftsman) is a keçe ustası. This might mean nothing to you but when I tell you that the man’s job is velvet handicrafts, you suddenly might become interested in what he does. During time more and more people leave their job for several reasons: not enough work, retirement, modernization, cheaper products that do something that resembles the work of the usta (a bit)… etc. Once upon a time Afyon was a city with a lot of craftsmen. People who produced haşhaş (opium poppy) oil, people making saddles and other things for horses, jewelers, copper workers, velvet craftsmen; you name it and they were there. Not just one or two but many people were working in their little workshops spread out over the city centre of Afyon. Everybody used to work in his own neighborhood, all the ustas together in the same street. Therefore you can still find street names in Turkey like Coppersmith Street, tailor street, velvet street or leather street. A long time ago it was the Armenians who were masters in any kind of crafts; Goldsmith, construction or, connected to my story; keçe ustası.

Years ago there used to be 10 or even more velvet handcrafts men but nowadays you can find just three of those craftsmen in Afyon. Yaşar told me that his grandfather used to work together with those Armenian friends/colleagues and they were really very good at their job. They knew so many little tricks to make the quality of the velvet better, stronger. They knew everything about the craft and how to use it; they were the real craftsmen, according to Yaşar. Besides (and I have heard this remark many more times during my trips through Turkey), they were real gentlemen. “Nowadays people just rush in my shop and do not bother to say good morning. “How different the old times were,” he says with melancholy and continues, “For me it is not important who enters my workshop, the important is the person’s life philosophy. I do not look at color, religion or political ideology; what is important for me if the person I talk to is honest and men loving. We all come from God, Allah or The Creator; the name we give is not important to me. I studied the Koran and the first thing we have to do is love the people, be honest and work hard…”

Speaking about work Yaşar gets out of his chair and starts cutting pieces of bright colored velvet. Blue and red is what he needs this time. While cutting the leaves of the tulip and the flowers he explains to me that this motif was the specialty of his father. Nobody could make tulips like he did. Nowadays most of the motifs they use for the velvet carpets are very simple; I like to do something with the techniques I have learned during the 60 years I am doing this profession. For the carpets, Yaşar uses two different kinds of wool. The cheaper carpets are made with local wool but the more expensive carpets are made from wool that comes from New Zealand. That wool is very clean, soft and stronger he explains me. The motif of the carpet is ready. He takes one bag of wool and walks to a small workshop across the alley...

A man pushes the button and slowly the machine comes alive. The sound it makes is ear-splitting. Big pieces of wool are thrown into the machine and just seconds later the machine spits it out. But the wool became like silk after the rough treatment in the machine. Layer after layer Yaşar gathers the wool and puts it in a big bag. Within 10 minutes Yaşar continues with his carpet. Holding the wool in his hands he slowly waves a kind of big comb spreading out the wool over the motives in an equal layer. At the end a thick layer of wool covers the tulips. Yaşar takes a big piece of soap and grates it over the carpet. I can’t help thinking about making pizza at home and grating cheese on it. Yaşar takes a bowl with water and sprinkles it over the loose wool. Then, with the help of his assistant he rolls up the mat, as tight as possible. With a big swing they throw the roll into a machine. The machine is half open with a basket at the base and a stick that is beating the wool. Yaşar dreams away: ”in the past this work was done in the hamam. We would all go there and while talking and sometimes singing we would do the job this machine does now. We would hit the roll of wool with our knees; over and over again. When I started as a young boy this was, for me, the most difficult and painful job we had to do as Keçe makers. But the atmosphere, we lost it all.,” he said.

Working with machines

The machine has done its work; Yaşar switches it off. He takes the roll, opens it and looks at it. I love it and ask him if I can buy it. He smiles at me and mentions the price. While taking my purse Yaşar starts talking to me again. I listen and without being aware of it I put my purse back. He finishes, and I wish Yaşar a beautiful day, turn around and walk towards the door. “Are you going to pay me at the fair? That’s no problem for me. At least another reason to see you again,” he says. Surprised I look up and instantly my head becomes red like şalgam (turnip). Quickly I pay him and with my beautiful carpet I leave his shop. Such a nice man I think. I definitely will go to that fair so I can have another chat with him is my promise to myself. And with that intension I close the door. The festival will be held in September and is called Altın Eller Sanat Fest.