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Oya: Turkish Needle-Knotted Lace

by Briony Foy, with photographs by Lori Ushman

 

I first encountered oya in a haunting photograph of a young Turkish girl wearing a headscarf with strings of tiny, bobbing lace “babies” wound around it. What I originally took for tatting was described in the accompanying article, a reprint of an MA thesis by fiber artist and educator Pat Hickman, as an unusual needle technique used in the Near Eastern region of Anatolia. When I found that the Helen Louise Allen Textile Collection contained several fine examples of this work from Turkey, I began a research project to learn more.

 

oya

HLATC: L.N.T.0845


I found a confusing array of descriptions and claims about oya. All of the written material that I could find in English agreed that the work was distinguished from other laces because it was made with a needle and each stitch was knotted. Without specifics, most claimed it is possible to identify the specific country (and sometimes village) where a particular edging was made by the type of knot used, as well as certain specific motifs and the spacing of those motifs. It seems that those differences, however, are so subtle, the average viewer would not detect them and, like many arts, these differences are blending together as contact between countries increases.


Knotted needle-lace edgings from this area are known by many names: oa, oia, ougia, igne oyasi, bebila, bir-bir, birbila, bibila, and bebelliå. These names come from the Greek, Arabic and Turkish words meaning “edge,” “border,” “embellishment,” or “one after the other in a row” (to distinguish them from other kinds of knotted lace like macramé and tatting and mats or doilies that are also produced in the region). The laces and the knots are also known by the area they come from and I found references to Armenian, Oriental, Rodi, Arab, Smyrna, Nazareth, Palestinian, and Syrian lace. None of these terms are used very consistently, and I was not able to clearly define or distinguish any of them. I had the best luck limiting my search to needle knotted lace by using the Turkish terms igne oyasi and igne oyalari. The other terms are often confused with crochet work and/or doilies.

 

As noted above, these edgings are different from other laces because they are made with only a needle and a single strand of thread, and each stitch is knotted, not just looped. Although almost every country in the area claims the technique as their own, the true origin of the knots is not known. Many historians theorize they developed from the knots used by fishermen to make nets, and others that they came from ancient pile carpet weaving. Most agree these edgings originated at least six hundred years before the birth of Christ, because they have found descriptions and depictions in early Egyptian and Christian writings and art. Another distinguishing characteristic of oya is that the lace motifs are often three-dimensional. A flower motif is built up with individual elements like petals, leaves, stems, and stamens.  Larger motifs can be constructed by combining smaller ones or by adding new elements. Stuffing and stiffening materials are also used to enhance the dimension. Because of the way they are attached and draped, the motifs often have a wonderful sense of movement and come “alive” when they are worn.


Oya are found on women’s headscarves, on scarves wound around men’s hats, on table mats, purses, underwear, napkins, baby clothing, bedding, curtains, table covers, handkerchiefs, necklines, sleeves, hems and seams of garments. They are valued so highly that they are often recycled over and over again on new items or reworked to include new motifs.

 

The knotted lace is very strong and holds fast if a part is damaged, but it requires great skill to place and space the knots consistently and evenly. Once tied, they are impossible to undo and can only be corrected by cutting them out and starting over. The differences between the knots used mostly relate to spacing and direction. The Puncetto or Arab knot is generally worked back and forth from right to left and left to right. The needle is always pointed away from the maker. From the front the knots appear as a series of vertical bars, and from the back, they tilt in opposite directions in successive rows. The Palestine knot looks more like a knot and not like a vertical stroke. The direction of the knots is reversed in alternated rows but the lace looks the same on the face and backsides. The Armenian knot is larger, and although it too is worked from right to left and then left to right, the tilt of every row appears the same. This is achieved by working left-right rows with the needle pointing away from the maker and the right-left rows with the needle pointed towards the maker and the thread twist reversed. The Bebilla knot is the largest and most complex stitch. It is worked in a right to left direction only, and the thread is carried back from left to righty as a straight return. All the knots tilt towards the left.  All the stitches and loops are of equal size and all the knots are centrally placed. To add to the confusion, a slightly different knot called the Armenian stitch is used to cover the horsehair or wire base and to reinforce stems.

 

Flowers are an important motif in all art from the area; some say that this is because of the arid desert landscape of some of the region. Flowers and foliage are by far the most common motifs, but oya can also depict fruit, birds, animals, grains, nuts and berries, insects, mountains, stars and moons, hands, and coins. The lace can be worked in various ways: as individual motifs that are later stitched together; as a separate edging made over a length of chain stitch, horsehair or wire that is later attached to a base (an embroidered, printed or plain scarf or garment); worked directly on a piece of cloth; or in a combination of these methods. The base traditionally symbolized the earth and the motifs “grew” from its surface.


Customarily, every young girl learned the techniques from her mother and grandmother, and the pieces were made for her own use or as gifts. It was not until the twentieth century that there was any commercial production, and even now the little made for sale is still handmade in small cottage or village industries. Like the American quilting bee, work is often done communally and involved songs and games. Charted diagrams do exist, but generally each maker develops her motifs and designs simply by looking at nature or other lace pieces, or learns them from her mother.


Before the mid-twentieth century, makers dyed silk thread (and sometimes linen) in brilliant colors with vegetable dyes and did the knotting with a common sewing needle. Horsehair, fine wire wrapped with thread, and thread wrapped with fine wire were used to shape certain parts of the flowers, and sometimes the work was stiffened with starch or sugar water. Less commonly, gold and silver threads, sequins, pearls and precious stones were made into lace by professional gold embroiderers. In the 1960’s mercerized cotton and synthetic fibers were introduced, and today beads, found objects and trinkets are often mixed in with the needlework. Unfortunately, many of the needle knotting skills today are being lost as more commercial products are available, and as time becomes more scarce, lace makers are turning to the faster methods of shuttle tatting, hairpin lace and crochet.

 

OYA IN THE HELEN LOUISE ALLEN TEXTILE COLLECTION

 

The HLATC includes several fine examples of traditional silk oya from Turkey dated between 1900 to 1929. Unfortunately, we have no other documentation about them except that they were acquired in 1969. The silk edgings are delicate and are not attached to cloth. They are all worked on a base chain and simply stored wound around paper tubes. They all have flower motifs and are made with a combination of the Bebilla and Armenian knots.

 

Oya

Figure 1 HLATC: L.N.T.0842

 

The first piece, #L.N.T.0842, is a very realistic string of pansies worked in shades of purple and violet with off-white and orange shadings (figure 1.) The “earth” is worked with bright green floss, as are the typical triangular base, stem and leaves. In between each flower are six small green leaves growing from the earth. This piece is about one and one-quarter inch wide.

 

oya

Figure 2 HLATC: L.N.T.0843
Another piece of approximately the same width, #L.N.T.0843, has more elaborate stems and leaves (figure 2, unfortunately not yet photographed in high quality.) The earth and stems are black with three green leaves. The stems have three branches, which each have three flowers attached at the end. The flowers are cream colored and trumpet shaped. They are worked in a tube with four petals at the top and pink loops in the center for stamens. In between each flowering plant is what appears to be a long “hill” worked in varying shades of green with four small stalks growing from it.

 

oya

Figure 3 HLATC: L.N.T.0844

 

One of my favorite pieces, #L.N.T.0844, is narrower and uses only two colors (figure 3.) It doesn’t have the vibrant, happy feeling of the others, but does have a sort of dainty, serene dignity about it. The “earth,” stems, and flowers are all worked in cream colored silk. The base has a zigzag edge to it and the stems reach out of the typical triangular base. The ends of the stems are attached to the middle back of a stuffed tube that forms the base of a five petaled, star-shaped flower. Each ellipse-shaped petal is pinched a bit where they are joined together so they have a slight boat shape and subtle dimension. In the middle of each flower is a tiny cluster of violet knots. This piece also has three small “spacer” motifs between each flower on the chain. These sprigs have four branches with three tiny violet loops on the end of each. This whole piece is stiffened with some sort of starch and is rather scratchy.

 

oyaFigure 4 HLATC: L.N.T.0845


The last three pieces I looked at were even more complex. A chain of large fuchsias is worked on a green chain knotted over strands of horsehair in #L.N.T.0845 (figure 4.) Twisted dark green wire is used to outline the triangular base and to form two leaf stems and one central stem for the flower. Each flower has two long rectangular shaped leaves, one in dark green and the other in yellow green. The flowers are tubular and shaded from green into white or purple with four large, slightly stiffened petals. Each flower has a yellow green center. Along the base chain, the purple and white flowers are placed alternately and in between each one is a single purple or white petal. Although this edging is only one and a quarter inches wide, the flowers seem to swing and droop heavily just like real fuchsias because they are attached to the end loop of the twisted wire stem.

oya

Figure 5 HLATC:L.N.T.0848
One of the edgings, #L.N.T.0848, has such complexity of color, material, shape and detail on such a tiny scale that it is almost too much (figure 5, unfortunately not yet photographed in high quality.) A stripe of dark green earth is worked on a wide brown zigzag base. Large green leaves on brown triangular stems alternate with the flower clusters. Each leaf has a picot edge around it and scattered across its surface are three tiny loops made of white thread tightly wound with brown wire. The white thread shows on the back of the leaves. At the base of each flower stem are two wire stems with a gunmetal colored sequin on the end.

The main stems are worked in dark green thread with three branches. Each branch has a dark green leaf and a basket like flower at the end. These flowers have a triangular shaped base with a handle like loop attached. In the center of each handle a sequin is threaded on. Each flower is made of a combination of coral and light coral, purple and violet, or blue and light blue and these colors are alternated along the chain.


oya

Figure 6 HLATC: L.N.T.0849

 

The last piece I looked at, #L.N.T.0849, is the widest at about two inches and also the shortest (figure 6.) It is not in very good condition, however, so its shortness may be due to damage. These flowers are also very complex, but what is particularly striking is that each one seems to be one of a kind. This may be an example of each flower being worked separately and then later joined together. It might also be a “sampler” or the result of repairs/replacements after damage. The flowers are rather fantastical shapes worked in various shades of cream, pink, maroon, black, purple and green. Some are stuffed balls or tubes with petals at the tops and others are clusters of petals with no base. Some petals are large and ellipse shaped while others are round or vary small. Most of them have more than one layer of petals in different sizes and shapes. Some of the petals also have long embroidery stitches worked on top of them. Most of the leaves on each flower cluster are on dark teal-covered wire stems and are worked in various shades of green and various shapes. In between the flowers are three large triangles with picot edges and a small sprig shape in between each of them. The triangles are variegated greens with alternating pink, yellow green and blue picots. The sprigs are burgundy. All of the motifs are worked on a dark teal blue chain.

 

THE MEANING OF OYA

 

Initially, my interest in oya was in the structure and technique of the needle knotting. As I read more about how these laces were made andused, however, I began to appreciate the cultural power they symbolize. As Pat Hickman observed, as in many cultures, color and motifs used in oya can be used as a language itself. The behavior and speech of women in the area that oya is made has often been restricted or constrained. Oya-making provided community, entertainment, income and a means of expression and communication. By wearing certain flowers and motifs on headscarves and garments, one could send a clear message to those that chose to look for it, without ever saying a word. Yellow signaled fatigue or unhappiness, red was for excitement or love, blue comfort and happiness, and green meant hopes and wishes. Blue headscarves with tiny blue flowers on them ward off the “evil eye” and bad health. Meadow flowers spoke of happiness while small red peppers showed anger or represented a “hot” marriage. Tombstone motifs told of a troubled marriage, but stuffed pink tubes announced a longed for pregnancy. Burdock motifs warned an interfering mother-in-law to back off.

 

I was particularly struck by the writing of Pat Hickman because she looked not only at the symbolic meanings of the motifs, but also at the spiritual nature of the process within the culture. It was her words that made me see the poetry in these needle laces, and express some of the significance and emotion I myself feel when making and wearing textiles. She sees comparisons between the oya and the repetition of geometric interlacing and decoration so common in tile and woodcarving of the region. It is a culture with ancient traditions that places high value and praise on work that is repetitive and unified. Oya-making can also be a meditative and contemplative process that gives the maker an identity and means of personal expression.                       

 

I was also struck by Hickman’s observations on the wearing of oya. One of my initial questions about this lace was, why one would want to stiffen something as organic as these flowers, and wouldn’t they be uncomfortable if worn around the edge of a headscarf or on a garment? Despite the careful and skillful rendering of the colors and shapes in nature, Hickman attributes the power and realism of the floral motifs more to the way they are perceived by both wearer and observer:

  The materials are not alive; the life quality comes when they are worn and in movement. If a scarf is worn folded over, the upper layers act as a veil for the shifting oya beneath. [For a woman] there is a sensuous delight in wearing oya, in its own weightlessness, its movement in the wind, its private, almost silent sound – a pleasure in feeling more beautiful merely because of it. A toss of the head would instantly mean an exciting flutter of flowers, a multiple presentation, orchestrated single-handedly… [Worn by men,] the needle lace expresses an exuberance, a vigor, an assurance.
“Turkish Needlelace:Oya,” pp. 38 and 41.
 

A lovely image…


Online videos of oya makers and markets

Shows women stitching

 

 

Shows groups of womenand girls stitching- mostly doilies. (Young girls are mostly using crochet hooks)

Good how-to demo but poor video quality.

Shows left to right stitching on cloth edge.

Huge markets for oya and thread. Very brief demo of stitching right in the middle.

 

BIBLIOGRAPHY

 

“Turkish Needlelace: Oya” by Pat Hickman, In Celebration of the Curious Mind- A Festschrift To Honor Anne Blinks On Her 80th Birthday, ed. Nora Rogers and Martha Stanley, Interweave Press (Loveland, CO) pp. 35-42
 
Oya Culture Since The Ottomans by Taciser Onuk, Ankara Press (Turkey) 2005 Wonderful source for patterns. Includes instructions for over 100 designs.
 
Armenian Lace by Nouvart Tashjian, Lacis (Berkeley, CA) 1982Reprint of The Priscilla Armenian Needlepoint Lace Book, 1923.
 
Armenian Needlelace and Embroidery by Alice Odian Kasparian, EPM Publications (McLean, VA)
1983.
 
“Bebilla and Oya, Needle-Knotted Miniature Laces” by Kax Wilson, Piecework Magazine, Interweave Press (Loveland, CO) July/August 1996, pp. 22-27
 
“A Meter Square: Headscarves Trimmed with Needle Lace” by Margo Krager, Piecework Magazine, Interweave Press (Loveland, CO) January/February 2006 , pp. 28-31
 
“Needle Lace” by Gretchen Allgeier, Piecework Magazine, Interweave Press (Loveland, CO) January/February 2006, pp. 32-33
 
“Needle-lace Motifs and Edging to Make,” by Gretchen Allgeier, Piecework Magazine, Interweave Press (Loveland, CO) July/August, 1996, pp. 28-30
 
Embroidery and Lace of Ottoman Turkey a catalog by the Royal Scottish Museum, 1983.
 
Greek Threadwork Lace by Tatiana Ioannou-Yannara, 1989.
 
Needle-made Laces; Materials, Designs, Techniques by Pat Earnshaw, Ward Lock Limited (London) 1988.
 
Türkmen Gym, Türkmen Costumes by Sabiha Tanbsu?, 1985.
 
Needlework Through History: An Encyclopedia by Catherine Amoroso Leslie, Greenwood Publishing Group (Westport, CT) 2007