Some of the most popular souvenirs brought back from Turkey by American and European tourists since the 18th century have been embroideries known as Turkish towels. Although the title "towels" has long been used to refer to these textiles, they performed a large number of domestic functions. "From costumes to floor coverings, from swaddling bands to shrouds, from brides' trousseaux to battle standards and tent-work there was no aspect of life in which they were out of
Domestic interiors from the palace to the provinces were dependant on textiles as indications of the function of interior space. The absence of Western-style furniture and the use of divans made for flexible interiors which could be used for a number of different functions. The presence of bedding, cushions for seating around a low table, or cushions spread around the room could indicate the current use of the room, for sleeping, dining, or sitting. The luxury of the textiles was also an indication of their owner's status within the community.
Textiles were also important in daily life. Clothing such as scarves and sashes were embroidered. Handkerchiefs, not used in the manner of the West but often used as gift covers, were some of the most elaborately embroidered cloths. The richer the cloth the higher the compliment to the receiver. Embroidered towels were also used in the bath, to wrap the head and dry the body. The painter and journalist, Elizabeth Vigee LeBrun (1755-1842), describes the bath towels collected by a former Russian military man which she used during a visit in 1796. "As the General had spent much time in Turkey his house was a model of Oriental comfort and luxury. There was a bathroom lighted from above, in the middle of which was a basin large enough to hold a dozen people... Linen to be used for drying the body af ter bathing was hung on a golden balustrade circling the basin, and consisted of large pieces of Indian mull worked at the bottom in flowers and gold, so that the weight of this embroidery caused the mull to adhere to the skin, which appeared to me an elaborate refinement." 2
While embroideries produced in professional workshops could be purchased, needlework was considered one of a young woman's important accomplishments. Girls were trained in the art of embroidery from youth and often completed samplers as in Europe and other Western countries. Before marriage much time would be spent embroidering cloths suitable for the new household, such as sheets, towels, quilts, napkins, etc. In Muslim Turkey women's lives were directed toward the interior space, and domestic embroideries were one way in which women could express themselves.
1 Texcan, Hiilye and Selma Delibas; The Topkapi Saray Museum: Costumes, Embroideries and other Textiles (Boston; Little, Brown and Company) 1986; p. 159.
2 Vigee Lebrun, Elizabeth, Memoirs of Madame Vigee LeBrun (New York, George Braziller) 1989, p. 111.