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Cappadocian Dreams: Oya Lace

The sun was beginning to set behind the characteristic stone pillars of Cappadocia and everything was tinged in a golden light. The next morning we would have to get up very early for a balloon ride and then back on the road again to continue our trip. A very welcome breeze cut through the hot summer air as we walked down into Göreme town centre to browse the shops and get some dried fruit and biscuits.

In the heat of Cappadocia entering an Oya store is like stepping into a flower shop, an oasis, a mirage where all that is missing is the scent of flowers to make it seem real. All over the walls is colour and detail.

Oya is traditional Turkish lace, an ancient skill of very fine crocheting or knotting. Oya is used to add a decorative trim to clothes, headscarves and tablewear, but also comes on its own as stunning jewellery. There is a practically infinite number of patterns. Often the lace is inspired by nature and flowers such as wild roses, daffodils and green leaves and each maker gives their work their own twist. The lace can be a geometric, regular patterned trim, or ropes of full 3D flowers and leaves, or tassels and fly trim. Today most Oya is from silk (imitation) threads but traditionally some kinds of Oya also used bits of other threads tied into decorative forms, and beads and sequins can be worked into the lace for extra sparkle and décor.

Oya Lace Necklace and Bracelet

The shop I strolled into was run by the ladies who also made all the products available. Necklaces, bracelets, earrings, everything. There must have been millions, if not billions of tiny (crochet) knots altogether in this shop that was bursting with colourful lace ornaments. There is something so captivating about looking from these textile works of art to their makers and think about all the time and skill they dedicated to this craft. There were three, probably four generations of women in the shop and the oldest had practiced the craft of Oya for maybe 60 years since they learned it as girls. Some were crocheting while we browsed and talked to them, their hands working mechanically without having to concentrate and millimetre by millimetre the lace grew under their skilled needles. This is slow, sustainable fashion. 

Oya is said to date from the eight century and come from Anatolia. It is popular all over Turkey, but it is still traditionally rooted in Anatolia and laces of extremely fine quality are made there by the locals. Back in the day, it developed into a full nonverbal form of expression much like the fan in Western history. Different kinds of Oya or floral patterns could express love or signify sadness, indicate a healthy or unhappy relationship and was part of ceremonial clothes from marriage (plum blossom Oya) to mourning. With age the wearer chose smaller wildflowers whereas young women could don large rose Oya, and in the Aegean region men’s head coverings featured the lace, too.

Not all Oya is created equal, there are various techniques that produce different textures and forms: using a very delicate crocheting hook, a sewing needle to tie knots into the thread (laborious and traditionally produced by aristocratic women), a shuttle, or a hairpin (Firkete=hairpin Oya) for example. There are machines who can imitate Oya lace but you can just tell when something is handmade, it is not 100% uniform and so more vibrant and alive. Also, the handmade variants often have a neater finish and no machine-capped thread ends visible and the like.

I left the shop with bracelets in black-gold and teal, gifts, and an elegant burgundy necklace that works both as a statement piece and a compliment to the look. Not only does the lace look stunning but as it is traditionally women’s work, buying handmade Oya also supports women in their businesses as well as being a sustainably made accessory.

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