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The Guide İstanbul

The woven thread: Şişko (Fat) Osman's pride and joy

Tucked away in a quite Han off Istanbul's Covered Bazaar, Şişko Osman's shop is like an Ali Baba's cave for carpet lovers. You may not need a password to get out of it, but you do need strong willpower to resist the pull of the beautiful treasures on display and Osman Bey's contagios enthusiasm. But why should you resist? Each piece here has a story to tell and is guaranteed to give its owner years of pleasure.

Among the 4.000 carpet stores in Istanbul, Şişko Osman, or Fat Osman's shop is famous for its collection of dowry pieces, traditionally woven by young girls before their wedding. "These are completely personel works, they are not commercial," says Şişko Osman, who admits that after almost decades in the business, his compulsion to buy beautiful carpets is as strong as ever. "Each of these carpets speaks to me. The young girls put their soul into these pieces, which gives them a special charm."

Şişko Osman,whose love story with carpets and kilims started when he was a child in Erzincan, travels thousand of miles all over Turkey every year in search of unusual carpets and kilims. He talks of each of them with passion. "I look for unique pieces that are made of hand spun wool, that have refined colors produced with natural dyes and good workmanship."

Şişko, still known by this nickname, which means Fat Osman even though his modest girth hardly justifies it nowadays, studied political economy in France, acquired a degree in Arabic and Arab literature in Cairo and speaks six languages, but it is in the world of colors that he finds happiness.

His great grandfather was already a carpet dealer. Museums and other carpet dealers now seek Şişko Osman's expertise, acquired over years spent studying carpets, but he still buys all the books published on the subject. Osman Bey is now passing on his vast sum of knowledge to his son and to five nephews who work with him, running his five stores. The carefully chosen carpets displayed in Osman Bey's shops are the result of a long production process: the soft wool has to be washed, then degreased and spun. Roots, plants and insects are then gathered and boiled to produce colors specific to each region. Male relatives usually make the loom, but the female weavers give free rein to their imagination in the choice of patterns and colors, although they are influenced by the traditional motifs used in their area or their tribe. Some of the compositions produced by these young girls, living in the isolation of rural areas, are masterpieces that could easily measure up against works produced by sophisticated artists. Carefully stored in wooden chests, and only displayed during ceremonies or on special occasions, dowry carpets often still explode with color and look brand new decades after they were woven. Some of the rarer pieces hidden away in Şişko Osman's many storage cupboards, are two or three centuries old and need repair. Although Osman Bey does not undertake the restoration work himself, he supervises the work of 55 people he employs for this delicate and painstaking task. He alone selects the wool and prepares dyes in the traditional way, by collecting insects and roots in the forest, to match these antique pieces. The result is stunning: tattered carpets, once the pride of weavers who are long dead, are brought back to life for the enjoyment of carpet lovers.

Although Şişko's fame attracts tourists and dignitaries form all over the world, many of his customers are carpet collectors who share his love of beauty and have become firm friends. To connoisseurs, Osman Bey shows his private collection, which include the finest of silk carpets, produced in special workshops for the dowry chests of Ottoman princesses. Two silk cushion covers that once adorned the throne of sultans are displayed in glass cases.

Şişko Osman also proudly displays pieces of more modest orijins that have attracted his attention for their originality, such as a wool carpet produced by a male convict in jail. "I immediately knew it was woven by a man, which is rare, because the weaving is so tight that no woman would have had such strenght. Just looking at the work, you can feel the man's anger and frustration."

Sadly, dowry carpets and kilims are getting rarer. Şişko Osman dates the declines to 1967, when television was introduced in Turkey. "Producing carpets is hard work. Young women no longer want to do it. They prefer to watch television." Osman Bey believes production decreased by as much as 85%.

Several projects have been initiated to give new impetus to the trade and preserve the use of natural dyes ad ancient patterns. "These pieces may well be the antiques of the future. Some of them are of high quality," says Şişko Osman. "But it is not quite the same. They are the result of a deliberate effort and lack the spontaneity of earlier pieces."

For the time being, however, Şişko Osman still finds enough carpets during his travels across Anatolia to fuel his passion. "The money in the Central Bank would not be enough to buy all the carpets I want," he says.

"The world of carpets has no limits, you can never explore it all. It is an ocean, and in all these years, I have only managed to drink a small glass."

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