For me, one of the most fascinating of Turkey’s many traditional folk arts are the knitted woollen socks that you find everywhere, and whose vibrant and beautiful colours and often intricate designs vary widely from region to region. They’re knitted at home on five needles and are warm and hard-wearing, ideal for the harsh winter conditions in many rural areas, especially in the east where villagers wear them inside their boots when they’re out herding the flocks.
As is the case in many other folk arts and crafts, the women and girls who knit the socks are able to express emotions that are normally kept under wraps through the hidden symbolism of the patterns and colours they use. Feelings of longing, love, despair and sorrow can all be discovered hidden in the colours and designs adopted. White, for instance, represents purity and devotion, red passionate love, and black hopelessness or unhappiness. There’s a common ram’s head motif which represents courage in the man for whom they’re intended; flowers mean joy; a rose tree represents love; and stars stand for eternity.
The socks knitted in the Van region have a particularly rich tradition and variety. The wool is spun first of all and the finer the ply the better the quality of the finished item, so much care it taken over the initial preparation of the yarn, with two or three ply the norm. The sheer amount of labour and attention that goes into the making of these works of art ensures that they’re a very important part of the trousseau of every country girl. The most highly valued socks are those that have motifs in coloured yarn on the toe, usually made by young women for their fiancés but also for close relatives.
In Van, socks may be knitted using either undyed wool or using motifs of coloured wool. Young girls and women usually wear socks with an overall pattern of coloured motifs, whilst the ones they knit for their menfolk have coloured motifs only on their toes. Men’s socks are also usually long and may or may not have ribbing at the top to keep them up. Where there’s no ribbing they’re held up by ties made from the same wool as the socks, with the wide upper parts tucked beneath the legs of the salvar (Turkish baggy trousers) or regular trousers at the knees.
Women’s socks are normally much shorter and have decorative ribbing at the tops. In addition to being decorated all over with various motifs, they often have an additional different design on the sole.
The actual knitting may start either at the upper edge or at the toe, and individual knitters have their personal preference, but in either case there are no seams involved. The toes may be rounded or pointed, the latter characteristic of socks with polychrome designs.
In Van, the yarn that’s destined to be used for knitting socks is subjected to ‘kerdis’, a process by which the spun wool is wound around one of the knitting needles whilst knitting, with one end looped over the knitter’s toes. As she knits, excess fronds of wool are scraped away from the yarn and onto the needle, which guarantees a smooth finish. When completed, the sock is finally washed and pulled over a wooden mould so that the finished item has an ironed look and a perfect shape.
Women and girls knit socks in their spare time in between working in gardens and fields, picking up their portable needles whenever they take the weight off their feet. You often come across them knitting as they walk about as well.
Meanwhile, the men can always be found playing backgammon, smoking, reading the papers and drinking tea in the cafes, which is of course all perfectly right and proper and as it should be…