Our perception of luxury and value is inherently entwined with elements of grace. Time, silence, nature, weight, and connection; things that we cannot easily behold, capture or control.
Leveraging the subconscious effect of these values our senses intuitively search out, wasn’t the initial intention of Mikala James in a business sense. But it is the essence of what makes her brainchild Loom Towels a standout inception of every day artisanal luxury that connects far beyond the touch of textile on skin. Steeped in tradition, centuries old skill woven into every loop, Loom Towels is bridging the gap between worlds. Between the slowness and exotic traditions of ancient craftsmanship birthed on the other side of the earth in Turkey, and the tactile beauty and unique luxury they bring to the often chaotic nature of the every day. In a world that both lauds and shuns fastness, Loom Towels is beautifully defiant, imbued with story and character, carrying with every piece an aura of desert-born, nomadic rebellion.
We recently caught up with Mikala to talk ethos, aesthetic, tradition and travels, and to find out her secret spots and must-dos in Turkey, along with her passion for bringing luxury textiles to life in a modern context, by preserving and celebrating time worn craft, with a conscious focus on environmental and cultural sustainability.
You create beautiful, seriously covetable towels, hand loomed with age old techniques, in a small Turkish community. It almost reads as fiction. How did this adventure begin?
Thank you! I fell into this adventure over 5 years ago. I was in my second year of a business degree and during the mid-year break travelled through Europe and spent a few weeks in Turkey. During my stay I discovered hand-loomed, organic cotton towels from a family-run workshop in south-eastern Turkey, I fell in love with the beauty and story of the pieces. Once home I decided to start a business with the hope of connecting these amazing handmade goods with discerning customers, hopefully keeping this art form alive.
Did you have a strong affinity with the region before you began creating there, or have these two things grown together?
I didn’t know much about the region before travelling there in that initial holiday so these two things have definitely grown together. I have since visited Turkey countless times and now feel such a connection with the country. I visit Turkey at the beginning of each new collection to complete designs and organise all that is involved.
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Tell us about the destination itself, the atmosphere, the spirit, the people and the aesthetic?
The village is tiny, remote and largely unchanged, it’s in the south east quite close to the Syrian border which has made it difficult and unsafe for me to travel to in recent years. As I mostly travel alone I usually base myself in Istanbul and hold all meetings there. However, the recent terror attacks in Istanbul this year have also made things challenging and questionable - I was actually over there just a mere 10 minute walk from a suicide bomber attack in January which was an experience I don’t wish to encounter again. Since the January attack there have been multiple other attacks. So unfortunately for the rest of the year it looks as though everything will be done over the phone.
The people there are lovely, there is a real sense of community, it’s small and most people have been there their whole lives. People are sweet and inviting, I’ve met people over there and neither of us speak the other’s language but you just feel something, the spirit, the generosity and the simple act of offering tea says a lot. The weavers and their families are so grateful and thrilled to know that people all the way in Australia are enjoying their towels. Their spirit seems high, they live the simple life and we can all learn something from that, that less is actually more. I definitely know this to be true, and it is exactly like this in the case of the towels, I’d rather buy one towel that is of amazing quality, that someone has crafted just for you with a skill that’s learned and perfected over many years, than have lots of ‘standard’ (hard for me not to say ‘shitty’) towels any day.
How does this shape and influence your designs?
I definitely find it inspiring and that’s why I’ve kept the traditional elements of the towels like the hand-tied fringing and tassels.
The looming process itself is ancient, complete with finishes of hand tied fringing and tassels. Historically, did this community of artisans always specialise in this craft? Tell us about the traditional role of these textiles locally, before the world discovered their inherent luxury!
All the weavers I work with are men. Historically women were the home weavers and taught their children the skill. Once grown up the girls would leave the home to get married and continue to weave at home whereas boys would continue their weaving in a commercial setting for work. The majority of looms in Turkey drastically lessened 20-30 years ago - 30 years ago everything in the bazaars was handwoven, with only a small supply of factory produced items available. As factory production picked up, prices of these items dropped and hand weavers couldn’t compete. The market for hand-loomed textiles pretty much disappeared as industrial textile manufacturing overtook it and generations of hand-weaving families went out of business as a result.
Over the years we have expanded our workshop, there are now multiple different sized shuttle-looms working under the management of our head weaver. It is such a contrast to working with a factory whether large or small, one example of this is that it’s not possible to get samples of anything. Everything is made from and based on our relationship, and there are always a few hiccups - I really do need to be prepared for anything.
The colour palette you draw upon is both vibrant yet natural. Where do you seek inspiration for each collection?
I try to create designs that incorporate interesting colour palettes. My main design influences come from the environment. There are such beautiful colour palettes in nature, I really like muted timeless tones, I love colour but I’m not into anything too bright and really dislike neon, I also never look to follow trends.
Besides your own luxurious textiles, what are your favourite artisanal pieces specific to Turkey…where if suitcase weight were no issue, you’d bring home with you every time?
So much! I’d love to just move there so I can have everything I love right at my doorstep all the time. I really enjoy the food, there are some amazing bistros and cafes I always try to visit each time I’m there. I love the older style hand-made tiles in Turkey, I would totally bring back suitcases of these and cover the floors of my apartment with them.
When you venture down those atmospheric cobblestone lane ways in Istanbul you come across these almost dishevelled shops which have old industrial furniture, lighting, machinery and so on. In a city of 20 million people, there’s such a variety of industrial/art deco products.
When you’re not working, what do you most look forward to in this part of the world? Where would we find you in your down time?
In my down time I really love to spend time with the good friends I’ve made over there, we’ll just eat and drink at local bistros all day and night. A little shopping is always nice too, everything is open really late every night of the week.
I also usually jump on a ferry to go to Kadikoy for the day or cruise along the Bosphorus especially in the summer time. I like walking through the streets, buying fresh simit (similar to a bagel) and pomegranate juice from little street venders - all the things you can’t get in Melbourne.
Your favourite ‘side trip’…a nearby destination worthy of combining in the same adventure?
One of the best side trips I’ve done was to go to Oludeniz (1hour flight from Istanbul), I went paragliding there and I’d highly recommend it. - Oludeniz is regarded as one of the best places in the world to paraglide due to its unique panoramic views, and Mount Babadag's exceptional height. For a more relaxed experience, sail on a gullet or luxury yacht down the incredible coast line. You’ll see amazing sea life and stop at beautiful swim spots and beaches. It’s stunning.
For anyone travelling to this part of the world, either on honeymoon, or in a state of wanderlust, where are your top recommendations for:
After Dinner Cocktails: Külhanbeyi Istanbul is a really great cocktail bar, located in a basement that was once the coal room that powered the first ever metro in Istanbul. (www.kulhanbeyi.co).
Design Inspiration: Istanbul Modern. Also, I find just wandering around the suburbs of Beyoglu and Cihangir inspiring as there are some beautiful buildings and hidden gems throughout the numerous lane ways and small streets. So many great cafes like my all time favourite Journey Lounge in Kilicali Pasa, Beyoglu.
To shop where the local shop: In the small streets of Beyoglu there are lots of antique shops and small boutiques… you can’t go wrong wandering around this neighbourhood.
A Memorable Dining Experience: A favourite is a small bistro called ‘Aheste Pera’, it’s around the corner from cocktail bar Külhanbeyi so have dinner here and then go for a night cap at Külhanbeyi.
An Unexpected Experience: If you’re travelling with a male, definitely make them experience a traditional shave at any of the local barbers, they all take walk ins.
Boutique Accommodation: The House Hotel Galatasaray (www.thehousehotel.com) or Karakoy Rooms (http://karakoyrooms.com/home.htm).
Technically speaking, each weave design appears complex and unique. Are each of these based on traditional styles, into which you inject a Loom Towels palette? Or do you create them in collaboration with the weavers? Talk us through the process of arriving at each design…
Designing the towels is a collaborative process between the weavers and I. I have great respect for the craft and the weavers, I may decide on the colours and patterns but essentially the weaver knows best especially when multiple complicated weaving styles/patterns are being made. Looms have restrictions, and a few times we’ve had to adapt things to make it work. For example, in our Night range the bath towels and mats are a different pattern to the hand and face towels, this wasn’t the plan but it turned out the smaller loom could not produce the same pattern - this is part of the endearing nature of handmade goods and both the weavers and I learn things from each collection made.
The approach to a design usually starts by just thinking about colours, creating mood boards, using paint swatches or pencils. It’s a rough idea of the general palette I want. Then in Turkey we discuss what’s possible, what colours and how many kilos of organic cotton threads we are holding in stock (collected over the years), and what newly dyed organic cotton threads we can purchase from local sources.
And yet you make no more than 100 of each!
It adds an extra specialness and it allows us to constantly create new, exclusive items, and to keep exploring with designs and new products.
Your brand adheres to such exacting standards, from the organic yarns, the dyes, the ethical fair trade practices…besides the ‘feel good’ factor, what considerations drew you down this inspirational path, one that is definitely the road less travelled, in this day and age?
It’s the tradition of the craft, you simply can’t get the same result using an automated loom or non-organic materials. On a personal note, I want to do the right thing by people and the environment. To me it’s worth it - at the end of the day I would feel pretty guilty if I were producing a product that lacked substance and eco-friendly attributes. Organic textiles have far more importance and value today than many people give them. Cotton that’s treated with chemicals and pesticides can be so harmful to the growers, workers and the local eco systems. Our cotton and dyes are GOTS certified organic, the Global Organic Textile Standard (GOTS) is the worldwide leading textile processing standard for organic fibres, including ecological and social criteria, backed up by independent certification. Another advantage of organic cotton is it’s longevity, it actually improves with use.
As a seasoned globe trotter, what is the single best piece of travel advice you’ve ever received?
Go with it, if you’re not having fun then what’s the point. And everything happens for a reason, even the bad things.
And lastly, if you weren’t creating luxury textiles, how would you fill your days?
That’s hard to answer, I can’t imagine doing anything else.