The people work a lot in Turkey. A six-day work-week is commonplace, and a seven-day one only moderately less so. Though many Turks own their own businesses, these are often one- or two-person operations requiring the owner’s constant presence.
|A four-storey building in the Beyoğlu district of Istanbul houses
no fewer than three tailors ("terzi").
The number of tailors in Istanbul is also surprising given the extent to which the trade has declined in other parts of the world. The widespread availability of inexpensive, off-the-rack clothing has made the cost of having clothes mended or altered seem impractical when new ones are so affordable. Ready-made clothing is no less available and no more expensive in Turkey, yet a great many tailors still make a living—however precarious—from their trade.
Over the period spanning December 31, 2013 to January 6, 2014, I conducted seven interviews with tailors working in different parts of Istanbul: in Kadıköy and Üsküdar on the Asian side, in Beyazıt near the famous Grand Bazaar, and in the old city center of Beyoğlu on the European side. The questions were not about politics or current events, but about work, and although the interviews were recorded, as all were conducted in Turkish, the recordings are not appended here. Instead, I have sought to summarize and relay highlights from the interviews to offer an impression of the working lives of Istanbul's tailors, how they are changing, and how these men and women view their trade.
Most of the tailors I approached were working when I entered their shops and kept at it
|Two tailors at work at Bizim Terzisi, Kadıköy
This was no small feat in several places, as a tailor's workshop in Istanbul tends to be a tiny space in the back of a residential building, up a flight or two of stairs, and not infrequently windowless. Unlike in the US, where their work is often combined with dry cleaning and occupies the same space, in Turkey tailors have shops of their own. Sometimes these enterprises are marked with a sign on the street "Terzi" (Tailor), but often you would only know there was a tailor in the building if you somehow already knew there was a tailor in the building. To get to Mustafa Altıntop's Model Tasarım Terzisi, for example, you have to pass through a curtain at the back of another shop, Hey Müzik ve Tekstil.
Ali Öner of Özlem Terzi in Beyazıt
Though Yavuz is unusual in that he is still quite young, most tailors started learning the trade before they reached their teens, with apprenticeships of between six and eight years duration. Ali Öner of Özlem Terzi ın Beyazıt spoke about how he ran away from his home in eastern Anatolia at the age of thirteen and came to Istanbul, where he lived in a tailor's shop while working there as an apprentice. Kerim Erdoğan (no relation), who owns a shop in Beyoğlu, started his apprenticeship at age eleven. Coming from a very poor family, he added, the profession was chosen for him.
|Mustafa Altıntop of Model Tasarım Terzisi, Kadıköy
Müğe Deniz is atypical. She is a woman and young (like Yavuz she is just twenty-three), but like others in the business she started working in her mother's shop, Terzi Mukadder, at
Mukadder Yılmaz and Müğe Deniz at Terzi Mukadder
Though the tailors in Beyoğlu similarly work long hours and six-day weeks, their situation is markedly better than that of tailors in other parts of the city. Their vacations are more leisurely, ten to fifteen days long, and their shops are large, consisting of two rooms—one for cutting and another for sewing. Both specialize in making clothing from scratch and their clientele tends to be wealthy and cosmopolitan; not everyone can afford to have a bespoke suit. Akbaş proudly showed me the business card of one of his clients, an official at the US consulate in Istanbul.
Tailors from other parts of town generally designate Beyoğlu as the district where the best
|Çağlar Kumaş (fabrics) across from Kerim Erdoğan's tailor shop in Beyoğlu.
The tailors in Beyoğlu are also among the few in the city who still specialize in making
|Rıza Akbaş in a three-piece suit he made himself (his assistant,
Mahmud Yavuz, is in the background)
A further distinction between the tailors of Beyoğlu and the others was the decor in their shops. Whereas most tailors in other areas had images, clippings, and often a Turkish flag or a photograph of Mustafa Kemal Atatürk (or both) on their shop walls, the decor in
Mustafa Ağınlı's shop inside the Grand Bazaar (Kapalı Çarşı) in
Beyazıt features several common attributes of Istanbul
tailors' decor: a Turkish flag, a photograph of Atatürk, and an empty
glass of tea.
Because his shop is in an area with heavy tourist traffic, Ağınlı encounters a lot of foreigners, but relies on friends to help him communicate with them as he speaks only Turkish. The location makes him less dependent on the cycles that otherwise affect tailors working in the city. For them, winter is the slowest time and late summer the busiest—with the start of school, the abundance of weddings, and moving Muslim holidays such as Kurban Bayram and Ramadan.
The hardest thing about being a tailor in Istanbul, Yılmaz told me, is the time pressure, "customers want things right away and it means we are always in a rush." I had a chance to see for myself what she meant. At Ali Öner's shop, a customer came with a pair of pants, which he altered on the spot; Öner measured the man's leg and sewed the hem in a matter of minutes. Another young man came in with a shirt. "Can you come back in two hours?" Öner asked. The customer said he had to go somewhere, so two hours was talked down to half an hour and for the remainder of the interview, Öner was cutting the seams on the cuffs as we spoke. Kerim Erdoğan initially told me he had no time to do an interview, but when I said I was unlikely to pass that way again, he pointed to a stool across from where he was working. "Ask," he said, and for the whole of the interview he sat there, one leg propped on a footstool, bent over a pair of pants that he was stitching with needle and thread for a customer who was leaving for Germany the next day.
There exists a union for textile workers in Turkey called TEKSİF. The Istanbul branch is
Recep Türkmenoğlu (left) and Kerim Erdoğan at work on a suit for
a customer who was about to leave for Germany.
Though it was clear the trade had changed a great deal since these tailors started working in it, Akbaş concluded with a heavy sigh that soon the kind of work he does will no longer be practiced by anyone because everyone will be buying suits off the rack. Erdoğan felt the most marked changes were in the fabrics and the customers: the fabrics had become thinner and the customers more difficult. Akbaş similarly waxed horrified about the proliferation of cheap, low-quality "Chinese" fabrics. English fabrics remained the best, he said.
Yılmaz believes that the most essential characteristic of a good tailor is patience and being able to listen to customers and understand what they want, which is not always easy. Above all one has to be available to them all day, more or less every day of the year. Yılmaz is noticeably proud to have plenty of business and no shortage of work, but confessed that she sometimes found it difficult to work so much without a break. "I would have liked to travel, see the world" she said, "but it wasn't meant to be."