Elizabeth Hewitt is an expat in Istanbul and has been living in this city for 9 years. A textile designer and dealer specialized in antique textiles she knows everything there is to know about design, textiles and the city she calls home. We met with her at Tulu Textile; her store in Sultanahmet located just a few steps away from the Blue Mosque.
SoUL: Let’s start with your background…
EH: I’m from Philadelphia. I studied textile design at the Philadelphia College of Textiles and I almost immediately started traveling. I went to Ecuador to study textiles. I was studying with a weaver there. In that period I bought some antique textiles. When I came back somebody offered me what seemed like a lot of money. I thought, I could do this as a business so I started traveling and started my business.
SoUL: Which countries were on top of your list as far as business travel was concerned?
EH: I started travelling to Morocco, Pakistan and India, Turkey, Central Asia and buying old things, old textiles mostly and then selling them back in the U.S. I have this business since then, for more than 20 years.
And about 10 years ago, I realized that some, certain type of textile that was made in the 19th century in Uzbekistan that I specialize in, was being made again because there were new pieces on the market being sold, as old. But I recognized that these were new pieces. I had connections there and found out who was producing them so we started making this fabric again.
SoUL: We heard you were working with some fashion designers at that time?
EH: Yes, for example I showed some of the new fabric to Oscar de la Renta. And he changed his runway that year and did all with this new fabric. So it started like this.
SoUL: Very exciting… How did you end up coming to Turkey?
EH: While I started my business for antiques, you know this is just one of the places that I was interested in coming to. Of course, famous for textiles and rugs and carpets and it had the additional advantage of being the place for all the Central Asian things. When the Soviet Union broke up, if you were into antiques and textiles, it was heaven here. And I fell in love with Istanbul and Turkey. So amazing and beautiful, beautiful people, food and culture…
SoUL: And you decided to set up a shop here? Tell us a little bit about Tulu and how it came together…
EH: So 9 years ago I moved to Istanbul from San Francisco and I’ve been doing production in India and Uzbekistan for other designers. I was also always designing for myself and I had the desire to produce things that were my designs and suit me. So I decided to open Tulu and that’s what we did.
SoUL: Is that also how you met your husband?
EH: Actually I met my husband because he’s an antique dealer and rugs and textiles. So he’s famous for a rug called Tulu. And he has the biggest collections of Tulus in, maybe, the world. So I went to Konya to see his collection. And we met this way.
SoUL: And is that why you call your shop Tulu.
EH: Yes. In Ottoman, Tulu means to be born, to begin.
SoUL: What differentiates Tulu from other shops in the neighborhood?
EH: First of all because everything is designed, originally designed by me and by us… So it’s a unique look and my eye is informed by 20 years of dealing in antiques from all over the world. And being a specialist in central Asian antiques and textiles, so it has it’s own unique look because of that. It is a designed product in the end.
SoUL: And where do you source your materials?
EH: Turkey, Uzbekistan, Indonesia, India, Afghanistan, Morocco, Russia, and Hungary. We’re not choosy, just whatever is good.
SoUL: What does your design process look like?
EH: I work alone. I work with paint. I am like a dinosaur. When I went to design school we didn’t have computers. I’m just paper and paint. And then we give it to the crafts people. They look at my design and they’re carving it into the blocks just by eye. These guys are awesome, they understand so much intuitively. They’re really amazing masters. So often it’s just my painting and their work…
SoUL: Let’s switch topics… Let’s go back to the days, after you decided to move here and live here… What were some of the things you found different?
EH: I love the mass of İstanbul. You’re walking down the street and you have an incredible 12th century fountain and then next to it you have a terrible, ugly 1970’s building. Istanbul is super dynamic. It’s always changing, from neighborhood to neighborhood even in your own neighborhood. I love the people. They are really warm, and there is still a lot of respect for traditional jobs and traditional food. It’s a living culture.
SoUL: What’s your favorite thing to do in the city?
EH: The best thing is to go to ocakbaşı with friends and drink rakı.
SoUL: Do you have a favorite ocakbaşı?
EH: Yes, it’s called Adana, in Şişli. I take everybody there and the ciğer (liver), uykuluk (sweetbread)… Everything is so tasty. I don’t like Adana Kebab normally but theirs is amazing. And it’s like really old school, florescent lights and not fancy, at all.
SoUL: Knowing everything you know today, if it were your first time in İstanbul and you had 24 hours only… How would you spend your day?
EH: I would make sure that I was staying at a place that had a view of the Bosphorus. From up high if possible. And I would have my breakfast there. I’d make sure there were simit (Turkish bagel) but real simit not pastry simit. And white cheese and olives and tea.Then I’d start walking. I’d walk through Cihangir and Çukurcuma, up through Beyoğlu and walk all around. Pera, Tünel, Şişhane. Maybe I’d stop to eat; there are few sulu yemek (home cooked meals) places in Beyoğlu that are good.
From there I’d walk down to Karaköy, and walk through the fish market, if hamsi (a variant of anchovy from the Black Sea) is in season I would order a plate of hamsi and then walk across the bridge, walk through the Spice Bazaar. Then I’d go to Rüstem Paşa and see the tiles. 16th century İznik tiles at their height…
And then I’d walk up through the streets to the Grand Bazaar. And I would go to Süleymaniye. Then I would go back to my hotel. I like to walk a lot. And may be I’d have a drink on the bridge depends on where the hotel is. And then go to dinner at Adana Ocakbaşı.
SoUL: What a great day you described… And how would you finish these sentences? If one comes to Istanbul, one must visit…
EH: I guess I would say Rüstem Paşa Cami.
SoUL: One must buy…
EH: Buy the evil eye, boncuk. Hand blown blue glass.
SoUL: One must drink…
SoUL: Are there any other places in Turkey that you would recommend a visitor to check out?
EH: Kaş is my favorite. And Uçhisar in Kapadokya…