Where Have All the “Communal Napkins” Gone?

Here I am in Turkey in 2007.

I had resisted the high prices at the dealers’ fair in the Istanbul ICOC, but after, as my wife Jo and I drove about western and central Turkey for about three weeks, I weakened.

This is the story of one of these weakenings.

In Bergama, we drove that long “main” street and Jo sought out an item of archeology there.

On the other side of the street was a row of rug stores with garish offerings hung outside.  Jo finished with her archeology and asked whether I was going to look into the rug shops.  I said it wasn’t very encouraging, but she walked into one and I followed.  The dealer had mostly newer material, but did have one decent South Persian rug for which he was asking a fair price.  I told him I was looking for older material…really antique.

He brightened and said “My uncle has antiques…very close” (everyone has an “uncle,” who is sure to have what you want).  We reluctantly followed him a block or two.  His uncle’s antique shop had mostly Ottoman material, not much of it of the textile sort.  But we looked around.

On an out-of-the-way shelf, I saw an odd, flat-woven piece.


Here it is, unfolded and pinned to a wall.


I didn’t measure at the time, but, ultimately, found that it was 17 inches wide and 190 inches long.

It has simple, linear designs down the length of its field,

but both of its ends are more densely decorated with slit tapestry.

The ground fabric is a mixture of linen and cotton.  Although the handle is a little stiff, the balanced plain weave is loose and gauzy in close-up.

An Anatolian dealer subsequently told me that this fabric is very like what the Egyptians used to bind their mummies.

The old Ottoman Bergama dealer said he thought his piece was a sofreh…an eating cloth.  Well, its field designs generally resembled those one sees on sofrehs, but it seemed too narrow and too delicate to serve in the way that sofrehs are asked to.

But I had never seen a piece like it, and although it had stains, it was complete.  I bought it.

As we traveled, we encountered a number of knowledgeable rug and textile folks and I kept asking what it was.  The most frequent suggestion was that it was doubled on its length (it has a strong fold along that line) and worn wrapped round and round as a sash.  A couple of years ago, Harold Keshishian had me put it on as a sash and that use seemed at least, mechanically, to work.

Marla Mallett and some others suggested that the designs on its kilim ends were similar to some on Manastir kilims by western Anatolian weavers, after their return from the Balkans.

Recently, two authorities on Manastir kilims visited here in Washington, D.C. and I took my piece along to see what they might think about it.

They examined it, noticed the linen, and said it seemed European to them.

But Bill and Sondra Bechhoefer,

two long-time Washington collectors, with deep experience in Turkey, were standing nearby and said they knew what it was: that it was called a “harem napkin.”  The “harem” usage, they said, referred to the “family,” not to the “female-enclave,” and so it could have been used by men.  They said that usually fragments are found and that a complete one was rare.

They said that they knew of a fragment of such a communal napkin, woven in silk, and, subsequently, provided me with an image of it.

The Bechhoefers said they saw this piece in Damascus and that it had been attributed to Aleppo by two dealers there.  They added that this attribution may not be very precise, since, historically, Aleppo has often been used to refer to an area that includes large parts of Turkey and northwest Syria

They also provided me with an image of an engraving of a communal napkin in use.

Image courtesy of Phyllis Kane

Bill also said that the indication that the silk fragment was from a communal napkin was made by Nurhan Atasoy, the noted Turkish art historian.

I’ve looked around the internet a little and there are indications that the communal napkin format arose about the 14th century, perhaps in Europe.  Place indications include England, Turkey and, even, Finland.  I found a 15th century Flemish painting by Dieric Bouts, of The Last Supper, that also shows a communal napkin in use.

Once one begins to think about it, the fact that most Middle Eastern meals are communal and eaten with the bare hands, makes it clear that there is a general  need for some method of wiping one’s hands, surely at the end of the meal, and likely as one goes along.  One could speculate that perhaps one’s clothes were an early convenient target for hand wiping, but that this was seen early to have its disadvantages.

The use of eating cloths – the sofrehs – for hand-wiping, must also have been inviting, but I own one long, Persian sofreh (it is much longer than it looks here, maybe 15 feet, because I have folded it to cover several holes) but it is a sturdy, heavy piece, credible for use as a ground cloth, but too thick for convenient hand wiping (although, that would be possible).

There are indications, in what I have read about communal napkins, that suggest that in situations in which a cloth was placed on a table for a meal, there was a tendency to make this format large enough so that part of the cloth hung off the table, into the laps of the participants in the meal, and was available for hand wiping.  It could be that early communal napkins arose, as a separate format, to prevent such hand-wiping from soiling especially nice, and difficult to clean, tablecloths.

Further conjecture suggests that, while communal napkins were an advance on no napkins, the communal use of napkins was shown quickly to have disadvantages.  Folks eating communally, and with bare hands, cannot be too fastidious, in modern, western terms, but extremely messy table mates, who intruded on one’s area of a communal napkin, no doubt occurred, and drew unfavorable notice.  This in turn, suggested that napkins would be advantageously individual, and that is what they have become.

But communal napkins must have been used for a considerable period of time and the seeming absence of them, not just from the materials we see as we collect, but from expert memory in at least one of the areas in which they were used (Turkey) seems remarkable.  They must have been ubiquitous, but where have they gone, and why are they not remembered, even by most folks with a great interest and considerable knowledge of antique textiles?

And that, in addition, to telling my story about this piece, is the reason for this post.  I do not ordinarily permit responses to my  posts, but this time I want to request some.  If you have ever heard about communal napkins or have seen or have an image of one, in part or whole, please write me at rjhowe@erols.com and share what you can.  Write, also, if you think my piece is something other than a communal napkin.  After an interval (I have written to Professor Atasoy as well) I will share what I discover in a subsequent (announced) addendum post.

Thanks and regards,

R. John Howe

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