A yarn​ of two cities

Knitstanbul was started by Malika Browne, a writer and mother of three who has lived in Syria and Turkey.

In January 2008, I had a baby in Damascus, where my husband and I lived in a traditional courtyard house. The day the baby was born it snowed heavily. A gift of a pair of handknitted dungarees for the baby from a neighbour proved invaluable, and he lived in them for the first 12 weeks of his life. I began to order knitwear from other neighbours, all of whom turned out to be excellent knitters.

Fast forward to 2014, when I had another baby boy, this time in Istanbul. Trying to think of ways to engage with the increasing numbers of Syrians fleeing to Turkey, I started to ask every Syrian I came across, whether on the street, working in a phone shop or in a restaurant, whether they had a mother or sister who was a knitter. It took a while to meet Kefah, a Palestinian mother of four from Damascus, but once I had the project was born.

Kefah’s first garment was a pair of dungarees, a copy of the original that I still had from Damascus days. I set up a simple Facebook page, and our first customers were mothers who wanted to help support other mothers by giving them knitting work. Keen knitters all over the world would reach out to the Syrian knitters, to donate yarn and suggest practical patterns to follow.

By then, word was also spreading in the Syrian refugee community in Istanbul. New knitters came to my flat where I handed out samples to copy, yarn and needles. Most of the women had just arrived in Istanbul, and all of them were determined they would only be in the city for a few months at most, on their way elsewhere. Knitting was a good way to reduce stress, pass the time and earn a bit of cash which their refugee status did not officially allow. As soon as they produced a knitted garment, I paid them in cash for it.

Sometimes women would bring me their work hours before getting on the midnight bus to Izmir from where they would cross the sea to Europe. They all made it, thankfully, and sent pictures of their arrival in Greece a few days later. The knitters who stayed behind would see their work being posted on Facebook and Instagram by happy customers and quip that their handiwork had made it to Europe before them.

There is now a stable core of 12 knitters who meet once a week at AdDar, a community centre for Syrians in Istanbul which has hosted the project for over 2 years. The women are from all walks of life, and all parts of Syria but many new friendships have been forged over knitting needles. Most of our knitters are in Istanbul on their own with children, either because their husband has gone ahead to try and start a new life, or because they are widows. Three of the women depend on Knitstanbul to support their families. In Syria, some were journalists, one was a telecoms engineer and another a broker in a security exchange, while others were housewives. A few have moved to Germany and France, and have found occasional knitting work there, thanks to our ever-growing Facebook network.

Inevitably, the project has become about more than knitting. The volunteers and the knitters form a close family, and we share news and stories. When our Syrian coordinator’s son Mohamed got accepted to a top US university, we all cried with joy. When our English coordinator had her baby in Istanbul last month, the ladies held a baby shower, and practically yarn-bombed him. Sadly, one of our knitters, Dalal decided to move back to Syria recently and we did a whip-round and gave her an emotional send-off.

What we make

We make children’s knitwear, mostly to order for individual customers in Istanbul, the UK and around Europe.

We have also made beanies for Ishkar, blankets for Willa and the Bear, tank tops for Five Boys Clothing, whole families of mice for a special mouse adoption project, and boys’ tank tops to accompany the Imperial War Museum‘s Syria: A Conflict Explored exhibition.

In spring 2018, we made thousands of doilies for artist Zak Ové who uses them in his work. He was commissioned to create a stunning artwork which hangs on the 4th floor of Facebook’s new London headquarters at Rathbone Place. Most of our knitters are extremely adaptable and experienced and love a challenge.

Happy girl in Amman with our knitted bunnies

Damascene coffee and biscuits at one of our workshops!