Edmonds family with Turkish rug repair business mourns earthquake victims

Mehmet Solak in his rug shop. (Photo by Paula Knauer)

Edmonds is half a world away from Turkey, but right now, they inhabit the same space in the heart of 48-year-old Mehmet Solak. Even as he goes about his business here, restoring and repairing intricate handmade rugs, he thinks of family and friends back home.

His hometown, Sultanhani, is far enough away from Turkey’s recent devastating earthquakes to be spared the worst of it.  “My family felt it but there was no damage,” he said. “I have a friend who lost everything – his family, his house, his nephew, a lot of friends. He is very sad.”

These days, it can be hard for Solak to concentrate on his craft, which requires intense focus. “I’m not happy because of the earthquake,” he said. “Sometimes, I can’t work.”

It is the work that brought him to the Northwest in 2007. “I had a friend in Seattle who said the rugs were popular and to come work with him,” Solak said. Gaining the necessary immigration documents, he left Turkey, along with his wife Gülay and their two small children.

They ended up in a small apartment in Seattle’s Greenwood neighborhood and set about the tough task of learning English.

“I study at Shoreline Community College,” Solak recalled. “It was difficult to listen, to write, but Sultanhani is a tourist town so I was familiar with the sound of English.”

Both he and Gülay continued their classes while their kids – a daughter and son – soaked up English at school. “They learn fast, in a few months,” he said. “My daughter forgot Turkish!”

The family found a friend in Edmonds resident Paula Knauer. “I have a connection with Turkey going back 53 years and had some knowledge of the language,” she said. “The college knew about my background and asked if I could help Gülay. I soon realized that these people came from a town filled with extended family – cousins and uncles and aunts. Now here they were, isolated in a small apartment knowing almost no one. I thought, Gülay needs a friend more than a coach. I did what I could to help them.”

English-practice conversations turned into weekly coffees and chai, then into big Turkish breakfasts at the Solak home. “There’s sliced tomatoes, cucumbers, white cheeses like feta, honey, black and green olives, an omelet of some kind, fried potatoes, sometimes watermelon. And a lot of tea,” Knauer said. “I like the tea more than Turkish coffee, which is very strong.”

Knauer delighted in the Solak’s children. “I’d take their kids to Golden Gardens with my granddaughter. Those were among the most joyful times of my life.”

In 2011, she joined the Solaks on a trip to Turkey. “I met the whole extended family and we took a hot-air balloon ride together.”

Meanwhile, Solak worked hard to finally open his own rug-repair company specializing in the cleaning and renovation of hand-knotted or hand-woven carpets, including antiques and family heirlooms.

This before photo shows a Kazak rug was damaged by a dog’s chewing. It was also completely worn down in certain areas and parts of the foundation needed repair.
After one week’s restoration work, the rug looked like new again.

Solak also runs a co-business in Turkey, sending rugs to his hometown for specialty work. “I send maybe 10% of the work back home,” he said.

Here – or there – the repair of handmade rugs often begins with careful cleaning, using no harsh chemicals or abrasive brushes. “The colors must match, perfect,” he said. “You can’t have dirty wool next to new wool.”

And then there’s the meticulous choice of which wool to use. “I bring some special wool from different countries,” said Solak. “You have to use Turkish wool on Turkish rugs. Wool from Afghanistan on Afghan rugs. Very important.”

Solak hand dying wool to match a Moroccan rug he is working on.

He also hand-dyes the wool, often using vegetable dyes from Turkey.

The work is labor intensive and concentrated. “You have to focus on it,” he said. “Can’t make a mistake.”

Since beginning to learn his craft at the age of 14, he still enjoys the work 34 years later. “It’s very special,” he said. “If you don’t enjoy it, you can’t do it.”

“He is an incredible craftsman,” said Knauer. “He repaired one of my rugs I got in Turkey. He’s an expert. It’s astonishing to me the skills he has.”

A closeup of the wool Solak works with. He said most of it is dyed with vegetable dye he brings back from Turkey.

Those skills came to Edmonds three years ago when the family moved away from Seattle and bought a home. “I love it here,” Solak said. ”People are very kind and I like my neighbors.”

The move meant Gülay Solak could be closer to her job at Swedish Hospital. “She doesn’t drive,” her husband explained, ”and she took three buses to get to work. Now it’s five minutes away.”

“Gülay has worked her buns off at Swedish,” said Knauer. “She’s earned her nurse’s certificate,” adding, “I’m a big fan of immigrants. Where would we be without them?”

As the Solaks continue their journey in America while grieving Turkey’s catastrophic losses, Knauer feels deep empathy, honoring them and all those like them.

“The Solak’s story is the story of so many of us – their diligence, their hard work and perseverance,” she said. “They are us. And we are them.”

To learn more about the Solak business, visit rugrepairman.com.

— By Connie McDougall

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

Real first and last names — as well as city of residence — are required for all commenters.
This is so we can verify your identity before approving your comment.