The hammam towel, also known as a pestamal, is a perennial Turkish accessory that's prized for its myriad of uses. Said to have been traditionally used in the super-hot hammams (Turkish baths), they needed to be durable, soft and good at drying in humid conditions.
The lightweight practicality of these Turkish towels see them going from the bathroom, to the beach, to the dining table and onto the body. A big part of Turkish life, hammam towels are often still woven in the country using traditional methods.
Local lifestyle brand, The Cotton Company, has brought this time-honoured Turkish craft to South Africa. The company works with a small, family-run team of artisans in the Aegean region of Turkey, who founder Madeleine Hugo met spontaneously during a road trip through the Turkish countryside.
Madeleine Hugo, founder, The Cotton Company.
Hugo, who was living in Istanbul at the time, says of the meeting, "to experience their legendary hospitality was humbling in countless ways.
"Their warmth is woven into the fabric of everything they do and we decided that we simply had to share their love.”
Hugo works closely with these traditional weavers in rural Turkey to produce custom-made towels and textiles made with 100% pure Turkish cotton, that maintain a fresh, modern look and the original quality that made them famous.
In the spirit of Entrepreneur Month, Hugo shares more on the chance encounter that launched her business, her strategy for its growth, and the daily hustle required to be a successful entrepreneur.
Can you share a bit about your background before starting The Cotton Company?
My background is actually in the hospitality industry where I worked as a chef and restaurant manager, thereafter I moved into the wine industry. After my studies, I worked in England and then moved to the beautiful Belfast, Northern Ireland for a while. When I met my husband, we moved to Germany.
I have travel in my blood and we are always planning our next adventure. So it was no surprise we ended up living in Turkey for a few years before moving back to South Africa – this is where my love for Turkish towels and products was born.
How did you end up forming a relationship with a family of traditional weavers in Turkey?
Living in Turkey, my Turkish friend and I decided to go on a roadtrip to the countryside of Turkey. Sitting in a small restaurant, the owner asked us what we are doing there and when we mentioned that we are looking for pestemals (Turkish towels) he told us that his family are weavers and that we must follow him to them. That was the start of a beautiful friendship.
I remember the first day we met them so well. They asked us to join them for a lunch which their grandmother prepared for us, using vegetables from their garden. Everything was so incredibly delicious and special, and every time we visit them the memory and adventure grows and remains with me when I return to SA.
What inspired you to turn the encounter into a business back home?
We were living in Istanbul, using Turkish towels every single day – it’s a part of life there – and I always thought “these towels will work incredibly well in South Africa", keeping the weather and lifestyle in mind. Every time we visited SA, I would gift Turkish towels to family and friends and they absolutely loved it. The idea was born!
It was only when we moved back to South Africa that I started doing some more market research to see if it will actually work. It took a phone call from my dad encouraging me to make the final big move.
What are the unique qualities of Turkish hammam towels?
I always say that it can be used for whatever reason you want it to be. Although it is traditionally woven to use as a towel, the designs are so beautiful that you can use it as a scarf, a blanket, a tablecloth, a baby blanket, a throw, a wrap, etc.
The 100% Turkish cotton makes it super eco-friendly as it is compact, absorbent and dries really quickly.
Can you explain a little bit about the weaving process?
We have a new linen and cotton collection that is handwoven on old wooden looms – woven exactly like it’s been traditionally done for so many centuries. Every tassel is then hand-tied by the ladies in the house. I love touching this range as you can really feel the energy of this natural, handmade product.
As an entrepreneur, describe what your typical workday looks like?
I’m a business owner and mom and trying to find the balance between the two is very important. After dropping my daughter off at school, the first thing I do is catch up on emails and send out online orders. Then I spend the morning getting invoices ready, sending out wholesale orders and other admin.
In between I work on new collections, doing photoshoots and planning social media. I also visit clients and take samples to them and sometimes actually deliver orders myself.
At night when everybody is asleep, I will catch up on some more admin, do social media posts and plan the next day.
What is the most valuable lesson you’ve learnt on your startup journey?
It’s okay to ask for help and to delegate. Ask for help from fellow entrepreneurs and listen to your customers.
My main thing with this business is to try and give the best, personal service I can. We make mistakes, but it’s how we deal with it, how we follow up and how we make the customer feel that's very important to me and my business. That’s why each and every order that leaves our office has a hand-written note thanking you for shopping with us.
How do you plan to grow your business, and what is your ultimate vision for The Cotton Company?
I believe in baby steps, and since we opened our doors, that’s been my approach. That said, we are steadily growing and my dream is to become the place to go to for Turkish towels and throws, because of our variety, service and quality.
Next up is to open a shop and go international.
Each year I set a goal for myself and I make sure I focus on that. My 2018 goal has been realised many times over, but it takes a lot of hard work and proper vision.
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