Women’s lives told through the medium of embroideryPersonal stories are woven into Palestinian embroidery – stories that both challenge and surprise young Danish women. Expertise and information sharing were the buzzwords when students from The Royal Danish Academy of Fine Arts School of design (Designskolen) and students from the Palestinian Fashion and Textile Institute first met with women from various handicraft cooperatives in Palestine.
“That cross-stitching is brimming with sex; all of the embroidery with red thread refers to menstruation. The local embroidery expert and designer Omar-Joseph Nasser-Khoury says shell-shaped patterns symbolise the woman’s vagina. Or ‘the woman’s reproductive organ’, as he puts when he’s within earshot of the Palestinian ladies,” explains a clearly impressed Maria Albertsen, project associate and designer from Designskolen in Denmark.
In partnership with the Palestinian designer Omar-Joseph Nasser-Khoury, she is responsible for the creative content of a series of workshops aimed at building bridges between Danish and Palestinian design, the goal of which is to provide mutual inspiration.
The women of Palestine have a long and proud tradition of embroidery, but the work is time consuming and the pay is poor. Because of this, the challenge for the Danish designers has been to collaborate with their Palestinian colleagues and fellow artists in order to make embroidery relevant in a wider context with greater appeal, consequently giving the Palestinian women improved opportunities of earning money.
The exchange of ideas is being facilitated through the Danish NGO Det Danske Hus i Palæstina [The Danish House in Palestine]. The cornerstone of the project, which is called Design in Context, is professional dialogue and exchange of experience and knowledge between Danes and Palestinians. In addition to project associate Maria Albertsen, two students from Designskolen in Denmark are also participating – Tine Winther Rysgaard and Josefine Gilbert.
Design in Context
From Palestine, 12 students from the Fashion and Textile Institute at Beit Sahour are participating, along with 12 women from various handicraft cooperatives, organised under the Dalia Association. This is a Palestinian NGO that focuses on two key areas: “women supporting women” and “The Village Decides”, both of which focus on civil society and capacity accumulation.
The life cycle of women expressed through traditional dress
In the first workshop with the Palestinian women and the Danish designers, the group is given a detailed introduction to the symbolism of the embroideries embellishing the traditional Palestinian women’s dress. It is particularly surprising to the Danes how many stories are told through the cross-stitching on this traditional, loose-fitting garment that covers the entire body from the neck down to the ankles. These embroideries refer to genitalia, the woman’s menstrual cycle and encourage potential courters.
“The garment is used to express the entire life cycle of the women. If their husband dies, she turns her clothing inside out to express her grief. When a widow is ready to meet a new man, she stitches some new, red embroidery onto the garment. As time goes on, the garment becomes filled with more and more red embroidery. Older women, who are done with men, embroider their garments with dark-green thread. Learning all about the complex interaction between genders, identity and embroidery is truly inspiring and something I want to continue working with when I return to Denmark,” Tells student Josefine Gilbert from Designskolen.
Met with great expectations
The objective of this first joint Design in Context workshop is to introduce the participants to each other, to the Palestinian textile tradition, and to what local production can offer. For this reason, the packed programme also includes visits to loom, textile, leather and knitwear production facilities – and the Danish designers are positively surprised with what they see.
“Sometimes, we need to go right back to basic production in order to think innovatively. That’s why it’s great to see, for example, a textile factory that is producing good-quality jersey fabric for the local market. This opens up an opportunity for the women to develop T-shirts with different prints or embroideries, marketable to a wider market,” explains project associate Maria Albertsen.
Ayat Omran, who organises the women from the handicraft cooperatives, is equally positive about the inspiration brought by the Danish designers. She explains that the Palestinian embroiderers have all come along with the definite intention of becoming better at manufacturing products that are more sought after from a design pint of view, and therefore can be sold with greater financial return.
“The problem with traditional embroidery is that it becomes so expensive that it ends up only appealing to a narrow group of rich people. But if the women rethink their handiwork, they can produce products that are less expensive, and thereby become more attractive to a wider target group. One idea could be, rather than embroidering an entire headscarf covered with traditional patterns, using a small detail or section from a traditional pattern in a different context. Time will show what interesting and usable ideas will emerge,” tells Ayat Omran.
Sketchbooks full to overflowing
The Fashion and Textile Institute (FTI)
On the first day of the workshop, all participants were given a sketchbook. The Danish students showed their sketchbooks from their studies and explained about the processes behind the development of the different design products. This working method was particularly alien to the women from the handicraft cooperatives; nevertheless, they approached the task with curiosity and did not hold back from using the white paper.
“We can tell that they’re very inspired by all the things we’ve shown them. Even though they are using the sketchbooks to record and note what they’ve seen, there are lots of new exciting things emerging on their pages. It’s interesting to see what things they are attaching importance to, and simply by interpreting embroidery through drawing something different is happening sparking new ideas,” explains Tine Winter Rysgaard.
Danish-Arab Partnership Programme
KVINFO's programme in the Middle East and North Africa is financed by:
She feels that huge changes have been taking place throughout the days of the workshop.
“As the workshop progressed, the women began feeling more and more comfortable with us. Towards the end of the week, they came up and wanted to show us their sketchbooks and get our feedback. It was a positive experience, which I see as a vote of confidence in us. But there’s still no doubting the fact that the Palestinian aesthetic is very different than ours, and they thought some of the Danish fashion that we showed them was really ugly. But it’s great to experience that we can meet in the method and inspire each other there,” she tells.