Emirati Craftswomen Make Their ‘Talli’ Mark on Global Luxury
Nestled at the base of the rugged Hajar Mountains, the small coastal fishing town of Dibba Al Hisn, seems an unlikely place to begin the story of a sold-out, limited-edition luxury handbag collection.
Yet, it’s here that a group of female artisans – many of them mothers and grandmothers – endeavoured to work with designers from British luxury retailer Asprey to handcraft traditional textile braiding to adorn some of the brand’s most sought-after luxury handbags.
These women had a dream to bring this traditional craft, practiced for generations, to a larger audience. Called “Talli”, this form of handwoven braid is created using a technique similar to bobbin lace and is traditionally used to decorate the cuffs, hems and collars of dresses and women’s sherwal trousers.
The story of how these women worked — with support from the Sharjah-based Irthi Contemporary Crafts Council — to bring their handmade textile to some of the most discerning luxury customers in the world is an example of successful cross-cultural collaboration.
But even more so, it’s the story of a group of Sharjah artisans boldly embracing the challenge to evolve their craft – through hard work and innovation in design and technique – so they could introduce it to entirely new audiences.
“Previously, these artisans would sell their ‘Talli’ to each other or within the community. But they wanted their handmade products to have a bigger reach,” said Azza Alsharif, Project Associate with the Irthi Contemporary Crafts Council. “They might have imagined their ‘Talli’ being used in a fashion show in the UAE. But they never dreamed it would reach the level it did.”
Their work was featured in the Bidwa Collection 2016, “One Stitch at a Time”, which included 12 limited-edition handbags that incorporated the artisan’s work. The bags ranged in price from £5,250 to £33,250 and were welcomed with rave reviews at the launch at Asprey in July 2016.
Lead artisan Fatima Fareed, known as Umm Ahmed and a 67-year old grandmother and mother of six, has already taught her daughters ‘Talli’, and she’s looking forward to teaching her granddaughters as well. Her home is a celebration of love for her country, its traditions and heritage. She’s even preparing for her granddaughters the pillows on which the ‘Talli’ is created and likes to paint the metal stands, known as a ‘Kajooja’, on which the pillow is placed.
But it’s more than just a personal passion. She and the other women recognise the craft is a part of their heritage and, in an increasingly modernising world, they want to ensure it survives. “I’m developing the ‘Talli’ craft so that future generations will be interested in learning it, to help this craft stay alive forever,” she said.
Preserving crafts such as ‘Talli’ and making them relevant in today’s world is at the heart of the work of Irthi Contemporary Crafts Council, an organisation developed under the NAMA Women Advancement Establishment. The Bidwa Social Development Programme runs the Bidwa Centre in Dibba Al Hisn, where the artisans produce ‘Talli’ and other regional crafts.
“Unfortunately, many traditional crafts are not widely valued – even though they involve a high level of skill and technique,” said Sally Denton, the Council’s Head of Programmes and Projects. “They are often widely sold as simple tourist souvenirs. Even people in the communities where they are made may not fully value the work or the artisans who make them. However, Irthi Contemporary Crafts Council wants to challenge this perception and elevate these crafts to the level they deserve.”
What’s the relevance of traditional crafts?
For Irthi Contemporary Crafts Council, the starting point is to recognise these women as true designers, artists and craftspeople. Part of the challenge, according to Sally Denton, is that many crafts such as ‘Talli’ take a long time to produce and are extremely complex, but traditionally the market value hasn’t been enough to provide a significant source of income, given the work involved.
Recognising this dynamic, the strategy of Irthi Contemporary Crafts Council is to reimagine and elevate the crafts in new environments and setting, where the true value of the work can shine, thereby raising the amount that this work can command and fostering economic empowerment. The Asprey handbags are a perfect example.
This strategy also leverages a growing trend within the luxury goods sector, said Ciara Hurley-Stewart, Head of Retail Marketing & Partnerships at Asprey. “Craftsmanship is a big buzzword in luxury. Our clients like to know the provenance; that the product is not readily available. They like to have the story behind the item.” This is what defines luxury for them: “the very fact that it’s handmade and that you can identify the individual that made it. It’s not something you can find globally in hundreds of shops.”
The real challenge, however, is that the shift from traditional “cottage” craft to luxury fashion is not a simple process. The Bidwa Collection was not a matter of simply stitching traditional ‘Talli’ designs onto Asprey bags.
It took more than half a year for Asprey and the Irthi Contemporary Crafts Council teams to develop this exclusive range, with Umm Ahmed and the other artisans dedicating three months to creating the samples and the 100 metres of ‘Talli’ used on the final handbags.
Work began when the Irthi Contemporary Crafts Council team travelled to London to meet Asprey in 2015. The Asprey design team sat down with Irthi Contemporary Crafts Council textile designer Azza Alsharif, who holds MA and BA degrees from London’s prestigious Chelsea College of Arts and Central Saint Martins. They began work on creating a seasonal colour palette and choosing the threads to use for the ‘Talli’ to match the styles and exquisite leathers of Asprey.
Asprey designers also took time to travel to the United Arab Emirates to meet the artisans in the newly established Bidwa Centre in Dibba Al Hisn, learning first-hand about the techniques and traditions surrounding the craft of ‘Talli’, as well as viewing the spectacular scenery of the region, where the Hajar Mountains meet the sea.
Taking inspiration from high summer and British and Emirati beaches, the creative teams developed the traditional braids to create bold stripe patterned designs that complemented Asprey’s iconic handbags perfectly, and even introduced new techniques and methods into the ‘Talli’ collection, challenging the skills of the artisans.
At this stage, the difficult work began for the artisans who were faced with reimagining their craft to meet the demanding standards of luxury fashion. This meant learning how to work with new thread materials and new styles that tested their skills and the very technique of ‘Talli’ itself.
“The Bidwa artisans were really able to push the boundaries,” Azza Alsharif said. “These craftswomen are accustomed to creating traditional designs, and this collaboration required them to create something new. Usually, even the most skilled people, when asked to do this, would hesitate or say ‘No, that’s not possible.’ But our Bidwa artisans are open to change, open to trying something different, and this is a testament to the women of Dibba Al Hisn”
In all, 23 Bidwa artisans worked to produce the 100 metres of ‘Talli’ for the Asprey handbags. This challenged them to consistently deliver the highest-quality work, metre after metre, often producing less than ten centimetres a day. With the intricate braids appearing on high-value luxury handbags, it was essential that the ‘Talli’ was straight and seamless, and, although small imperfections are seen as a mark of handcraftsmanship, these were kept to a minimum to create the perfect ‘Talli’.
“Over time, they began to get a sense for what level they could reach with their work. They understood that a project like this had never been done before,” Azza Alsharif said. “And so there was a strong sense of self-empowerment among the ladies.”
After all, as Umm Ahmed said, the craft of ‘Talli’ is close to their hearts. As they finished the work – and even more so after the reception the handbags received in London – the artisans could see the impact they were having.
“They were not letting their craft die, or just demonstrating it in a heritage village, Azza Alsharif said. “They were letting the world know about ‘Talli’ and just how far it could go in a modern context.”
For the women themselves, they’ve enhanced their stature in their communities. People know that their handcrafted work was used in a luxury handbag collection on a global level. As Umm Ahmed put it, “Seeing these handbags presented in London and internationally, I knew that after all these years practicing this craft, people now knew me and my work. Seeing our work on these luxury handbags, I’m confident that we did a great job, and we have made our country proud.”
In every way, the project succeeded in achieving its goals, including generating significant revenue for the Bidwa Social Development Programme and transforming this craftwork into an extremely valuable asset. “As a partnership it just worked. With both parties strongly believing in the value of craftsmanship, the intricate work of the Bidwa artisans was truly elevated to a luxury level on this limited edition collection of handbags,” Sally Denton said.
The Bidwa Collection 2016, “One Stich at a Time”, is not the end for these women or for this collaboration. For Irthi Contemporary Crafts Council, this is just the first of many such projects in the UAE and across the Middle East, North Africa, Southeast Asia and Central Asia regions.
It’s also just the beginning for the women at the Bidwa Centre, with further collaborations and projects planned using the artisans’ skills across a variety of crafts, including not only ‘Talli’, but also ‘Sadu’ (loom weaving) and ‘Safeefah’ (palm-leaf weaving). The artisans and Irthi Contemporary Crafts Council also will continue to develop ‘Talli’ for contemporary use, experimenting with new designs, patterns and materials.
Asprey is keen to see how else this special craft could be used. “We’re excited about the collaboration, and feel it’s a really lovely story for us and for them. We feel that it has mileage. It’s something we can extend, and add to the collection,” Ciara Hurley-Stewart said.
Vision of Her Highness
The Bidwa Collection 2016 is, in some ways, the result of a serendipitous encounter between Umm Ahmed, head artisan at the Bidwa Social Development Program, and Her Highness Sheikha Jawaher Bint Mohammed Al Qasimi, Wife of His Highness the Ruler of Sharjah, Chairperson of the Supreme Council for Family Affairs, and Chairperson of the NAMA Women Advancement Establishment. Umm Ahmed not only does Talli but also palm weaving, called “Safeefah”, from which she makes and sells small purses formed from dried palm leaves. A couple years ago, on a visit to Dibba Al Hisn, Sheikha Jawaher met Umm Ahmed selling her purses and asked her to make one.
After a second encounter with Umm Ahmed, Her Highness Sheikha Jawaher was inspired to ask Her Excellency the late Ameera BinKaram, who was Chairperson of the Sharjah Business Women Council and Vice-Chairperson of NAMA, to develop a programme that would help women such as Umm Ahmed develop their crafts in a manner that would provide them with a sustainable income.
“The overall aim was to nurture this local talent and find ways to bring their art to an international audience,” explained Sally Denton, Head of Programmes and Projects at Irthi Contemporary Crafts Council.
Artisans from 35 to 85 years old
As a result, the Bidwa Social Development Programme and accompanying centre was created in collaboration with Irthi Contemporary Crafts Council to provide a venue in Dibba Al Hisn for local women to develop their crafts, teach it to others, generate a steady income, and develop other skills in areas such as literacy, numeracy, leadership and healthcare.
The centre has been a huge success, even before the handbags received their strong reception in London. When the Centre opened in January 2016, “we thought we would have 10 to 15 women express interest. But now, we have 38 Bidwa artisan women, ranging in age from 35 to 85 years of age,” Sally Denton said.
The women earn a regular salary from the Centre, putting in three-hour shifts, either in the morning or the afternoon, so as not to conflict with their other responsibilities at home.
Ultimately, however, the Centre “is not meant to be a long-term employer for the women, it’s meant to be a catalyst, for them to create their own self-sustaining cooperative. With the right training and support, we envision that many will go on to create their own projects and businesses, and as a result, we are already seeing interest from the younger generation who want to get involved,” Sally Denton said.
For 2017, the Bidwa Centre in Dibba Al Hisn is being expanded to offer additional space for training and the practice of alternative crafts, and to provide a small retail space and café for the artisans to sell their own products and food. The Bidwa Social Development Programme will assist them to develop healthier modern takes on traditional Emirati dishes that will have widespread appeal to the younger generation.
The centre in Dibba Al Hisn is just the start for the Bidwa Social Development Programme, which has further centres planned across the Emirate of Sharjah. The Programme also is building partnerships with existing heritage centres and institutions to create additional employment and training opportunities. Irthi Contemporary Crafts Council will also be developing an “Artisan Exchange Programme”, where the Bidwa artisans can share cultural experiences and skills with fellow artisans across the MENASEA and Central Asia regions.
Talli, the braiding craft
Talli is a textile handicraft similar to bobbin lace. Artisans twist and braid a number of different strands of thread together to create long, narrow strips of textile featuring intricate patterns. As with bobbin lace, artisans use an unadorned pillow on which they do the braiding. Depending on whether it is a simple or complex pattern, artisans will work on a single Talli piece using anywhere from eight to 50 bobbins, called “dahary” in Arabic, that hold the unused thread.
Each pillow is held on a metal stand, called a “Kajooja”. Usually women in the United Arab Emirates who practice Talli sit on the floor, with the Kajooja and pillow in front of them. The Talli braids traditionally use synthetic silver or gold thread, along with pure cotton threads, to create their unique and beautiful patterns. Aside from silver, the most common colours are those of the UAE flag – green, black, red and white.
Silver and gold threads
Traditional Talli originally featured designs where the pattern was created using real silver and gold treads, which have now been replaced with synthetic versions. The silver and gold threads often are used to create the main centre piece of these intricate patterns and are combined with one or more coloured cotton threads running along either side. More elaborate patterns expand on this, such as Fankh Al Bateekh, which features parallel slanted lines repeated down the middle of the fabric.
The most elaborate designs are used for wedding dresses, but Talli also is used to decorate all types of women’s clothes, particularly traditional dresses worn at special events such as weddings and engagements, while older women wear Talli-embellished clothes on a daily basis.
For the Bidwa Collection 2016, the artisans employed five of more than 40 Talli styles.
Inspired by the traditional practice among Talli artisans to build patterns on a piece of clothing by placing a series of Talli designs next to each other on a cuff or hem, Asprey used simpler Talli designs to build patterns on the handbags by combining them with more complex Talli styles.
The five types of Talli included in the collection are:
Fankh Al Bateekh
Translated as “slice of the watermelon” this style gets its name from the slanted repeated pattern and hints of colour that are highlighted between each block of sliver thread. This is traditionally used on the cuffs of women’s sherwal trousers.
This Arabic expression means “coming and going”, a reflection of the technique used to create this pattern. With Sayer Yaay, a single silver thread is braided back and forth to create the entire pattern.
A new pattern developed specifically for Asprey, the composition reflects the traditional Fetoul pattern, which involves looping the threads continuously to get a wide pattern effect. Traditionally, this pattern uses a single row of silver and gold thread. For Asprey, the artisans created stunning patterns by switching the designs around and even reversing the placement of thread colours and materials.
This name means “double strand” in Arabic and refers to the technique of using only two bobbins of synthetic sliver thread to create the central silver pattern
This name means “single strand” and refers to the technique of using only a single bobbin of synthetic sliver thread to create the central silver pattern. Bu Khosa is the simplest Talli design and is the first to be taught. Even so, it still takes up to three hours to create one metre of Bu Khosa Talli.
Pushing creativity and technique
The design process began with Azza Alsharif, Project Associate with Irthi Contemporary Crafts Council, reviewing with the artisans the 40 most common Talli designs, colours and threads.
From this, she developed a mood board, experimented with different hybrid Talli designs, and selected a range of Talli styles and colours. She then met in London with Asprey designers, who came with their own ideas, as well as the types of leather and handbags they proposed using.
During a creative exchange, the group came to a middle point and agreement on the overarching design inspiration arising from seaside and beach themes, which in turn were inspired by the traditional English Riviera and the beautiful coastline of Dibba Al Hisn. It followed from this, that the handbags would have stripes and relatively bold colours. They also agreed on initial Talli designs, colours and thread materials, as well as leathers and bag colours.
Experiencing life in Dibba Al Hisn
Next, Asprey’s Leather Director and Designer travelled to Sharjah. “We wanted them to experience things from our end; to see where our artisans work, how they dress, and to experience traditional food, and the essence of the region,” said Azza Alsharif.
At the Bidwa Centre in Dibba Al Hisn, the team met with the Irthi Contemporary Crafts Council and the artisans. Each artisan presented her Talli style or styles, and together, the group reviewed the various patterns and colours. They assessed which Asprey styles could incorporate the Talli technique into their design and colourways. The group looked to see which worked for Asprey but also fit with the artisans’ culture and style.
After agreeing on the colour palette, the specific colour schemes were selected. Rather than the traditional Talli colours reflecting the colours of the UAE flag, the proposed colours evoked aspirational, fashion forward and contemporary sensibilities.
The final collection reflects a “design mix,” said Ciara Hurley-Stewart, Asprey’s Head of Retail Marketing & Partnerships. “It’s true to Asprey and to the handbag collection, and it also showcases Sharjah and what their artisans can do.”
Azza Alsharif then visualised the selected Talli designs and colours on CAD (computer-aided design) software that provided realistic renderings of what the Talli designs should look like. The artisans took the CAD designs and began translating them into real life. While some of the designs were traditional, others were largely new – with new colour and thread combinations, and both new and wider designs.
“For them to successfully translate CAD, which they were using for the first time, into Talli, that speaks loudly to how good they are at what they do,” Azza Alsharif said.
‘Pushed the boundaries’
Over several days, the women worked with the CAD designs and the Talli innovations, including a Talli design with no synthetic silver in the centre – replaced by cotton thread on thread – something that the women hadn’t done before. This was particularly tricky because one characteristic of the synthetic silver is that it’s less slippery and holds better than cotton thread.
The whole process “really pushed the boundaries” for the ladies, Azza Alsharif said, as they worked through trial and error, to realise the CAD designs. Day after day, the artisans experimented with the new styles, threads and production requirements. With the design that used only cotton thread, they worked on it, with different women trying different techniques until they were able to braid the thread tightly, despite the slipperiness.
They also worked out a new way to execute the Talli designs in a manner that created extra border material on each side of the design. This would be used by the Asprey leatherworkers to stitch the textile on to each bag.
Sometimes the innovations couldn’t be executed, such as an idea to use viscous rayon, an extremely fine and shiny thread. Even after several days, the artisans couldn’t devise a technique that could account for the extremely slippery nature of the thread, which made it impossible to hold a braid tight enough.
Six weeks, 23 artisans, 100 metres
After nearly a week, the women had worked through all the CAD designs and all the different combinations of thread and materials. They’d shown they could produce the Talli as required, including very fine, very tight finishes and straight lines on the edges.
Only then did the 23 artisans begin a busy six-week period, where they worked intensely against a production deadline to produce the 100 metres of Talli material that would be used on the handbags.
Once completed, the material was shipped to Asprey, where its leather craftsmen drew on their expertise to perform the technically challenging hand stitching required. On some handbags, several Talli pieces were stitched next to each – echoing how Emirati women traditionally embellish cuffs and hems by building patterns using several strips of parallel Talli braids.
The final result was that the Talli braids were used on the following Asprey handbags: The Belle; 1781 mini; 1781 32cm; Morgan mini, Darcy 30cm and the Darcy square, in bullskin, nubuck, lizard or crocodile leathers.
A shared language of craftsmanship
The successful collaboration between Asprey and the Bidwa artisans reflects a shared sense of history and heritage, a vision of careful craftsmanship and a commitment to women’s empowerment.
When Irthi Contemporary Crafts Council and Asprey began to discuss the project concept, the British luxury retailer was keen to develop this international craft and challenge the design teams. “We are the only store on Bond Street to have our workshops above the shop floor. Our leather, jewellery and silver craftsmen work right above the shop, so craftsmanship is important to us. We’ve stayed true to the whole ethos of luxury as something that takes time, and that is finished or made by hand,” explains Ciara Hurley-Stewart, Head of Retail Marketing & Partnerships at Asprey.
“This is craftsmanship, in its true form, which fits with Asprey’s DNA of craftsmanship and unique products,” she said. “We feel privileged to help empower local women and give them the ability to use their craft, which is potentially dying out, and to give them a source of income.”
She also pointed out the shared sense of history. “Our business has passed through multiple generations and so has this ‘Talli’ craft. We’ve been in business since 1781, so the whole idea of heritage is shared. Although physically we are in different parts of the world, we share a common thread of artisanal.”