Hand-crafted by Emirati artisans with care

The Life: Emirati women go back to traditional craft, but now to suit the modern retail tastes.

Hamda Al Mazrouei weaves a tablecloth while her mother Shamsa Al Mazrouei weaves a traditional basket in Madinat Zayed. Sarah Dea / The National
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Hand-stitched clothes decorated with telli, or weaved silvery and golden threads, and covered bread baskets made from sun-dried palm leaves were once part of daily life in the Emirates.

And although modern ways and mall culture have lessened the presence of Emirati handicrafts in the nation's streets and homes, a nascent sector is emerging to give them new life.

Khammis Mohamed Al Hosseni, 55, is a telli weaver.

"I learnt telli from my grandmother and my mother," says Ms Al Hosseni, who displays her work at the General Women's Union (GWU) in Abu Dhabi.

For some of the handicraft makers, who are mostly women, changing demand has pushed them to diversify into products such as laptop bags, mobile phone holders and table runners. The trade is produced mostly for the local market and in small scale, and artisans such as Ms Al Hosseni are also exploring tourist venues such as Global Village in Dubai.

The GWU houses workshops in which Emirati women weave baskets, cotton and wool cloth and make telli products that are sold at the centre. The Sougha Initiative, a non-profit wing of the Khalifa Fund for Enterprise Development, is also chipping in.

At Sougha, 148 artisans across 13 towns sell through the initiative and brought in Dh1.7 million (US$462,850) in revenues last year. That was up from Dh1m in 2011, when the initiative had 70 artisans.

Sougha has retrained women in traditional crafts such as Bedouin textile or sadou weaving and palm leaf weaving in the Western Region), Fujairah and Ras Al Khaimah, and candle-making in Delma Island and Fujairah.

"When Sougha Initiative approached them many of the women had completely stopped making these crafts for 15 to 20 years because they did not have faith in finding a market space," says Leila Ben-Gacem, a senior manager at Khalifa Fund who is leading Sougha. She said all of the revenue goes back to the artisans.

In Madinat Zayed City, Hamda Al Mazrouei, 46, has gone back to her old floor loom to weave strips of black, pink, green and yellow cotton fabric that now go into making table runners and pouches. Someone from her family usually delivers them to the Sougha office in Abu Dhabi.

In five years, the initiative hopes to diversify into incense and perfume. Most of these handicrafts are sold through government and government-related entities.

Etihad Airways, for instance, sells make-up bags woven by Sougha artisans.

Unlike the GWU, where the artisans receive a government salary, women who sign up with Sougha are paid by what they sell.

When Etihad ordered 300 make-up bags from Sougha in 2011, it made a living for 12 artisans, says Ms Ben-Gacem. And it has made four repeat orders since then.

Last year, the upmarket retail store Bloomingdale's sold 40 table runners and matching Quran covers. The initiative sells through a kiosk at Central Market in Abu Dhabi and More Cafes in Dubai. Textile make-up cases retail for Dh150 and palm leaf beach bags for Dh250 to Dh400.

Besides preserving culture, handicraft production has encouraged entrepreneurial ventures.

"Many women started having a bank account when they started working with us," says Ms Ben-Gacem. The average age of the artisans at Sougha has come down to 42 from 70 in 2009.

Ms Al Hosseni started her business from home and by displaying children's clothing, both plain and with telli work, at the GWU. Abu Dhabi National Exhibitions Company is her primary selling space. She might make up to Dh30,000 some weeks, which comes to a profit of Dh15,000, she says.

"The sales here are not good," she says of the GWU, but she has kept making the daily trip from her home in Shahama for 14 years for the bonding it gives her with other sellers.

"This is my second home."