Emirati women using UAE’s generations-old skills to turn their passion into a business

Irthi Contemporary Crafts Council helped connect women with international designers

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Three Emirati women who have mastered generations-old skills are creating high-end crafts for international brands like Cartier and Bulgari.

Fatima Al Naqbi, Sheikha Al Dhuhoori and Fatima Mahmoud — known as "Umm Ahmed" — are producing designer goods from a small craft centre established in Sharjah to preserve skills that have been passed down from generation to generation.

The trio, from the east coast of Sharjah, weave straw baskets and mats out of palm leaves and decorate collars, hems and cuffs of clothing with intricate thread patterns, which are then sold overseas.

Their success wouldn't have been possible without Irthi Contemporary Crafts Council — an affiliate of Nama Women Advancement Establishment — which helped them turn their passion into a profitable business, Umm Ahmed told a Sharjah forum.

In 2014, Sheikha Jawaher bint Mohammed Al Qasimi, wife of the Ruler of Sharjah, met Umm Ahmed when she was visiting the community of Dibba Al Hosn in Sharjah.

They discussed Umm Ahmed’s handmade bag and the craft used in creating the piece.

Following the meeting, the Irthi Contemporary Crafts Council was set up in the community to not only help Emirati craftswomen pass on their skills to a new generation of artisans but to also preserve UAE’s cultural heritage.

The women sharpen their skills and train younger women at Irthi’s Bidwa Social Development Programme Centre in Dibba Al Hosn.

International designers

In order to produce high-quality crafts that can be sold to a global market, Irthi in 2019 connected the Emirati craftswomen at the centre with international designers. These included Pakistan's Studio Lel, UK-based artists Adi Toch, Kazuhito Takadoi and Patricia Swannell, and Palestinian designer Dima Srouji.

In less than two years, the women at the centre began receiving orders from well-known international brands, including Cartier and Bulgari.

Part of the proceeds from their sales goes to the craftswomen while the other part is invested into Irthi's programmes that are organised to empower the region’s women through crafts.

“I taught other women, including ladies from Italy, when we went there with Irthi,” said Umm Ahmad at a session called 'A Success Story: How Communication got Me Here', organised by Nama Women Advancement Establishment as part of the annual International Government Communication Forum in Sharjah.

“My mother taught me the craft that was nearly forgotten when I was nearly nine years old.”

Other women joined her to learn how to weave four, five and six straws made of palm leaves to produce items that could be used in homes, such as mats and baskets.

Word of their work got out and an elderly woman from the neighbourhood arrived one day to offer a new skill to improve their work.

“We learned Talli embroidery on dresses, the traditional Emirati kandura and brides' costumes,” Umm Ahmad said.

Fellow craftswoman Fatima Al Naqbi picked up the traditional skills from her friends when she was seven.

“My mother used to make the items at home but she didn’t teach me. My friend who was a little older than I, used to teach me what she learned from her mother,” said Ms Al Naqbi.

“Once my mother noticed that I tampered with her products and it was then she knew I had learned and began to better train me.”

Sheikha Al Dhuhoori began sewing traditional burqas as a hobby at first, “but now it had become my trade and business,” she said.

Updated: October 05, 2022, 5:07 AM