While many of us are running round the malls trying to get the latest Zara shoes or saving our dirhams for the newest Prada handbag, there is a small community of women in the UAE that are having international success at keeping traditional Emirati embroidery crafts alive.

The Bidwa Social Development Programme Centre began by accident in 2016. Her Highness Shaikha Jawaher Bint Mohammed Al Qassimi, wife of His Highness Dr Shaikh Sultan Bin Mohammad Al Qasimi, the Ruler of Sharjah, was at Sharjah Women’s Club and noticed one of the ladies was carrying a stunning embroidered bag. When asked where she got the bag, it turned out that the lady had made it herself, and customized it with a handwoven braid called a talli. At the time, the Shaikha knew nothing of this technique, but was so impressed with the bag that she had to find out more.

After speaking to some of the ladies, the Shaikha discovered that a talli is something the older Emirati generations have been making in their homes in order to customise their clothes for years. It was from here, with the help of the Irthi Contemporary Crafts Council, that the programme. That one lady with the bag had many friends doing the same thing – and by word of mouth there are now 37 women, many of them retired or elderly, working at the centre, creating the up to 45 types of talli.

Aside from talli, the centre also has women producing safeefah, a form of weaving with dried palm leaves, and sadu, a form of loom weaving.

The council’s vision was to bring these crafts to a larger audience, and it seems to be working. Since opening in 2016 the centre, which is located in Dibba, on the UAE’s east coast, has partnered with British brand Asprey to create a limited edition range of bags. The collection was quite suitably named One Stitch at a Time. The centre has also created talli designs for Emirati-inspired catwalk looks for the Accademia Italiana at the prestigious Alta Roma fashion week, Rome’s version of haute couture.

As the centre continues to grow, there are big plans for these ladies, with future collaborations already in the works. The tallis they are making really are incredible. The technique looks very complicated but yet they finish with these flawless designs so it’s no wonder they have already been picked up internationally.

‘The Asprey team came to the centre and spent three days here seeing what the ladies do,’ says Shareefa Hasan Al Dhuhoori, manager of the Bidwa Centre. ‘They chose the colours and styles of talli they wanted and the ladies made it. They worked 20 hours [a day] to complete the work.’ Once the tallis were made, they were sent to London to be fixed to a limited edition collection of handbags. The bags retailed at between Dh25,000 to Dh157,000 – and all of the bags were sold. ‘We will be doing it again in 2018,’ Shelifa says; ‘we will have a different type of talli this time to make the people say “wow” again and we are researching new types of talli all the time. Many of the women watch videos on YouTube at night to learn how to make new types of talli.’

But why have we never heard about it? ‘Many modern people in the UAE do not care for these kinds of crafts,’ says Shelifa. ‘They want to go to the mall and get the latest handbag or designer item. For this reason we are targeting the European market. To them, this is something different and exotic. We would, however, love to sell tallis to brands in the UAE – we just need to find the right partnership.’ While you cannot buy the tallis themselves directly from the centre, the ladies are selling their crafts at markets throughout the year, Shelifa explains. ‘We have the ladies at events showing what they are doing. We regularly go to markets and events in Sharjah to showcase the tallis. The feedback is amazing – everyone is asking about them, what they are and how the ladies are doing it.’

So how has this particular centre been so successful? Of course there is the backing and funding of the Irthi Council, but as Friday saw firsthand when we visited one day during Ramadan, the work ethic of these women is incredible. Many of them have been creating these handicrafts in their homes for decades, but bringing them to a work environment is incredibly different for them. Shelifa explains.

‘When the ladies come [to the centre] we give them two weeks of training so we can find out what they can do and which level we should put them in. We have three levels – beginner, intermediate and expert. After the two weeks, if all goes well and both parties are happy, we make a contract with the lady. The ladies work for three hours a day and most of them have families to look after back home, but will sometimes continue their work at home as well. For a basic talli, it takes three hours per metre. The more complicated the talli, the longer it takes.’

Many of the women are retired or without a job, so the centre helps to give them a purpose. ‘We made the centre not just to create the designs, but also to empower the ladies. Many of these ladies are retired and some are even grandmothers. They are not working and in many cases feel like they need a purpose or something to get them out of the house, so we are giving her something to do when she wakes up in the morning. It makes them feel young again! And of course they are getting a salary. Some of the women don’t need the money but do it just to keep them motivated.’

These women have been making tallis at home for years but there is always more to learn. Mum-of-12 Fatima Sawi has been working at the centre since it opened. She is originally from Egypt and has been in the UAE for forty years. She says: ‘I have been making the talli for forty years and I do many other crafts too – I even make lotion. I have twelve children, so I wake up at 4am every day so I can get them ready and clean the house before starting to make the talli. I love coming to the centre and I have got so fast now, I’m making the tallis like a machine!”

Fatima also visits local schools to teach children how to make some of her handicrafts. She doesn’t do it for the money, but because she wants younger generations to know what women have been doing for decades.

Shelifa explains how many of the women are teaching each other and encouraging them to try new types of talli. ‘We have one lady who is an expert and she trains all the others, as she is so good. She gives them motivation. At first some of the ladies are reluctant to try new ideas but once they try it they realise they can [do it].’

Moza Saif Al Muhairi explains how she has a talli named after her. ‘I am the only one making this type of talli, so we have called it the Moza. I have been making tallis for 25 years but since I joined the centre I have learnt how to make ten more types. Now I can teach my mother, as she once taught me My family are very happy with what I have achieved.’

While the fashion angle and international success is a focus of the centre there is much more success coming from this programme. Many of these women were unable to speak English when they joined the programme, and through communicating with others they are learning. Sayeeda Sayed Arif could not speak any English when she joined the programme but today she speaks well enough to have a chat with me. ‘My friends taught me English since I have been coming to the centre,’ she says. ‘I really enjoy coming here – it’s good for all the ladies because we feel like part of a family. Time here passes very fast.’

Shelifa explains that’s it’s not just their language that’s improving; the women’s confidence has grown massively since the centre was opened. ‘At first, the women were very shy. They wouldn’t speak to anyone or have their picture taken as they were worried what their husband might say or what others might think, but now they are excited to have their picture taken and tell people what they are doing. I even have a lady who only has one eye and she is making incredible tallis. She is amazing.’

What is a talli?

A talli is a form of handwoven braid traditionally created in the UAE. In the past, Emirati women used tallis to make their clothing more stylish and distinctive. Created from thread using a technique similar to bobbin lace, tallis are traditionally used to decorate the cuffs, hems and collars of dresses and women’s sherwal trousers. They were often made by older women who couldn’t afford or didn’t have the option of going to malls to buy their clothes when they were younger. In the past, wealthy people could afford to embroider with real gold and silver. Today, tallis are made with thread that is imported from China or India.

The UAE takes London


As part of the Irthi Contemporary Crafts Council’s ongoing initiatives to see Emirati designers work recognised globally, they have partnered with London-based department store Fenwick of Bond Street to create a pop-up store that will showcase the work of ten UAE-based designers. Throughout July and August, the pop-up will take the work of some of our home-grown talent to the UK for the first time. Many of the designers are using traditional crafts to inspire their work, including Alia Bin Omair, a Emirati jewellery artist inspired by heritage and raw materials of the Middle East; Faissal Al Malak, a womenswear designer who incorporates fabrics handwoven by artisans from the region; and Amal Haliq, an Emirati jewellery designer adding her own take on fairytales and heritage crafts. The store also features widely known womenswear designers Madiyah Al Sharqi and Zayan The Label, both of whom are established designers in the region looking to make their mark internationally. Five of the chosen designers are from the Azyame Fashion Entrepreneurs Programme, one of the council’s projects that offers one-to-one support for the next generation of UAE designers through a mix of workshops and business mentoring opportunities, in partnership with the London College of Fashion.