Yours Sustainably talks to Nada Nosseir, daughter of Turath founder Elvira Guindi, about the Egyptian company behind our range of beautiful hand woven scarves.
In 2008 Elvira visited the Egyptian village of Nagada, famous for its weaving traditions, and was charmed by the resident’s rural hospitality and skills. Already a successful import business owner, Elvira founded Turath: The Egyptian Heritage Co, in 2008 after the colourful woven scarves she bought from Nagada as presents for friends were so well received. This led to an invitation from the IMC (Egypt’s Industrial Modernisation Centre) asking Elvira if she would like to represent Egyptian weavers at international trade fairs in Milan, Paris and New York. Since the 2011 revolution the IMC has ceased funding of this initiative, but Elvira and Nada continue to visit trade fairs for the export and promotion of their products.
Nagada is a village situated 20km north of Luxor with the banks of the Nile on one side and mountains on the other. With little space for agricultural land, weaving provided an alternative livelihood. The skill of weaving has been passed through the generations since Pharaonic times, and Nagada became famous during the 1970s as a place for weaving traditional Sudanese wedding cloth. The onset of the Sudanese civil war and changing attitudes of the youth have led to a steady decline in the industry and now the tradition of hand weaving is dying out; with only 48 weavers left in the village, the majority of whom are over the age of 50. Turath; An Egyptian Heritage Company recognise the importance of preserving this tradition for future generations and maintaining a source of income for the locals.
The weavers are already very talented when it comes to selecting colours and designs which makes our process easier as it is difficult to be involved at every step. The weavers have a large stock of products from which we select those to our taste and we are also able to request particular colours we want to include in our seasonal collections.
We introduced a weaving workshop in 2009 to provide a place for weavers to work who can no longer fit the looms into their homes. As some of these weavers are less experienced we provide them with simpler designs to enable them to have the same level of work as the more advanced weavers. We also supply the yarn for the workshop, as opposed to the home weavers who purchase their own yarn.
My mother and I visit Nagada every 1-2 months and I talk to the principle weaver almost every day to check on production of specific orders. We recently hired an assistant in Cairo who is learning quality control which is an important and time consuming part of our process.
Consistency in quality and achieving requested delivery dates are basic problems but the challenges of working in a rural community are extensive and require much cultural sensitivity and understanding. Many of the designs are passed down through families who wish to maintain a level of secrecy about their designs and the quantity they sell. The secrecy issues have lessened since we began working with the villagers as they are beginning to understand the importance of sharing knowledge to preserve their skills. In general terms of working in Egypt, poor education creates a poor workforce, often with little motivation, for which firm management is critical.
Currently the Egyptian government is making it quite hard for NGO projects, including recently denying NGO licenses to several US-based projects. In general NGOs can be very inefficient. From my experience NGOs tend to include the workers in every step of the process which means things take longer to get done and can complicate the production process. We aim to achieve the right balance between creative freedom and work structure/boundaries. Generously funded projects can create complacency in the employees as they will get paid regardless of their work ethic and motivation whereas in a private company there is more incentive to work hard and keep their job.
What are your plans for the future?
Our plans for the future are to improve production and consistent levels of quality so that we can increase the quantity of scarves we export. We plan to continue our training schemes and introduce new skills such as embroidery to the villagers so they can increase their earning potential and we can expand our product range. We ensure that at every stage of production we are helping a community of workers, for example we work with a sewing project in Cairo that makes cushions and finish the scarves as opposed to giving this work to a factory. We are also developing products to use the scarves that do not pass quality control, such as fabric covered notebooks, brooches and hair accessories. We also look at long range plans to reinstate the value of the heritage of this old and famous handicraft, and also raise the standard of awareness of the weavers to new methods of production.