The event was organised in collaboration with SPINNA Circle, a global initiative designed to connect and empower women in fashion and textiles whilst bringing traditional skills into the mainstream. The skills exchange workshop formed part of a specific SPINNA Circle project funded by USAID, exploring new collaboration opportunities between the UK, Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan.As part of the interactive sessions. Middlesex students and staff tried their hand at traditional Central Asian craft techniques. Kazakh embroiderer Botakoz Zeinelkhan impressed with her deft handwork on the tambour, and Dilbar Akhmedova from Bukhara in Uzbekistan demonstrated the intricate beauty of Suzani embroidery. Uzbek designer Zulaykho Karimova also showed off her stunning Suzani embroidery, while Zuhra Inat led a masterclass in Ikat and Aigul Zhanserikova – who since 2002 has been spearheading a revival of traditional felting in her native Kazakhstan – shared the beauty of working with felt.
"Our patterns are really interesting; it's not just classic felting," Aigul explained. "Kazakh people are nomads; they have traditionally lived in nature and our territory is so big, with different geographical and climatic regions; they take their emotions from the environment and bring it through in their felting patterns. Through workshops like this, and through our materials and ornaments we can show our culture, our traditions and lifestyle. It's interesting for students and anyone else to learn our history through our traditional craft. "Middlesex staff and students shared their expertise with the visiting artisans as well; students presented their portfolios and works in progress, while lecturer and textile artist Catherine Dormor demonstrated gold-work embroidery. Embroiderer and Fashion Textiles lecturer Scott Ramsay Kyle led a workshop in 2D paper doll silhouettes, and Senior Technician in Fashion Gulsun Metin showed off her draping techniques.
"It's been incredibly exciting to see the range of skills between our own students, our staff and the visiting artisans from Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan," said Emma Dick, Lecturer in Visual Culture: Fashion and also Director of Projects and Training for SPINNA Circle. "People who perhaps don't have a language in common and struggle to communicate with each other in speech; as soon as you put an embroidery frame and some thread in front of them, they understand each other perfectly! That for me has been amazing, this bringing together of different people and contexts, all unified through the language of textiles."
Catherine Dormor agreed: "Even without language, we've been able to communicate through stitching! It's given me a different perspective and made me think of other ways [to embroider]."
Violet Broadhead, who has just finished her second year of Fashion Design at Middlesex, was also impressed with the embroidery skills demonstrated by the Uzbek artisans. "They're really skilled and really fast," she said. "I do a lot of textile-based work in my own projects, so I always like to get the opportunity to try new techniques; it's lovely to see stuff from other cultures as well. Handcrafting is labour-intensive but I do think it's worth it; I think it's really important."
With contemporary trends placing handcrafted, quality products in high demand, the artisan workshop was also a reminder of the enduring value of traditional craft skills in contemporary fashion and interiors. "Provenance is key; it's become much, much more important in the fashion industry," Emma explained. "The role of SPINNA Circle and my role as an academic is to let the artisans understand that they have something very valuable. It raises questions about intellectual property and the authenticity of craft – where is the cross-over between these two things? How can they capitalise on their own traditional skills and techniques to make a product to suit the western market? It's a fascinating intersection of capital, culture, craft and technology."