Sewing Life Together

Gaza’s Sulafa Embroidery Center helps women support their families in the face of massive unemployment and a declining local economy

The exquisite embroidered caftans and shawls of traditional Palestinian dress have long been a way for Palestinian women to bring much needed income into their homes. The many hours needed to create densely embroidered textiles can somehow be accomplished alongside the responsibilities of household, children, extended family, and more. However, with a staggering unemployment rate and rising costs of living, the people of Gaza do not have the money to buy embroidered dresses and accessories as they used to, leaving open few options for Gazan women to earn income.

But embroidery still holds promise as a major source of family cash as Sulafa Embroidery Center travels to the United States this summer to bring both new and traditional designs to American customers. A program of the United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees (UNRWA) which began in 1950 to provide income to women in seven refugee camps in Gaza, the Sulafa Embroidery Center was established to coordinate the embroidery work in the camps and to market it abroad and in their retail store in Gaza.

In 2013-2014, the Poverty Alleviation Fund wanted to increase the number of women able to earn income from embroidery by 60%, but to do so would require creating new markets for Palestinian crafts. As beautiful as they are, there is not a huge market for Palestinian dresses, capes and shawls. Most women do not wear this style of dress, nor do they want to pay the hundreds of dollars that such an exquisite creation would cost. In order to widen the international market for the embroidery, effort has been made to make smaller items that appeal to a greater range of buyers. New items include cushion covers, small purses, wallets and personal accessories, as well as a line of whimsical tassels and hanging ornaments.

Recent encouragement for following this strategy appeared when a US retail buyer placed an order for 800 bird ornaments. 

Black is the traditional ground cloth in Gaza, and there is virtually no other option to work with. Because the American market doesn’t much like the black background, a lot of Sulafa’s new products cover the cloth completely--which is also traditional in sections of Palestinian dresses, such as around the neck. A number of products have adapted the patterns of Bedouin embroidery, which has dense geometric patterns in strong colors. 

Feedback has been positive about the new collections, as people like the dense traditional style of embroidery and the new colors introduced with the export initiative. When Sulafa attends NY Now’s Artisan Resource section in August, it will be the first full test of the viability of the new range.

Visit Sulafa at the 2014 Santa Fe International Folk Art Market, July 11-13, and  from August 16-19 at Artisan Resource® at NY Now®  in Manhattan. For more info, visit http://www.sunbula.org

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