For some, when you mention Palestine, images of war, bombings and destruction come to mind, most forget that Palestine has a rich and beautiful history and a colourful culture.
Taita Leila is a project that challenges these ideas and brings together Palestinian history through a different language: the language of thread. The core idea of the project is to produce modern clothing inspired by traditional Palestinian dress, reviving and restyling embroidery in a way that Palestinian grandmothers would be proud to wear it. The team behind the project research, repackage and rework items with this “language” in mind, decoding the meaning behind it to share it with the wider public.
The social enterprise employs and empowers local Palestinian women who know how to embroider and make handcrafts of all kinds to retell the story behind every type of Palestinian dress. Taita Leila works with different villages and co-operatives to make designs that can be incorporated into a modern wardrobe.
The first thing that draws your attention to the project is its name: Taita Leila. Taita is an Arabic term of endearment for grandmother and Leila is the lady who is the inspiration behind the project. Her full name is Leila Hussein Fakhri Khalidi, author of “The Art of Palestinian Embroidery” that retells the stories of old traditional dresses from Palestine.
Leila left Jerusalem in 1946 and wasn’t allowed back into what became a divided city. “I left from West Jerusalem and since [then] I only saw East Jerusalem,” Leila explains. Living in Beirut, she became the head librarian at the PLO Research Centre and headed a research unit for Folklore and Folk Arts and Crafts.
In late 1981, her efforts resulted in recognition of the PLO Research Centre as the national library of the Palestinian people and, in 1986, in the establishment of a folk museum collection within the Palestinian Martyrs’ Works Society (SAMED).
Taita Leila, as she is fondly called by her grandchildren, is “a great mix of traditional”, she loves handicrafts, her house is full of all kinds from around the world, “and modern”, she communicates with her grandchildren mostly on Whatsapp and “it is precisely this mix that inspired the debut collection, a few pieces of which are being offered as rewards in our crowdfunding campaign.”
Taita Leila is made up of a dedicated team with no financial support. The team is currently raising money through crowdfunding, asking for online contributions from around the world. As one team member puts it: “We are totally bootstrapping this start-up.” The funds allow the team to mass produce the dresses, register the business, stock up the inventory and market the Taita Leila collection around the world. The unique aspect of Taita Leila is that everything about and associated with the project breathes Palestine; clothes are entirely made in Palestine, fabrics are sourced from local factories or vendors in the region, women are employed to hand-embroider the designs, even their website was developed in Gaza. There is an overwhelming homely feel surrounding the project which is reflected in the dresses that are produced.
The project’s name has a homely tone to it and a nostalgic feel as you immediately find yourself drawn into it and the history it brings with it. Yet, for the project members, the name was slightly problematic and left them in a dilemma because “taita” is tricky for non-Arabic speakers to pronounce. Fate and the historical connotations the name brings with it eventually settled the argument, and the programme became Taita Leila.
“While Palestinians have always attached a lot of importance to embroidery, a lot of people around the world probably have little idea. We wanted to show this other side of our culture that is interestingly nuanced and relatable – the Holy Land was exposed to many different cultures which influenced our designs,” one of the people behind the project says.
While Taita Leila strives to represent Palestinian dresses inspired by various parts of Palestine, the production of clothes is clearly limited by the occupation. The team say they are very eager to work with Gaza but it is difficult logistically, so far they are restricted to working with co-operatives in the West Bank.
Taita Leila is not meant to be another museum piece – one of the founding members explains that “the clothes are meant to be incorporated into your wardrobe and, to make them wearable, we have to allow some room for interpretation from the traditional costume. However, we use museum exhibitions, books, paintings, drawings as inspiration, and we will list all our sources on the website when we release the debut collection.”
It’s true that embroidery is not something exclusive to Palestine. However, it is an inherent part of the heritage of being Palestinian.
Traditional dress varies considerably depending on region, class, status and taste. This language of threads hides interesting stories about the people in this area. Those behind the Taita Leila project want to tell these stories. For example Jerusalem – Leila’s hometown – did not really have a “thoub” (traditional dress) because it was a metropolis so people adopted modern dress. The type of costume found there was either very modern, reminiscent of early 20th century New York or influenced from Ottoman dress. Nablus on the other hand did not actually have a lot of embroidery because people were too busy working in the fields and this is where the famous Palestinian saying “I am not working so I embroider” comes from. These are precisely the kind of stories that Taita Leila tells through their designs.
Although the project mainly employs local women, they have a male tailor in their midst and hope to develop a men’s clothing range if the project is successful.
Taila Leila is bringing back Palestine’s colourful history in a ready to wear and walk away manner. Teaching people about the rich culture through unique pieces that tell a story with every thread.
The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Monitor.