Interview; Adil Iqbal, fashion desinger

MEET the fashion designer on a mission to introduce Pakistani embroidery to the Scottish textile industry, and keep a fading tradition alive

MEET the fashion designer on a mission to introduce Pakistani embroidery to the Scottish textile industry, and keep a fading tradition alive

There’s a saying in Chitral, that every stitch is trying to say something, every stitch has a story behind it.” As he talks, fashion designer Adil Iqbal, 26, runs his fingers over layer upon layer of intricately embroidered fabric samples, scattered across the dining table at his home in Edinburgh. They are the work of artisans from the Chitral Valley in north-west Pakistan. Each piece of fabric has been carefully sewn by hand, featuring traditional Islamic motifs, organic forms and bright geometric patterns. Look a little closer and these samples aren’t quite as traditional as they first appear.

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Much of the colourful embroidery is done on pieces of Harris Tweed. Other scraps of fabric have been knitted by the artisans using Scottish wool. It’s all part of a project Iqbal has undertaken with the aim of connecting textile workers in remote areas of Pakistan with those in the Outer Hebrides.

“I’m interested in a cross-cultural exchange of expertise, of skills and ideas, which would create a bridge between Scotland and Pakistan,” he explains. “Ideally I’d like to invite artisans from Chitral to travel to Scotland to demonstrate their techniques to students here, and connect the artisans of the Outer Hebrides with those in Chitral. When you think about it they have a lot in common; they’re both very isolated. They have stories to share and I think there are huge possibilities.”

Born and raised in Scotland, Iqbal studied clothing design and manufacture at Heriot-Watt University. His 2006 graduate collection was inspired by childhood memories of watching his Pakistani mother and grandmother sewing. The country and its rich textiles have fascinated him since he was a child, and last year Iqbal secured funding from the Arts Trust of Scotland to visit Pakistan, which is, he says, a second home for him.

He spent two months in the remote north-west, interviewing artisans, elders and folk artists and encouraging an exchange of ideas by giving them Scottish textiles to embroider. Discovering a wealth of skills and traditions which are under threat of being lost forever, he also set out to document the complicated stitches, techniques and designs which are specific to the region, creating a photographic record of the work.

“In rural areas, influences from the west and from the big cities in Pakistan are slowly endangering their crafts,” he explains. “A lot of traditionally male roles are now done by women. Men are migrating to the cities in search of work so the women are left to do the agricultural duties, to do all the domestic chores and at the same time do their embroidery. So now they just don’t have the time. On top of that, a lot of the young people are now going to the cities to study, and these skills which are passed down from one generation to the next are being threatened.”

There is a big focus in Pakistan, Iqbal explains, on encouraging children to pursue careers as doctors, lawyers or engineers. Traditional skills are simply not as highly valued. Furthermore, many men who wish to develop their artistic skills are discouraged since such pursuits are seen as traditionally female.

Recording the stories of the elderly artisans was of particular importance, since they hold the strongest links to the traditional crafts. Chitral is a predominantly Muslim area and many of the women do not interact with men, making it all the more difficult for Iqbal to hear their stories. Furthermore, while he speaks fluent Urdu, many of the elderly women did not. However, by taking a slow, measured approach, he was able to get to know them and even to sit and sew with them.

“I remember one woman in her nineties who lived in a very remote village,” he says. “I was asking her what she was like as a child, what role embroidery played in her life, what her wedding dress was like. She was very hesitant to answer these questions, not because she was shy, but because I don’t think anyone had ever asked her before. That moved me, it showed me these women have so much in them and that it would be beautiful to share their stories with a wider audience.”

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After considering a masters degree at Central Saint Martins College of Art and Design in London, Iqbal has decided to move to Pakistan in March to work more closely with the Chitrali people. He hopes to set up a sewing centre for women and make a more detailed record of their work. Other possibilities include helping them develop their skills by incorporating digital techniques. Furthermore, he is seeking funding to help build bridges between textile workers in Pakistan and Scotland, and is considering a showcase of artisans’ work in Edinburgh at some point in the future.

When he returns to the country in March he will work closely with Australian Cathy Braid, who runs fashion house Polly & Me. Available in the US, Australia and the UK, her pieces feature detailed hand embroidery, the work of around 500 Chitrali women, each of whom can earn a wage equivalent to that of a teacher by working from home. In such a conservative region it’s one of the few opportunities for socially acceptable work that these women have, and it keeps the skills handed down to them by their mothers and grandmothers alive.

Iqbal acquired so many pieces in Pakistan that there’s barely a surface in his house not covered in colourful textiles. On the floor he’s laid out pieces of rough sacking, which Chitrali women have embroidered to make beautiful mats. Hanging from the doorknob are two bright wedding headdresses.

It is important to him, he says, that he’s not perceived as swooping in from the west to help. “Something I’ve realised is that it’s always a person from the west or a graduate who comes to help these people,” he says. “But there has to be a shared partnership where the designer and artisan are at the same level. It is happening but it’s a slow process. I aspire to see the artisans as designers themselves, perhaps even to see a design studio in Chitral.”

He picks up a sample of embroidery, the austere, grey Harris Tweed a striking contrast to the delicate Islamic motif, picked out in metallic threads. “Beautiful, isn’t it?” he says. “I gave them this fabric and just asked them to come up with something, and this is the result.”

Iqbal’s time in Pakistan has clearly ignited something in him. When he talks about the people, the smells, the bazaars, his eyes widen. “I love the art, the crafts, the motifs,” he says. “But for me the highlight is the people of Pakistan. Perhaps I don’t quite fit into the traditional culture of the country, but I connect with the people, and I hope I can help to connect them with Scotland.”


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