At the Selvedge Winter Fair last year I was in textile heaven. Antique kimonos were altered for modern relevance, genuine World War Two aircraft maps were manipulated into lampshades and tantalising fabrics lay folded everywhere. Amongst all this textile cacophony I was drawn by the nymph-like women, Seher Mirza, with powerful eyes to the quiet and serenity of the S Jo stall. From what seemed like the sky, cotton of an impossible number of different hues hung and waved. Some threads were twisted in to long strands of necklaces or wrap-around bracelets whilst a table presented bulbs of embroidered earrings: the sight was a jewellery lover’s equivalent of a child with their nose against a toy shop window, I wanted to touch and experience each piece for myself. With the attention they deserved, I contemplated each piece offered which made me realise that not only was each piece different by design but also appeared to open a new story. Having read the opening paragraph, I had to read on…
Finally, after a number of exchanged e-mails since then, I managed to pin down Ms Mirza so I could have a personal telling of S Jo’s story.
Mirza is a graduate in weave for Textile Design from Central Saint Martins (CSM) who is soon to finish her PhD at the Royal College of Art. She is a woman young in years but not experience. As an undergrad at CSM a tutor asked the weaver if she would be interested in using her skills to help the work of a NGO. It was not long then that Mirza was working on projects in Pakistan associated with the Commonwealth Secretariat Gender Section and since then she has also worked extensively alongside Sindh Rural Support Organisation. Under the project name Threads of the Indus (TOTI) and brand name S Jo, Mirza brings empowerment to Pakistani women and preserves unique local craftsmanship.
TOTI has been successful enough to expand its reach to four rural villages and 75 artisans. Local women come to Mirza’s workshops, bringing along their existing skills and knowledge of local crafts, so they can learn to dissect their skill, understand each component and then be able to build them up in to marketable accessories. The living wage each woman receives is obviously valuable to the artisans and their familiy. Working with TOTI means many women earn more than their husband and are able to send their children to school. Mirza manages to extract herself from her intense London research schedule so she can hold 10-12 workshops with the women in Pakistan around twice a year. With this is great feat in mind I wondered who kept an eye on the artisans on a daily basis to ensure work is completed on time and pay distributed correctly. To my amazement, it was explained that no one supervises the work and each artisanal group has a bank account where the wages are paid in to, apparently there has never been any issues in either aspect.
What is more valuable though to the women than the financial empowerment they get from their work, is the emotional maturation they undergo. The women study themes and the work of others so they can develop their own designs. The significance of this is that the women are then able to interpret design briefs from other designers with their own originality, TOTI is thereby an economically and intellectually sustainable production process. Therefore, during Mirza’s workshops the women begin to connect with each piece they make which is why even when you look at two pieces by the same artisan no two are alike. This pride and ownership of the final result and sense of the personal is imbued in the brand name S Jo and every creation. In the local language of the Sindh region ‘jo’ means ‘of’ or ‘from’, and the letter ‘S’ stands for the brand’s values of social empowerment through enterprise as well as sustainability and stitch-craft in the region. Furthermore, each is finished article is named after its crafter and labelled so.
The journey has not been entirely smooth. When the women first began to attend the workshops, many were followed by a male member of the family to see where they were going and what they were doing. One lady even spoke of potential beatings from her husband for going. The risk was worth taking for these ladies because they were curious of their potential and, of course, welcomed a chance to chat with each other in a relaxed and private environment. It did not take long for the eyes of the whole community to open to the benefits of their women learning and working. Confirmation of the project’s acceptance came when Mirza was having tea with some of the women workers and children in a village when a gentleman who had previously chased women for attending the workshops said he wanted to talk to her. Whilst exchanging a few words, the gentleman gently placed his hand upon Mirza’s head, a symbol of affection and welcome.
I mentioned earlier that emotional connection with design and creation is key to TOTI and is intrinsically linked to the preservation of traditional craftsmanship. The resulting creations of the project have been admired by others designers who are interested in selling similar designs. Some village women engaged with TOTI completed a one-off order for a Pakistani designer but the women expressed a disinterest in this work on account of the fact that making pieces to such detailed specifications is not “our own work”, the women want to be ‘collaborators’ not ‘workers’. Another Pakistani designer approached the women wanting them to complete the same pieces for their own brand. The artisans said they were only interested in carrying out orders with this particular designer if the designs were to consist of work she had undertaken with them or provided them. The designer’s reacted by threating the artisans with financial damage and media reportage of them being unsuitable for the industry to work with. As Mirza pointed out to me, these women, who appreciate the difference between the monotony of a worker’s life for financial gain, and the pleasure of personal creativity, suggests these artisans are more emotionally mature than the successful designers.
Soon Mirza’s PhD research will be submitted, and I feared that this would mark the end of the important social and psychological work undertaken by TOTI, but my worries were not long lasting. “The end of my PhD is the end of the research part of TOTI. When the PhD is completed I can then concentrate all my energies into the brand side of S Jo” Mirza explained. Would she work with NGOs again so that the success of the S Jo production process could be shared on a wider scale? I am sure, that should an NGO with a similar mindset and goals approached her, it could be a distinct possibility. It would certainly be sensible for NGOs and non-profit organisations to at least study Mirza’s research and practical application. As a brand, S Jo is currently in a number of discussions with museums and shops in Berlin, Amsterdam and Pakistan about selling its products. At our meeting, I was privileged to have preview of some new jewellery and even clothing from S Jo. As the artisans’ skills develop, so too is the complexity and range of products being tested rises.
If you would like to get your hands on these pieces then head over to pop-up store at the LaBelle of London boutique in London’s Marylebone from the end of August until early September. If you are fast enough you will be have the opportunity to claim some limited edition jewellery and clothing prototypes. Failing that, wander in to the Joss Graham Gallery at 10 Eccleston Street in London which has a few pieces for sale or have a virtual browse through the S Jo Etsy store at https://www.etsy.com/shop/Sjoaccessories