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In Israel, Ethiopian Women’s Traditional Crafts Meet Modern Marketing

Recently, well-known fiber artist, Shirley Waxman of Potomac, Maryland, spent three intense weeks with 100 Ethiopian women who live in absorption-center mobile homes adjacent to Moshav Sde Mitzan in Israel’s Negev. Her mission was to teach the women how to incorporate their traditional embroidery skills into marketable items, while at the same time providing them with much-needed work, distraction, and self-esteem. The women’s traditions forbid them to leave home for training or employment, and they depend upon small Jewish Agency stipends for their livelihood.

Waxman drew on a variety of resources to prepare for the trip. She consulted with folklorists in the Washington area, studied the embroidery on dresses brought to the States by friends who had visited Ethiopia, and convinced a West Virginia company to donate hundreds of dollars worth of thread. Waxman boarded the plane for Israel “loaded down with hundreds of spools of thread, snippers, and scissors for everyone—everything I would need to start the project,”

Once in Israel, Waxman, working with a translator, transformed the makeshift social hall, composed of two trailers, into a working area. She decided that embroidered kippot [skullcaps] and challah covers would sell well, but because both are foreign to the Ethiopian community, she had to oversee their production. On raw silk imported from China, Waxman cut out kippot, readying them for embroidery. She traced parallel lines on challah covers, preparing the borders for the geometric designs. In their own homes the women would embroider freehand, but Waxman wanted to make sure that the crafts would be perfectly symmetrical, knowing that symmetry (for better or worse) enhances marketability. In the center of each challah cover she traced the Hebrew letters for the word “Shabbat,” with the Amharic equivalent just above the Hebrew. As the women start learning Hebrew, they will be able to trace the letters themselves. Once the tracing is done, the women embroider whatever designs they wish.

It is in this respect that the project differs, perhaps, from other models of American aid abroad—Waxman is determined that the work reflect the women’s native skills. “I had no intention of imposing any sense of design from our culture onto their work,” she says.

Remaining true to traditional Ethiopian motifs and colors, the women produce piece after piece of brilliantly colored embroidery— vivid orange, yellow, black, purple, green, and blue. A basic chain stitch forms the abstract geometric designs.

Waxman did the finishing work on the items, edging the kippot in silk and lining them and the challah covers in cotton. (The silk sets up a static electricity, she explains, keeping the kippah) firmly on the head.) As the Ethiopian women learn to use sewing machines, they will begin to finish their own pieces. For now, some items are finished elsewhere in Israel and some in America.

The Ethiopian women were exhilarated by their own work. “Others have had similar ideas,” says Arlene Kushner, of the American Association for Ethiopian Jewry, original sponsor of the project, “but Waxman is the first one to respect the women’s indigenous skills, patterns, and sense of color. Consequently, the project has generated for the women a sense of pride every bit as important as the money.”

The women are paid by the piece, and earnings are, for now, being reinvested in the project. Profits will be used to introduce new crafts, such as weaving and pottery. The project is currently being sponsored by the Washington Council of Na’amat; hopefully Na’amat Israel will soon become involved.

Kippot range in price from $35 to $95. Challah covers and atarot [neckbands on prayer shawls] are $100. For information on ordering call (301) 585-4815 or write to Ethiopian Handcrafts, PO Box 454, Rockville, MD 20850-9998