Sewing lessons in Abu Dhabi

Reconnect with the skill and beauty of hand woven handicrafts Discuss this article

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In a day and age where the pen is being replaced by a touch screen, the old fabric crafts are silently slipping into oblivion. Combating this tide are initiatives such as the Khalifa Fund for Enterprise Development and resilient women such as Janine Ibbini.

As a young girl, Janine was taught to sew by her mother. Janine grew up to become a talented and dexterous textile artist. ‘I used to go to the market in Leeds [in the UK] and buy fabrics, and make my own clothes for work.’ Able to manipulate the sewing machine as easily as a limb, she would soon export this knowledge to the UAE, where it would help women revive ancient weaving techniques.

In 2010, Janine was approached by a lady affiliated with the Khalifa Fund for Enterprise Development. The idea was to revive heritage skills in the outskirts of Abu Dhabi. ‘I was hired on a contract basis and I went out to remote areas regularly to work with Emirati ladies. Some of these women had the very barest of essentials and yet I was always impressed with their resourcefulness and tenacity.’

The initiative Janine took part in endeavoured to accomplish two goals; to revive the older crafts and empower the women in establishing their own small businesses. ‘We would encourage the women to learn and perfect various sewing and weaving techniques. We would purchase materials for them. But in the second stage, we encouraged the ladies to acquire their own materials and sell their own products.’

The products are gradually appearing more in various cultural events and outlets, such as the Date Festival, the Book Fair and Abu Dhabi Art. Currently, you can buy some of the hand made products at Artyfact; the store in Manarat Al Saadiyat. The products will have a label that reads ‘Sougha’ in Arabic calligraphy, as well as ‘Khalifa Fund’ in Arabic. The products are often colourful and very well made and the range and styles are vast. From coin purses to handbags, laptop cases, mobile phone covers and other accessories, interested shoppers will find unique and durable items.

A key element of this initiative was to help women adapt classic crafts to modern needs. For example, in an old technique called naghda, Emirati ladies would use a very thin and fine metallic ribbon to knot into a fabric. The process was painstakingly delicate and the end result was a beautifully designed Abaya, usually used for wedding ceremonies. Janine worked with ladies and helped them make the same fabric but use it instead for laptop cases or little purses. ‘By helping the ladies modernise the uses for these techniques; we were able to revive an old craft, while helping the women bring in some income.’ Janine worked with women to preserve other techniques, such as fadu; which is a kind of elaborate weaving.

Janine reminisces about a particular woman who owned a very old and basic loom. ‘The products that she made were incredible, here was this woman, sewing on a very old loom and creating wonderful pieces. It shows how the spirit can achieve anything, even with the barest of tools.’ As a textile artist herself, Janine can appreciate the patience and dedication these women put into their products.

The act of producing their own items and selling them is a very empowering experience. Janine tells us of the immense pride that these women extracted from being able to secure an income. Support from their families was equally poignant; ‘all the women I worked with had proud and supportive families.’ Each town had a Family Development Foundation which acted as a host for these activities.

By reviving this art with the older generations who were familiar with the techniques, these activities also sparked the interest of younger women. ‘Although most of the women I worked with initially were in their forties, there were some younger women learning the craft and showing appreciation for this special art,’ Janine tells us. While Janine does not work with Sougha anymore, she does teach classes in Abu Dhabi and belongs to two guilds in Dubai. ‘It’s a beautiful activity,’ she says. Hand-made products always retain more value than their machine produced counterparts and supporting Janine’s craft, as well as the products by Sougha, is a great way of keeping the past alive.
To sign up for a class with Janine, email You can also visit her Facebook page at To learn more about the Khalifa Fund for Enterprise Development, visit

By Sara Taher
Time Out Abu Dhabi,

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