The Learning Place-Threads of Empowering Dreams
The rhythmic whirring of sewing machines can be heard from outside the craft centre, practically singing in tranquil unison. The chatter behind the doors is animated, lively and productive-the cheerful force behind this festive clatter is remarkable and distinct. These are the gifted artisans of the Eve Branson Foundation; the force, the strength, the heart of this unique women’s group.
One could say that the warmth of the Berber people, and particularly the women in the rugged High Atlas Mountain region of Morocco, is the catalyst for this thriving ensemble.
This is something that Eve Branson, Founder of the Foundation, recognized, 12 years ago, on a trip to Morocco by chance. It was a quintessential moment. The spirit was already present in these incredible women. They just needed someone to bring out their light. And it’s been shining fiercely ever since. Ms. Branson, who has dedicated her life to challenging the status quo and going against the grain, so to speak, is a sprightly 94-years old and is showing no signs of slowing down.
This fire, this phenomenon, began on a whim when Ms. Branson stumbled upon the magical Kasbah Tamadot in the depths of the High Atlas Mountains. Immediately mystified and charmed by the achingly beautiful landscape and the radiance of the Berber people, Ms. Branson felt it was her calling to help Berber women, in particular.
Women depend on sewing, stitching, and creating, often meticulously by hand, in their homes or on ancient wooden looms. The artisanal industry is thriving in this mystical country and is essential to the Moroccan economy. Many handcrafted products such as rugs, table covers and napkins, so incredibly popular with tourists, are made by women in rural provinces.
From the Eve Branson Foundation website, ‘Tansghart was the first of our craft houses, and it was established to train young women who had dropped out of school. We now proudly run five craft centers in the area, with each center encouraging the production and sale of artisan goods. This allows the young people to generate a small income for themselves and their families.’
In addition to these essential skills-training centers, the Foundation partners closely with several different innovative organizations that allow them to assist vital community programs supporting access to education, environmental issues, healthcare, and wellness.
The Foundation has, from the start, worked faithfully with the team at Kasbah Tamadot, ‘who employ over 90 per cent of their staff from the local community to enhance living standards in some of the most impoverished communities surrounding the property.’Photo by @charliedaily
It just so happened that a few years ago, EBF was looking for collaborators who could guide, lead, and teach these extraordinary women; to take them further than they ever could imagine. Someone who knew authentic Morocco at its core, who understood the artisans + women’s groups. They also sought someone with a specific passion for empowering the female population and creating sustainable, reachable employment for rural Berber women, the often-marginalized population in the jagged High Atlas Mountain terrain of Morocco.
Eve and her expert team were looking for someone with business savvy who would not compromise the integrity of the Berber culture and artistry. Those who had equal heart as they did. Someone with creativity, ingenuity, passion and unequalled talent.
Heather and Katie O’Neill of Mushmina were also seeking fulfilling, sustainable collaboration at the time. They were looking to expand their mindful reach with gifted female artisans throughout Morocco. The business-savvy sisters were looking for women with compassion and spunk.
On a cold, rainy ho-hum day in winter of 2016, surrounded by the rustic landscape of the High Atlas Mountains, this unique collaboration between Mushmina and the Eve Branson Foundation was born. The Foundation welcomes new connections to help scale and strengthen its impact in the region and through a mutual contact, met with Heather and Katie from Mushmina.
Katie and Heather were graciously invited up the enchanting, rugged mountain of mystic red peaks and endless fruit tree valleys to meet Barbara De Bastier, the experienced and wise Coordinator of the foundation’s home. The meeting sparked a friendship and subsequent partnership leading to design and color workshops focused on improving the quality and style of products being crafted.
Asni, the bustling Berber town where the flourishing foundation is based, and several surrounding villages, are now the home to five successful artisanal centers that are funded by the Eve Branson Foundation.
As Heather thoughtfully explains, ‘From the initial samples to this last round of beautiful custom Fedowa Tunics, we are delighted to work closely with the women who hand-embroider this stunning collection with traditional Moroccan stitching. Carefully led by Amina, the teacher at the Tamgounssi Weaving Center, the women learn pattern-making, intricate Rhonda stitching, and striking embroidery.’ Heather continues, ‘We also made capes and jackets with the younger trainees at the Tansghart Craft Center, led by their teacher, Rachid, who patiently listens as Katie diligently and thoroughly walks him through her designs.’
The dedication on behalf of the Mushmina sisters is one of energy, expertise, warmth and grit. Katie and Heather will spend hours going over color swatches, potential patterns, cross-checking and brainstorming ideas for future projects with the seamstress team. It is truly a productive collaboration on all sides.Asni Embroidered Flower Top in eggplant/ Photo by Ingrid Pullar for Mushmina
And the future? Katie and Heather are always hopeful to continue their ethical partnership with the Foundation. The sisters intend to create more unique clothing collaborations, continued custom work opportunities for these talented women, as well as reaching out to global markets. Heather and Katie have brought several groups of North American women to meet the seamstresses in Asni and anticipate engaging in more of this type of cross cultural exchange. Over couscous, of course!
In the meantime, the calloused, soft hands of these brilliant seamstresses carefully persist with their precious work. And the quiet, invaluable guidance of the Eve Branson Foundation and the Mushmina Sisters endures.
By Tara Fraiture, Mushmina Blogger and Director of Social Engagement
Shop the complete Mushmina and Eve Branson Collection on www.mushmina.com