The first time Heather and I spoke on the phone, I was immediately struck by the radiance and warmth of her voice. It glowed through our conversation and I knew right away that I had come across someone special.

Heather, I discovered soon after, is the heartstrings of Mushmina and so much more.

 

Running a successful small business is one thing. However, running a flourishing small business, as a strong female CEO, with a mindful mission from Morocco is an entirely different situation. All of these challenges could bring even a strong person down. Heather, despite these obstacles, chooses to ‘run into the storm’ as she has described to me in the past. And she is one storm-strong woman.

Heather describes successfully owning a business in Morocco as ‘rolling with it, no matter how crazy things may be.’ She is a firm believer in karma and the universe backing her up. And she should; her work ethic and her incredible human spirit are unmatchable.

On top of it all, Heather is a loving mother to two wee people-Hiba, four years and Youssef, one year. And she is as hands on as a mama could be-I often call her and she’s been out for a nature walk with her kids. Or she brings the gang with her to our informal meetings at my house. Which I love!

The pressure, however, of being a thriving small business owner and an effective mother, can be stressful. Particularly working from home; where chaos can reign with two little ones.  However, Heather manages to find the light in the chaos. She claims that flexibility is the key to positivity. She explains earnestly, ‘To me, this has so much value. I love that each day is different and I can take a sick day with my daughter if I need to.’ She continues, ‘Hiba loves to play in the workshop next to me and tries on all the latest clothing and bags. My son goes right for my toolbox. It does get a little chaotic but I have a wonderful helper and a door that I can shut when necessary; this is how I find my sanity. I also work at midnight when everyone else is asleep.’

Peace seems to seek out Heather. This girl just doesn’t get flustered! I’ve called her more times that not when a product order has been lost in the Moroccan mail (it happens quite often) or Hiba has dumped applesauce all over Youssef’s head. And she goes with the flow! She frequently tells me that the universe has its way of sorting things out.

She’s also pretty darn humble. She’ll be the first to give credit to her fab sis and Co-Founder, Katie, as well as the incredible team of Mushmina artisans. As well as her family and husband, Mohamed. Her nature is one of caring for others.

 

At the same time, this Mama rocks the fashion accessories world with her innovative, creative, supportive mission. But Heather is no wallflower! She says she has learned to be assertive and firm living in Morocco and running a business here. She explains, ‘You have to have boundaries. There is a balance in being patient but also being productive. Things take more time here, but I have found a rhythm.’ She laughs good-naturedly. ‘Most of the time.’

 

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Heather’s connection to Morocco and its people is exceptionally remarkable. The best part is that it comes so naturally to her. Heather learned Darija, one of the local languages of Morocco, when she was a Small Business Peace Corps Volunteer from 2003-2005 in rural Bejaad, Central Morocco. As she fittingly describes, ‘People’s heads turn when they hear that I can speak the language and also that I am an experienced negotiator.’ Clearly, the respect is there.

Working closely and diligently with women’s groups, co-ops, and artisans inherently allowed her to easily pick up the language fluently. Heather’s bond with those with whom she comes in contact is extraordinary. While most expats do not speak Darija, Heather defies the odds and does all of her work in the language. Watching and listening to her work is an art-a fascinating, back-and-forth of gentle grit and perseverance. Yet she manages to have a kindness and warmth to her that is incredibly affable and approachable.

The close link that Heather has with her long-term team of loyal artisans is palpable. Trust and relationships take time to develop here in Morocco and Heather has dedicated years of her time to this labor of love, Mushmina. She has earned respect, appreciation, and most importantly, affection and admiration from her body of artists. As she often says, ‘I learn from them as much as they learn from me.’

This mutual admiration and respect comes from years of getting to know her artisans and their families, a key part of Moroccan culture. Heather describes it best-‘My leadership style is very personal. I am particularly invested in our team, I know their families and they know mine. This is also how business is done in Morocco and I love this about my adopted home.’

 

 

After I spoke to Heather on the phone for the first time, we decided to meet in Casablanca. We realized quickly that our vision was similar. We both were former Peace Corps Volunteers, gravitating towards empowering and supporting women in particular.

As soon as I walked into the café where we had arranged to meet, Heather’s charmingly genuine smile greeted me from across the bustling Moroccan tearoom. I knew at that moment, I was meeting my future boss. Even more essentially, my steadfast friend.

Perhaps one might agree that Heather is in fact, the thread of Mushmina. And if the universe has its way of sorting things out, then I consider myself unbelievably fortunate to be a part of Heather’s cosmos.

 

By Tara Fraiture, Mushmina blogger among other things

 

 

Our business is so much more then accessories, it’s about the stories and the people behind our handmade products. This week on the Mushmina blog we bring you the story of a dynamic group of artisans that Katie and I have worked with for almost ten years. These ladies continue to amaze me! Read on for the secret ingredient that makes The Khenifra Women’s Cooperative so successful. xo Heather

 

Khenifra Treasures –Beads of Trust and Hope

Surrounded on all sides by the majestic Atlas Mountains in Northern-Central Morocco, is the inconspicuous, sleepy town of Khenifra.

This rugged community, however, has a force within its soul that perhaps sets it apart from other Moroccan rural settings. That power, is fueled by a small, ingenious group of women with two goals-to provide for their families and trust and respect each other. This flourishing mantra is behind the thriving success of their unique women’s cooperative.

The idea all began on a whim in 2009 when a savvy and determined Peace Corps Volunteer, Linda Zahava, took note of the unusual and interesting embroidery and button-making talent of the local women in the village where she had been assigned to do her work as a small business development volunteer.

These women were skilled button makers of the traditional Moroccan ‘djellaba’, the long, beautifully flowing gown that both women and men wear for all sorts of occasions in this incredibly diverse country. The women were accustomed to working independently from home; creating and producing beautiful buttons for sale.

The concept, however, of working together as an association towards a group goal was entirely new. Most of the women were uneducated. Running a successful co-op and business would be challenging as the majority of the association members, to this day, only hold a primary school education.

Linda had a revelation when she saw these gorgeously intricate, detailed colored beads. Why not make them into unique, vibrantly colored necklaces? Little did she know that this idea would take off and become what it has today.

How did this incredible collaboration begin with the button makers, the prolific Peace Corps Volunteer and the fab Mushmina sisters? How did it evolve into a thriving, internationally successful women’s co-op?  And how is it possible that after so many years, this connection is still going strong?

It was a perfect storm, of sorts-Heather and Katie were seeking a Peace Corps-led focus group for product development in which they could invest and explore at the start of their small but mighty Mushmina story in 2009.

In true Mushmina fashion, Katie and Heather trekked down a rural backroad to Khenifra to meet at Linda’s modest house and in true Moroccan fashion, over tea and local bread, they placed a hopeful order (with Katie’s trusted color palate). It was a match meant to be.

The cooperative’s first meetings were chaotic; a mishmash of disorganized, yet enthusiastic pandemonium. In fact, at the very first meeting, over 100 women showed up and Latifa, who is president of the association today, had to stand on a table and shout to get everyone’s attention.

Slowly but surely, the group gathered momentum in establishing and maintaining its goals. Linda guided the group in electing and explaining the roles officers, managing a business and creating a thriving product.

The trust, however, was something that could not be taught.

Faith in each other is what makes this group special and a commitment to one another and their goal is what has continued to help the co-op prosper over the years.

There have been roadblocks, one might say, in this quest for collaboration. Imagine trying to run a business with 17 people. All whom have vastly different ideas? When the sparse women’s center in Khenifra was suddenly closed where the group faithfully held their Sunday co-op meetings, Heather, Linda and the ladies would meet at a café rooftop overlooking the outline of the pink-hued town of Khenifra. Not holding a meeting was not an option.

There has always been an inventiveness and freshness to this co-op of talented artisans that is both ingenious and unmatched. And all those tremendously varying ideas? They would turn into enormously clever results. In fact, the Khenifra ladies and Katie continue to dream up imaginative and visionary new pieces all the time. With buttons.

The Khenifra co-op has successfully traveled several times for trade shows in the United States. They have necklace orders flying off their shelves. In fact, they even have back orders.

Almost 10 years later, this co-op is still going strong. These relationships are still thriving. These professional alliances are still persevering. The beautiful beaded necklaces, ever-changing and evolving, are still hugely successful. These women are still empowered and providing for their families. These friendships are still blooming. And all because of some tiny buttons, a hopeful idea, a great deal of trust and a tremendous amount of talent and hard work.

By Tara Fraiture, Mushmina blogger

Shop the Khenifra collection on www.mushmina.com.

This summer we are also bringing back the popular ‘Khenifra Cluster Bead Necklace’; a fabulous chunky, labor-intensive chocker-style piece full of handmade buttons. We’re always adding innovative, cool ideas to our collections and we’ve included metal beads (rock on!) as well as a new variety of vibrant colors to these fave necklaces.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

This week we decided to have our lovely Mushmina blogger Tara, venture to Marrakech to peek behind the most amazing door we have ever seen,  that of  the Henna Art Cafe. The first of it’s kind, this cafe/artistic center/gallery is a must see when visiting the enchanting ‘Red City.’  Read on… and start planning your trip! xo Heather

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The Henna Art Café, Marrakech-Eat, Paint, Love

I quickly hop out of the way out of a rogue motorcycle whizzing by me in the winding cobblestoned alleyways of mystical Marrakech. The potholed, dusty path whimsically leads to the imaginative Henna Art Café. This vibrantly colorful venue is a lively, unequaled stomping ground that celebrates empowering artists as well as serving up divinely delicious traditional Moroccan cuisine with an unconventional flair.

As soon as I moved to magical Morocco in the summer of 2017, I heard about this exciting, innovative venue in the heart of the medieval walled city.

The popular café innovatively combines three of my favorite things-excellent food, gorgeous local art with an ingenious twist and compassionate mission that supports talented henna artists, one of main sources of Moroccan tourism.

The setting of the café is quirky and playful-Lori Gordon, founder and co-owner utilize every inch of the small space in the most creative and genius of ways. True to her artistry, even the tiny toilet space is quintessentially decorated. As Lori explains with a chuckle, ‘This way, people can’t complain too much about the small space. Distraction is key here.’  The walls of the toilet are a vivid collage of funky, fun art, meticulously painted by Lori herself. Ask her how long it took to paint the toilet!

Lori’s story is simple, she explains. An accomplished visual artist, writer, and champion of women’s autonomy, she found herself at a point in her life where she was stagnant. As she puts it, ‘I was 50 years old and I had never been overseas. I had accomplished many things as an artist for which I was incredibly proud but at that moment, I decided that I needed a turning point.’ She had an epiphany on a three-week vacation to Morocco and in her words, ‘I never looked back.’

Opening the café was a result of practicality. She needed an income. Lori decided to combine her love of art and scrumptious food as well as her ever-existing need to help others into a business and a non-profit helping local artists called El Fenn Maroc. She chose to focus on henna as it is such a symbol of Morocco and the creative strength, in particular, of Moroccan women. Because of the success of the café and gallery, the non-profit El Fenn is also able to support several other local non-profits.

Both the café and the non-profit work harmoniously with each other to create a perfect storm of good food, lovely art, and a sustainable environment for female artists.

As luck had it, she met her long-term co-owner and business partner, Rachid, on her first day in Marrakech and they have been working side by side ever since.

‘I think part of what makes it work so well is that either myself or Rachid are there at the café at all times.’ And it shows. The friendly staff, the brightly colored setting, the cozy rooftop area, clearly it’s a labor of love. And it works smashingly.

Who are the henna artists; the heart and soul of this tiny, thriving café?

Lori explains, ‘In Morocco, word of mouth is everything. We found our amazing artists this way; they’ve been with us from day one. Our first artist put us in touch with the second and so on. The momentum has never stopped from that moment.’

‘What sets us apart from other establishments in Morocco,’ she tells me, ‘as henna is a very common art form for tourists and locals alike, ‘is that other hotels and riads regularly offer henna as a secondary source. For us, it’s the focal point of our business.’

Lori and her artists spent much time testing creative means, not just using henna as decoration on the hands, as traditionally done. Instead, they offer something much more endurable in their stunning gallery: striking henna art on paper, wood and leather.

The café’s henna offerings have been such a hit that the non-profit, Actuality Media, made a short documentary, highlighting one of their talented artists; Nadia. The nine-minute film is called ‘Flowers of Marrakech’ and is a simple, beautiful take on a talented female artist in Morocco trying to support her family as a young single mother. (Scroll down to watch)

And Lori’s sense of humor always remains intact. When I tell her how much I enjoy the food at the café, she laughs heartily and says that it’s not because she is an expert chef, but because the café’s ever-changing menu reflects her own food cravings. This and a whole lot of trial and error in the kitchen. Most often her cravings are Mexican food in nature, she says with a mischievous smile. Which is fine by me!

And true to her word, no one, to my knowledge, has ever complained about the toilet.

By Tara Fraiture, Mushmina blogger.

www.mushmina.com

Photos by Inaki and Tara Fraiture

 

  

Silver Strands -The Metalsmith

(written February 2018)

The rain starts to plop with intensity as we make our way into the ancient medina of Meknes, North-Central Morocco. Heather and I are on our way to see Cherif, master metalsmith, faithful collaborator and dear friend of Mushmina for almost ten years.

We duck into a tiny café to grab lunch on the deserted main square before heading into the narrow cobble stoned paths of the old medina. Mostly, we are trying to warm up from the frigid cold that has enveloped the country and seems to be chasing us on our travels. The inside of the restaurant looks welcomingly warm but it turns out, perhaps just a half-degree cozier than the seemingly glacial outside. In fact, we can see our ice-cold breath puff out as we speak; not very comforting from inside a restaurant.

We decide the best thing to order is ‘harira’ a staple soup here. I liken it to a Moroccan minestrone soup-tomato based with chick peas, lentils, pasta, parsley, fresh herbs and a hint of Moroccan spices. It’s piping hot and perfect. We warm our faces over the steam and laugh at ourselves. As we eat, we watch the local tv station where just a hop, skip and a jump up the road, it’s snowing intensely and cars are skidding out of control on the ice. It’s the main news story.

Once our tummies are full and we are (somewhat warmed up), we brave the sideways rain and trek out into the medina to find Cherif’s itty-bitty workshop. Winding through little pathways and under crumbling archways, we hear a distant clanking sound. Heather tells me the story of how she and Katie discovered Cherif years before, thanks to this very sound. They had been wandering the medina, looking for inspiration and Katie had heard that distinctive noise. Katie, an experienced master metalsmith herself, recognized it right away and led Heather to the source and into the depths of the medina. This was the beginning of the professional collaboration between Cherif and the Mushmina sisters.

Cherif greets us with a beaming smile at the door of his workspace and welcomes us inside. Frankly, there is just enough room for the three of us, the room is so tiny. I am grateful, though; a small space will mean less cold!

Cherif speaks a bit of French but it’s easier for Heather to ask my questions in Darija and then translate for me. Cherif is so incredibly warm and charismatic, though, his energy and thoughtful heart radiates from him.

He tells me that he has been in the same workshop for 20 years. When I ask if he doesn’t mind telling us how much he pays in rent, he proudly says that he pays 100 dirhams per month, which is roughly about $10. He says that he can even pay six months rent at a time and the sum has never changed. Talk about rent control!

Cherif has been metalsmithing since he was 18 years old. He is now 66 years wise. When I asked how he came to discover his trade, he explains to us that he his father was a shoe cobbler and it just fit that he fell into metal crafting.

Cherif’s unique and flawless style of metalwork, called ‘Damascus’, is special to Meknes in Morocco. There are only five or so master metalsmiths who do this pristine type of silver on steel. Cherif explains to us, ‘100 years ago or so, a Syrian-Jewish metalsmith came to Meknes and he brought the Damascus metal style with him.’ He goes on, ‘I was drawn to its beauty and originality at a young age and this is all I have done since.’

When I ask him what inspires him, he responds, ‘I am motivated in the moment. Perhaps a shape or a pattern that I see that day on a walk or in the old medina, in a flowing tile or on a on a wooden door. Sometimes the moment just comes from within me.’

Heather and I watch him as he demonstrates his stunning, intricate work. He etches with deft ease into steel, entirely freehand, in order to create an intricate crossed groove, fires it up, then he delicately layers fine strands of imported sterling silver from France into the precisely bridged notches. He then uses his torch once again to imprint the silver threads permanently into the steel to gorgeous shapes and patterns. Cherif does this all with instinct and talent alone. And the results are spectacular. He creates eye-catching bangles, earrings, vases, jewelry boxes, and the custom tags seen on Mushmina bags. The lovely silver threads are subtly inscribed into the steel.

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Cherif’s latest masterpiece is a line of ‘Hand of Fatima’ pieces, symbolizing protection and strength, designed by Katie for Mushmina. They are beautifully engraved with Cherif’s signature silver strands onto dark metal steel.

Cherif is so focused, so talented, so meticulously trained in his craft that he talks earnestly to Heather while he is working. He doesn’t seem worried in the least that he has a massive blowtorch, a minuscule workshop, and my long hair dangling just a few inches from the flame. I am keenly aware, however; particularly when he turns his head to chat with Heather and continues to fire up his piece. I am chuckling, though, as I am incredibly impressed with his obvious expertise and finesse.

When it is time for us to leave we feel a bit warmer, perhaps from the blowtorch, we joke afterwards. Cherif is gracious and kind as we depart. I am, once again, hearted by his simple tale and his gorgeous craft. I can see why Heather and Katie have worked with this talented artist and softhearted man for so many years. And I feel fortunate to be the lucky one in sharing his story.

By Tara Fraiture, Mushmina blogger

www.mushmina.com

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Morocco is buzzing with festive, colorful Ramadan preparation; the Islamic holiday that follows the lunar pattern and begins today. For my family and I whom arrived last summer to Rabat, it’s our first Ramadan in Morocco, and we are sharing the excitement and flurry of our adopted home.

This past Sunday as my girls, my husband Sacha and I drove to a family outing through the bustling downtown streets of Rabat, we came upon the most strikingly beautiful mural on the side of an unassuming, crumbling apartment complex. I had been meaning to photograph this particular fascinating fresco for a couple weeks as part of a recent uniquely popular international annual street art festival in Rabat called Jidar, Toiles Des Rues, or Roofs of the Roads. I was drawn to this specific mural with her message of female empowerment and spirit!

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Mural by Peruvian artist, Decertor

 

As we slowly pulled up to the gargantuan wall painting, I caught my breath. She did not disappoint. I was mesmerized. And sitting underneath this gorgeous collage of vibrant color was a gaggle of men ranging in ages from early 20’s to mid 60’s. All joyfully eating juicy slices of fresh watermelon, chatting, talking, laughing with each other. I greeted them cheerfully in my broken Darija and immediately, their reaction was one of warmth and inclusion. Without missing a beat, they handed me a piece of the fruit. I gladly accepted. It’s watermelon season here in Morocco!

Soon after, my middle daughter curiously popped out of the car and was immediately gifted a tasty segment of sweet watermelon. And then my third daughter appeared. My husband patiently parked the car and he joined the fun along with my oldest girl. We all stood there, laughing, conversing in Darija, Arabic and French, and relishing the moment. All thanks to a mural and some watermelon.

Reflecting on that spontaneous incident afterwards with our girls in the car, my youngest daughter, only eight, pointed out that Moroccans are ‘so friendly and they love watermelon as much as I do.’ And that’s just the point. Moroccans are some of the friendliest people in the world. And they will immediately share, no matter how little they have. This is the simple beauty of the Ramadan season.

Ramadan is intended to be a time set aside for self-reflection; particularly gratitude for all that one has in life. It is also an occasion to give back to those who are less fortunate. For Moroccans and Muslims around the world, Ramadan is about family, love and peace. And for my family, it will always be about a slice of watermelon and an extraordinary painting in the simplest of settings. Ramadan Kareem!

 

 

By Tara Fraiture, Mushmina blogger

 

The Evolution of the Mushmina Hobo –From Couch To Camel

Mushmina Spring 2018 (9)

Flashback to almost 10 years ago and the beating heart of Mushmina was just beginning to flourish. Heather and Katie knew they had something special; the custom Mushmina Hobo handbag; the essence of their unique small business. This was Katie’s epiphany-why not take gorgeous, striking fabrics inspired by Moroccan tiles and upholstery and turn the textiles into stunning, vibrant bags? Who says you can’t turn a couch into a stunning bag!?! No one had ever done it before. And the classic Mushmina Hobo was born.

Although the soul of this rockin’ bag stays the same; the ingenious idea behind the creation and the Mushmina mindful mission is still firmly in place today.  But this innovative product has evolved with time, changing with Katie and Heather’s whimsical, playful imagination. As the sisters have grown, adapted, matured and thrived, so too, have their Hobo bags. But the heart of this bag, as is the heart of Mushmina, is fiercely everlasting.

So what’s the story here?

Mohammedia is a town where you if blink on the auto-route, you might miss it. Not exactly a stop on the tourist circuit for international travelers here in Morocco.

Nestled, however, in the midst of this working class town, is a cozy enclave of buildings. At the focal point of these bustling structures is Mehdi’s textile factory; the producers of Mushmina’s signature fabrics. The creative process, however, is one that began many years before.

In the dawning years of Mushmina, Heather and Katie would source imaginative, vibrant fabrics from all over Morocco for their distinctive handbags. Drawing inspiration from traditional and vividly colorful upholstery (typical in Moroccan homes), the sisters would search in hundreds of shops in Casablanca, Khouribga, and beyond for the quintessential 3-4 textiles per collection. The quality lining of the handbags required the same endless trips to fabric shops. It was exhausting and incredibly time-consuming.

As Mushmina grew and expanded, so did its clientele, and after a few years, requests started coming in for larger quantities of fabrics from wholesalers. Great for business, bad for tired feet! It was becoming impossible to continue trekking into textile stores (no matter how much they loved it!).

Lo and behold, the sisters were introduced to this small, custom textile factory in sleepy Mohammedia, north of Casablanca. It was, a perfect match, one could say. Katie had brilliantly envisioned and designed (by hand) their first pattern…a Camel Repeat. Heather chuckles heartily and explains, ‘Any other wholesale factory would have laughed at the idea; putting camels on upholstery!’ But it was perfectly, quirky, heart-felt Mushmina, with a touch of Morocco.

And yes, Mehdi laughed. But in the best of ways. In fact, Mehdi and his loyal team immediately meshed flawlessly with the Mushmina sisters. Mehdi himself, having a great appreciation for hip, quirky new styles and global trends, heads his squad of loyal staff: Mostafa, talented designer, imports the Mushmina creation after it has been intricately worked on by Mehdi’s design team in Marrakech. Then Mostafa attentively places the design into a special textile program that relays it to the looms. Rachida and Malika, technician assistants, are the eagle eyes, so to speak, to be sure that the looms are working at their optimum. A small but fiercely clever and accomplished team.

Walking into the building, you feel the energy and purr of the machines at once. The jacquard looms are gargantuan, hypnotically pushing out gorgeous custom fabric. Katie will often stand meticulously at the looms and play with the color options as Malika, trusted staff, aids her to deftly switch out the threads. Shades of vibrant colors, shiny or matte, large prints or tiny ones, the Mushmina sisters have done it all. It’s a fine dance to find perfection.

So where does Katie find her revelation? The ingenious process is typically galvanized in Morocco; energized by stunningly diverse landscapes, vivid mosaic tiles, intricate wrought iron detailing, electrifying upholstery and of course, fabulous carpets of every look and fiber. Occasionally, she finds illumination in the simplest of places…on Heather’s sunny rooftop or late at night in the colorful, funky Mushmina studio. Katie incredibly still hand-draws all of the handbag patterns to this day.

Heather and Katie have, in the past, created everything from whimsical Beni fabrics (inspired by the bold, linear designs of the famous Beni Ourain carpets), to light-hearted camel prints with cheerful backgrounds. The Beni fabrics were such a popular, classic pattern that the sisters are bringing them back this fall. Stay tuned for this upbeat collection. Always inspired, continually evolving, forever fierce and fashion forward. The sisters even did a 1970’s-inspired hot pink print called ‘Wildflowers’. Playful, occasionally mischievous, true Mushmina.

Beni Black

Mushmina has proudly collaborated with QVC USA, inspirited by striking Moroccan vistas, blooming pomegranate farms, vibrantly fragrant jasmine flowers and the ceaseless Mediterranean Sea, which borders much of this incredible land.

One often says here that Morocco is a never-ending land of awakenings, complete with endless possibilities for inspiration. Our signature Mushmina Hobos have emerged, over the years, as a symbol of the resourceful, spirited vision of this small business. And spunky camel patterns to boot.

Our latest fabulously charming collection will air on QVC Germany this Friday April 20th @3pm EDT. The sisters are thrilled with this line. The custom textile available in four bold colors, is called ‘The Gardenia’, and is already a hit with pre-sales. Keep an eye out for more details.

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What would you like to see u do next? Have a cool, unique fabric idea? Email katie@mushmina.com

 

By Tara Fraiture, Mushmina blogger (among other things!)

www.mushmina.com

 

Images from Mushmina’s 2018 Spring Photoshoot, @Kasbah Tamadot
Model Ghizlane Safsaf  /Photographer Ingrid Pullar

 

 

Halima’s house in Bejaad is modest and tiny; we gingerly walk up the narrow staircase into her small living room and on into her workspace where she has carefully cleared out an area for our visit.

As we make our way up the stone stairs into her humble abode, her lively children run up and down the stairs around us. The street below is busy and bustling with little ones playing, neighbors chatting, and curious by-standers gazing at us, wondering whom we were.

Halima is a master weaver in rural Bejaad, Central Morocco. She is the head contact for a small but mighty group of female weavers in this quiet town; known for its beautiful, unique rugs. For female weavers here and all over Morocco, these carpets symbolize a tiny slice of independence.

Just as importantly, though, Halima is Mushmina co-founder Heather O’Neill’s loyal friend. Their friendship has evolved from Heather’s starting days in Morocco as a galvanized, determined Peace Corps Volunteer almost 15 years ago. She has also been Heather’s most trusted rug weaver and much-needed informal ‘consultant’ ever since.

 

Halima, whose infectious smile lights up a room and whose eyes twinkle with clever humor and intelligence, is an example of the strength and inspiration of the small but Herculean business of the Mushmina sisters, Heather and Katie.

Halima’s calm temperament and warmth radiates from her when she hugs me and welcomes us into her home.

Halima has not had it easy, however. As a woman, mother and wife in a tiny traditional Moroccan working-class town, it is often seen as taboo for a woman to be earning a salary. Finding a balance is difficult. Maintaining a busy home, where most women still wash laundry by hand and toil in front of teensy gas stoves for hours, as well as caring for her three young children, takes up most of her time.

Halima’s work ethic is unmatchable; her energy and vigor are unstoppable; her motivation is ceaseless. She has something inside her that is different-she takes initiative with her trade. She wants more for herself. She demands better for her children.

Halima’s heartwarming story is a fascinating one. An incredible woman who never had the opportunity to go to school as an uncle suddenly passed away and she was sent to care for the family, Halima speaks no French; typical of most rural Moroccan people. Luckily for me, Heather flawlessly translates Halima’s heartfelt story for us from Darija, the local language.

And then there is her actual physical weaving. Halima, like most Moroccan weavers (most are female, as it’s an ideal trade handed down from mother to daughter), has the family loom in her cramped kitchen. The lighting is dim and the elements can be brutal; summers are stifling hot and winters are brutally frigid. Heating and cooling systems are unthinkably too expensive.

Luckily, Halima is still young and her eyes and hands haven’t failed her. But she weaves at night after her incredibly long work hours at home are finished. Inevitably, the day will come. Her mother sadly had to give up weaving because it was too hard on her vision.

Weavers depend on their knowing hands for their work; these are their tools. Halima’s hands are her lifeline; soft and calloused from years of physical toiling at her basic wooden loom. Her loom, a simple wooden structure with two beaten-up, rudimentary cans placed precariously on either side as well as a spoon tied right in the middle for balance, is the heart of her income.

The ancestral wooden looms on which these women weave, amazingly, have not changed over the years. Although electrical looms exist, they are not used as a result of cost and maintenance.

 

While we talk and work and she shows us her gorgeous weaving, her children periodically come in and out of the room, asking questions, scrambling all over her. She handles them like a pro; not skipping a beat in continuing our work and caring for them.

We watch her as she weaves rhythmically, mesmorized.

Halima’s talent is quite magical. As Moroccan weavers do, their trade is innately in them-she doesn’t use any conventional tools. Halima uses her hands and her arms to measure the rugs. The rest, is almost divination-all of the stunning symbols that make the Bejaddi rugs so famous throughout Morocco and beyond, come from within Halima. Her patterns are so exact, so perfect, such excellent quality, one might think that they are factory-produced. This is a real, pure, raw gift.

Astonishingly, weavers work with their textiles facing outward from the loom; the women have to essentially do everything backwards. It is intricate, difficult work. When I ask Halima where she finds her inspiration, she tells me that her revelations come to her in various ways. It can be as simple as the outline of a grain. Or the peaks of the majestic Atlas Mountains. Nature and agricultural motifs are often woven into Moroccan textiles. Each region has its own trademark patterns.

 

We got a sneak peak of creative director, Katie working closely with Halima on designs that will later be sewn into Mushmina’s trademark handbags.

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As the afternoon wanes and the evening appears out of nowhere, we stop our work for a tea. The pocket-sized room, all of a sudden, is cold. We fill ourselves with minty, heavily sweetened Moroccan tea, cakes and toasty flat bread. And when our bellies are satisfied and our hearts are warmed, we hit the road. Feeling grateful to have been enlightened by this incredible woman. And to have shared a little bit of her world.

-By Tara Fraiture, Mushmina blogger

www.mushmina.com

 

 

 

 

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3 Things That Feed My Soul

January 21, 2018

It has been a while since I posted a ‘Super Soul Sunday’ blog post, this Sunday I’m feeling inspired. This month I have been making a conscious effort to listen to positive messages, to reconnect with what really feeds my soul, and to carve out personal time to connect to ‘spirit.’

Today I’d like to share 3 things that feed my soul.

1. Positive Conversations. Did you know that Oprah’s Super Soul Sunday conversations with the world’s top thought leaders are now available on podcast?! Download these Super Soul Sunday podcasts for free to your smartphones. Podcasts are a game changer for me because some days I spend hours in the car driving across Morocco’s landscape to meet with Mushmina artisans. These half hour conversations are thought provoking and uplifting and help set the tone for my day.  I also love Hay House podcasts. Every spring Hay House broadcasts a ‘World Summit,’ hour long conversations with spiritual leaders. Highly recommend!

2. Spending time in nature. I take a walk everyday if I can to feel the sun on my face. Richard Diebenkorn, the American painter’s California landscapes remind me of Morocco. Maybe that is why I always liked his work even before I came to North Africa. The bright Moroccan sun and vegetation are similar to a California landscape. Something is calling me to paint again this year, another way I feed my soul!

3. Connecting with my tribe. My tribe is my sister, my mother, my girlfriends in the US and abroad who have become like family to me. I love hearing what exciting things they are up to, Women’s March posters they have made together,  stories and struggles and triumphs we share.

Do something that feeds your soul today.  Happy Sunday!

xo Heather

Mushmina,Co Founder

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In the vast, rugged mountains overlooking the sleepy, blue-washed walls of Chefchaouen, northern Morocco, Berber men and women weave labors of love in the strands of rustic cotton textiles called ‘mandils’. Rich hues, created by broad, calloused hands from years of hard physical toiling.

These fabrics are produced from natural dyes and carefully woven on traditional horizontal wooden looms. The material is then transformed into rustic striped cotton pieces; matching the ivory clouds and the fierce sun in their pure tones.

Women’s weaving groups are scattered throughout the haunting mountains of this region; loosely-organized co-ops where women make a small profit to support their families with these sustainable pieces that can be used as blankets, throws or towels. But for the locals, they are much more than a decorative piece.

The history of this striking red and white fabric is as fascinating as the women who wear them-the hearty women of the Rif region of Northern Morocco have worn these ‘mandils’ as aprons for centuries. The reason is deeply rooted in a utilitarian sense; the fabrics are used for practicality-they are deeply warm in the cool, mountain air and can easily be thrown over other clothes for extra insulation.

And why the red and white stripes? The answer is, like the history of Chaouen itself, a bit of a mystery. One theory is that the stripes have just evolved as a natural way to add interest with a simple pattern.

Another speculation is that the Rif region, once Spanish in its possession, has much to do with the presence of the bold pattern.

Color is clearly an essential part of Chaouen’s rich history. Chefchaouen, which translates to ‘see the two mountain peaks’ in Darija, was founded in the 15th century and initially populated by Jews and Moriscos fleeing the Spanish Inquisition.

Many stories have circulated over time as to why Chaouen is so utterly blue. Some say that European immigrant Jews chose to paint the tiny town sapphire upon fleeing Hitler’s Nazi regime. Some insist it’s a natural protection against mosquitos. And some even claim that Chaouen is blue as part of its etheral and spiritual aura. In any case, the haven of Chaouen is famous for its gorgeous blue hue; throwing peaceful shades of vibrant azure throughout its charming, winding passageways.

Chaouen has still managed, over the years, to keep much of its pastoral, tranquil appeal. It’s one of those places where you feel you might have just stepped back a few hundred years. In fact, time seems to slow down in Chaouen. Locals still seem to follow sunrise and sunset as their faithful guide. After all, the community around Chaouen is still vastly a farming one. The Rif Mountain range is enormous, spreading from Tangiers all the way south and east to Tetouan and Chaouen.

Tara's 3 girls peering over the city

The women of the Rif mountain region have adapted to a rugged, rural terrain for centuries. They need clothing that is sturdy, robust and lasts over time. The thick, softly woven cotton of the mandil is ideal for these hard-working locals.

Most female weavers learn their trade from birth; carefully watching their mothers, aunts, sisters and grandmothers patiently labor on their looms, their worn, creviced hands working tirelessly day in, day out. Weaving, sewing, embroidering is in their blood; it flows through them like the blue paint that is stirred in the vivid colors of the old medina doors.

One such women’s group is high above the tiny village of Dardara, 10 km from Chaouen, about a 35-minute bumpy drive down the mountain and into the larger town. The co-op doesn’t even have a name; it is just a small building with no water or electricity and a group of very active female weavers.

Typically, one mandil takes a full day for a woman to weave on a basic wooden loom. The supplies cost about 10 dirhams ($1). The mandil then sells on the local market yielding a few dollars profit, a substantial amount for the weaver.

The telltale traditional red and white colors of the mandils vary depending on the communities of women who wear them throughout the enormous rural region. They are really the identification keys of each community.

In recent years, these distinct materials have caught the eye of vendors and tourists alike.

Other colors, as a result, have been introduced as an entrepreneurial spirit has taken over and merchants have started requesting additional patterns and colors. However, the true originals are deep red and white. One can still see this if you catch a glimpse of a local woman washing clothes or selling vegetables in the surrounding villages. The indigo shades of Chaouen are now visible in the blues and whites of the mandils as well.

The practicality of these fabrics have two benefits for locals-the men and women weavers of the region will always need the mandils for their physical labor as well as protection from the harsh elements. In an enterprising sense, there will also likely continue to be a demand for this unique product to tourists visiting the region.

The story of the mandil is a success story in Morocco for of women creating an income for themselves and seeking an independence that they would not normally be able to find in such a traditional region. These women’s weaving co-ops create a unique means for women to have a small income in a bucolic area, where they would not normally have had the possibility to go to school to learn a trade or profession. This gives them a chance at success; no matter how small it might seem.

These shades of Chaouen-the rusty red of a brilliant sunset from the peaceful rooftop terraces, the pristine white of the puffy broccoli-shaped clouds above the tremendous mountain peaks, the dreamy blue of the dusty medieval doors of the old town. Paramount to the region and etched forever in the hearty cottons of the mandils.

 

By Tara Fraiture, Mushmina blogger

Mushmina, mindful fashion and home.

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On a scorching hot, dusty day in 2004, in the rural town of Boujad in Central Morocco, former Peace Corps Volunteer and Mushmina co-founder Heather O’Neill had a life-changing, eureka moment. She witnessed a group of female weavers, seated in a circle, waiting patiently for their carefully hand-crafted rugs to be sold by an unknown middleman.

Heather recalls, “I just knew there had to be something better for women in this position. These incredibly talented artisans put their whole lives into these gorgeous rugs, day in and day out, and they were gaining so little in return. The men buying the rugs to, in turn, sell them at another souk (market), were the ones making the real profit. I realized then that I could make a huge difference. I always knew that I would gravitate towards development and helping others. But I then recognized that it would become a lifelong mission and much more than a job. I had an obligation. It became my calling.”

 

Many years before, as close sisters in suburban New Jersey, Heather and her younger sister Katie knew they were destined to have their own custom fashion and accessories business together. Katie would eventually become the creative and artistic designer of Mushmina; specializing in her trademark mastery of African hand-crafted accessories. Katie’s expertise in distinctive metal-smithing and textiles places her in a unique field in which women are not typically found. Heather would be the connecting force behind this inspiring business with her knowledge of business and materials sourcing and her interest in working in developing nations. The two sisters; yin and yang, best friends, and now business partners and creative collaborators were fated for Mushmina.

Heather and Katie’s mindful plan was slowly coming together. Heather had successfully completed two years as a Peace Corps Volunteer in Morocco teaching small business skills to local women. Katie was a flourishing designer in New York City. Fast-forward a few more years to 2009, the sisters returned to Morocco with a business plan in their backpacks. Heather has remained in Morocco ever since. Katie continues to live in the US, but threatens (lovingly) to move to Morocco as well. After all, they are a team.

This month, in honor of Small Business Saturday, which always held on the Saturday after American Thanksgiving, the sisters have chosen to tell the story of a particularly inspirational Moroccan female small business owner.  Zohra’s story below is one of perseverance, determination and plenty of heart. Read on….

 

Zohra Mellouk, native Moroccan and founder of Souss Saffron, a USDA-certified organic co-op that cultivates “natural products of the Moroccan earth”-saffron, argan oil, and prickly pear seed oil, (as well as many other chemical-free products) has a similar story of dedication and epiphany when it comes to realizing her lifelong ambition of helping women in need.

Souss Saffron’s name comes from the rugged, agrarian Souss region in mid-Southern Morocco, just below the High Atlas Mountains.

Zohra grew up in Casablanca, the largest city in Morocco; she was one of eight children and had everything could possibly need as a young girl. However, her father’s story always inspired Zohra-he had come to Casablanca as a 15-year-old youth, traveling 700 km on foot from his tiny, Berber village in the Sirwa Mountains of southern Morocco. He had nothing but the clothes on his back and the wish of making a better life for himself. And that he did.

Zohra never forgot this. As a child, visiting her father’s family in Tinfat, a village so small that it inevitably blends into other miniscule hamlets in these rural mountains; the nearest large town being 180 km away in Touradant, Zohra said she witnessed “suffering on a huge scale due to unemployment and lack of schooling. But it was the women-the girls, mothers, and grandmothers who always touched me the most. I wanted to do something to give back to them. Because they were the cords that held our community together.”

Later on in life and ironically, after her retirement from a successful career in business, Zohra finally intended to bring her dream to fruition. She briefly thought of opening a guesthouse, but then, a genius idea practically dropped into her lap. Why not use what was already there, already part of the land, embedded in the people, distinctive in their livelihood? And even better, why not work with the women from her parental village? Those who needed employment, education and empowerment the most?

At first, Zohra approached a (male) cousin who immediately belittled her idea. Employ women? Of course not, he told her. Zohra then had a lightening bolt moment. She quickly realized, “We have everything already here that is essential for producing these gifts of the earth; we just need the work force. Women in this region already know how to cultivate these natural products; they have been practically doing it since they were walking, as well as caring for entire households. All they need is a little training in Western regulations. The rhythm is already there. The work ethic was put in place many years before. The experience is there now. We just need to put it into motion.”

Starting with just twelve women in 2011, Zohra now heads over 160 experienced female cultivators today in her successful co-op. The women work at home in the mornings and with Souss Saffron in the afternoons. During the height of saffron cultivation, (October-November), every able-bodied person works and reaps the benefits of the busy season. “What’s not important is the paperwork, what is necessary is that everyone has a job. A purpose. Our youngest female member is 18 and our oldest is (she thinks) 90. Everyone joins in.”

And her biggest challenge? Zohra feels personally responsible for changing as many girls’ lives as possible through education. “I feel a desperate need to send the girls of this co-op to school. The level of poverty and misery in rural villages is astounding. To keep young girls in school through their secondary education and possibly even on afterwards is my ultimate goal. At the moment, we have ten girls at a boarding school in Taroudant. This is huge accomplishment for our small cooperative. There is nothing for them in the villages unless they have been to school. More and more, their families, and even the girl’s fathers, are realizing this.”

Zohra still spends her rare moments of free time, pondering how to create more revenue; the goal being to ultimately employ additional women and send more of their young daughters to school. These thoughts keep her up at night. It’s not for her that she does this. In fact, she is incredibly humble when she talks about her business. She talks about it for the women that she is helping; not for herself. She talks about the future for the women she is supporting, not for herself.

This is what small business owners do; and particularly ones whose missions are linked to free trade and sustainability-they spend their whole lives envisioning and carrying out their dreams-they live, sleep, and breathe this hope. They don’t actually dream for themselves but for others who are less fortunate. Heather and Katie had a goal of helping women and men by empowering and leading talented groups of artisans throughout Morocco. As much as it’s a job for them and a source of income for these two sisters, it’s so much more-it’s a devotion, a duty, and a necessity. Zohra had this same relentless fire within her-to encourage Moroccan women to be independent using the resources that they know best-their land, their earth, their hands.

There is a well-known Moroccan expression, in the local language of Darija, that translates to “Drop by drop, we fill the river” (Nqta b nqta kay hml l’oued). Perhaps for Katie and Heather, this could be measured in the thick fibers of a vibrant Moroccan rug, lovingly woven by master weavers whom the Mushmina sisters have meticulously employed and empowered. And maybe for Zohra, this can be determined by delicate twines of vivid orange-yellow saffron, tenderly cultivated by her co-op of tenacious women in Zohra’s ancestral village.

-By Tara Fraiture, Mushmina guest blogger

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