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.

Eve with Amina teacher

Photo by @charliedailey

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.’

EBF weaver

Embroidery programme

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.

EBF tunic

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

www.mushmina.com

 

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Please join us on Saturday September 29th for a Mushmina Fall Trunk Show in Marrakech. 11am-4pm @Cafe Clock 10% of the sales will benefit the Eve Branson Foundation. Please RSVP here

Shop the complete Mushmina and Eve Branson Collection on www.mushmina.com

EBF-Mushmina- Cafe Clock promo

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

The creations are timeless; simple but extraordinarily beautiful. The earrings are meticulously created in striking mixed metals of brass and silver that sing of the earth’s natural textures. The necklaces, whimsically inspired by nomadic wanderings and unique lands, are ever-evolving and spirited in their playful inspiration. One might think that the genius behind these gorgeous compositions is a wizened elderly savant, but in fact, this gutsy brilliance belongs to Katie O’Neill, Co-Founder and Creative Director of Mushmina.

Katie ONeill (1)

Katie’s breathtaking talent is unparalleled. It is rare that one finds a female master metalsmith, let alone one with such a fierce fervor to continue learning and honing her intricate, luminous skills. Katie is not only an accomplished metalsmith, she is also a textile and clothing designer.

Soft-spoken and with a dazzlingly genuine smile that shines with compassion, Katie is a force with which to be reckoned when it comes to her passion-creating enchanting, enduring art in all forms.

Katie treks the earth, seeking illumination. She has traveled to the Sahara desert of Mali to study the famed Tuareg ‘Blue Men’; well-known for their mastery of crafting spirited jewelry. She walks the walk, one could say. She sits with local artisans. She teaches them. She learns from them. She is constantly changing, growing, advancing herself, and searching for understanding and self-betterment. And she does all of this in the most humble of ways.

What inspires her? She pauses and is reflective. ‘ That special visceral reaction that happens when people “connect” in the world.’ Katie explains, ‘ I found that what inspires my interest in craft is its relationship to cultural anthropology and the deep rooted connection to our ancestry or childhoods,’ She continues mindfully, ‘It’s a nostalgia, a comfort, a trigger.  It is important to me that we be reminded of the origin and integrity from which art is created, its roots; the force behind the innovation and craftsmanship.’

Katie also has a passionate appreciation for unique storytelling though artistry. Luckily, this mindful mission is embedded in the soul of Mushmina. ‘I do what I do in order to allow other artisans to tell their story through our collaboration. As artists we have been given the duty of continuing to carry out these traditions. I think in a past life, perhaps I was a metalsmith or weaver and decided that in a future life, when I was in a position of freedom and opportunity, I would come back and use my skills to empower the fascinating stories of others. It is truly a gift to be creative.’

Katie and Heather have been honing authentic, reciprocal, learning relations with their team of skilled Mushmina artisans for almost 10 years. It is deeply rooted in their philosophy to support and employ local artisans from all over Morocco. It’s taken years to establish and the genuine rapport between the Mushmina Sisters and their team of experts is something of which they are extremely proud.

Katie looks to her own spirituality for guidance. Simplicity, earthiness, and the pure beauty in nature. Blending the unexpected. Mixing metals. Who creates striking earrings inspired by the lovely historical Art Deco period in Casablanca? Katie does. Who hand-draws and designs a best-selling line of handbags ingeniously taken from a vibrantly upholstered Moroccan couch? Katie did. Katie sees color and light in everything.

Fortunately, Katie has the best of collaborators in her adventures. She explains pensively, ‘Heather and I just mesh. We fit perfectly as sisters and work partners. There isn’t anyone who knows me better. Mushmina is not an actual word but rather, the nickname my sister gave me as a child. It doesn’t technically mean anything, but in Algerian Arabic, we’ve been told “Meshy mna” (spelled phonetically) means “Not by us”. I loved learning this as we often say the that the work happens “through” us. My creations are inspired by a myriad of things and are largely due to the people with whom I have the honor of working. This is what makes our items unique. They tell stories. The fact that the results are often a collaboration leaves room for the element of surprise…I then combine old and new, so it’s relatable.’

Lastly, I have to ask Katie what her favorite Moroccan food is. ‘All of it!’, she says without missing a beat. She explains with enthusiasm, ‘I actually love Moroccan food so much that Heather says she’s never seen me eat so much as when I’m in Morocco. I think it’s possible that I finish one meal and then start talking about the next one immediately afterwards. It’s a constant joke with Heather. ‘The food is yet another sensory stimulating combination of Morocco’s magic that makes you want to come back for more.’

You will often find Katie in the tiny, rugged workspace of Mushmina’s master jewelry mallum, Ahmed, in Tiznit, southern Morocco. Or in the high Atlas Mountains designing clothing with the women of the Eve Branson Foundation. Katie will be there, sitting with women’s co-ops and artisans, studying and participating, guiding and advising, and becoming enlightened herself. And of course, laughing with her peers. Because Katie is a friend to everyone. Her warmth glows as her gorgeous metals clink gently against her strong stride.

Luckily for us, enchanting Morocco has this bold, visionary woman to tell its beautiful story.

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.

Mushmina Spring 2018 (2)

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

 

 

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