When Yasmeen Mjalli, 26, gets up one morning in early March, the sky above her is still an orangey-blue. She begins a three-hour drive south from her studio in Ramallah, Palestine, to the bottom of the West Bank. She's meeting with craftswomen who are working on a collection of handwoven wool bags for her fashion label, Nöl Collective. From shearing sheep to weaving wool, the women do everything themselves. But the dwindling numbers of people still practicing this form of Bedouin weaving, traditionally passed down from mother to daughter, means it took two years to bring these bags to life. Why wait? Because Yasmeen wants all of her label's clothing to be made in Palestine.
When it comes to starting a business, the West Bank and Gaza rank 173rd out of 190 world economies, according to financial institution the World Bank Group. And, as Israeli-Palestinian tensions ramp up once again, that's only getting more difficult.
But, for Yasmeen, it's a source of pride to be able to keep clothing production within the borders of her native Palestine. ‘We have a very rich history of weaving, of natural dyeing, of embroidery – and it's not well-known,’ she says. If no one keeps the flame alive, Yasmeen worries it could die out.
Nöl Collective works at the intersection of Palestinian culture, social justice and feminism. Initially launched two and half years ago as a community of female survivors of sexual assault and abuse, the label partners with local women's co-operatives, family-run sewing workshops and artisans, with the aim of keeping clothing production local.
Raised between Palestine and the US, Yasmeen moved permanently to Palestine six years ago. Having always spent time in the region, moving to the West Bank was something she felt compelled to do.
‘It's heaven and hell,’ Yasmeen says, ‘for every horrible thing that happens, there are more beautiful things that you really can't see anywhere else.’
Weaving in the community
For Yasmeen and the small number of other fashion designers still in Palestine, one of the main challenges is the lack of resources and skilled workers in the area. But, by partnering with local co-operatives and workshops, Yasmeen has been able to tap into skills across the West Bank, as well as the Gaza Strip, where unemployment hovers around 50%.
For example, one of Nöl Collective's jackets is made from cotton sourced from Al-Khalil (the Palestinian name for the city of Hebron), then cut and sewn in a workshop in the Askar refugee camp on the outskirts of Nablus. The workshop is owned by three brothers who sew every piece themselves. Finally, the jacket is hand-embroidered at a third-generation family sewing workshop in Ramallah.
The label works with Majdalawi fabric, a cotton textile that's formed a central part of traditional Palestinian cultural dress for centuries. It hails from the Gaza region and takes its name from Al-Majdal, a Palestinian village (now a part of Ashkelon in Israel) that was depopulated in the 1948 Arab-Israeli war. The fabric has only been revived in the past 20 years.
Despite her work with producers in Gaza, Yasmeen has never been granted a permit to enter the area – separated by the border, they collaborate by phone and email.
Working under these conditions means that Yasmeen has a much deeper connection with the producers she can meet with in person. ‘Every single sewing workshop that I work with, I feel like either a daughter, a sister or a granddaughter,’ she says. ‘I go and have coffee or lunch or breakfast with them.’