Far across the parking lot, I see a crimson coat dancing with threads of Samarkand - one of my favorite embroidered designs evoking prosperity and peace - now lit up by the low slant of sun. Pulse goes up; my feet swerve and head straight toward this sighting without thought. There, at the Santa Fe International Folk Art Market, I meet a man telling me that his daughter embroidered this exquisite coat - a daughter who cannot get a visa to come to the US. His English ends there. I have many questions, but the language impasse slows me down, and who, I wonder, is this mysterious daughter I do not know nor know how to reach? The work is astonishing. I take a picture of it and sigh, leaving it to dance in the lovely air. I know it will haunt me; it does.
Nine months later, I am in Tashkent, Uzbekistan with my friend, the textile authority, who wants to introduce me to one of the finest embroiderers of the area. It is arranged. The embroiderer's father will pick us up and take us to her work shop. And so, I am nibbling on the last crumbs of toast at the breakfast table when he walks in. The man with the red coat. The father in the parking lot. Anvar Kasimbaev is his name. I laugh to realize that at last, I am going to meet the mystery woman and her magic needle.
In a modern apartment building, we enter a room where women are circled, chatting as their hooks fly through the embroidery tightly framed - absolute perfection is what I see. Madina demonstrates, revealing an ancient craft so alive in the moment, it seems utterly new.
Over copious cups of tea, we settle in for a day of designing. Pillows, iPad covers, shoes . . . and coats. Stunning works of art is all I can say about those coats. I pull out my phone and show her the picture of the red coat in the parking lot. Yes, it is mine. Madina smiles shyly. Yes, it is possible. And in a midnight blue? Yes, Yes.
I learn that the President of Uzbekistan commissions museum quality work from Madina to honor visiting dignitaries. In fact, the President of Turkey received an embroidery the next day, and she let me peak at the treasure reserved for Washington. Madina has trained 35 women to perfect this artistry, and together they carry in their hands a fiercely proud tradition.
I learn that each coat takes 2-3 months to come to life, and to pay these women a living wage for their skilled genius means they're expensive. But, I am smitten. It's what I set out to do, I say to myself - to find a market for this artisanal quality, to allow a woman's cultural language of cloth to shine at its brightest and best. To put a living wage in the hands of women so they may thrive. I thought maybe you would see it this way, too.
So, I went back to the room of women with flying needles and asked Madina to translate for me. I spoke to them about the quality of their work as a gift to the world, the skills they carry as a cultural wealth that women own, their artistry something remarkable I want to celebrate. I told them that Ibu means a woman of respect, and how deeply I respected them. One of the women, whose daughter snuggled under her arm, had on a tee shirt that read, DREAM Big, SPARKLE More, SHINE bright. And she did. She and the women all looked up from their needles and hooks, shining.
I turned to the wall of threads then and began to put together designs that have been months in the making and are now at Ibu. Regal. Sovereign. Powerful, these are. Heirlooms. Magic coats. Wearing one may cause you to Dream Big. Or Sparkle More. I don't know. But I do know that wearing one means that 35 women halfway around the world are becoming the stars in their universe, shining each day with more of the light they are.
All the Best,
Susan Hull Walker
Click on the image above to watch short videos of Madina explaining the embroidery and the women in her workshop.