Dear Readers, yesterday I was at the Fashion and Textile Museum in Bermondsey, London, to visit the 150 Years of the Royal School of Needlework – Crown to Catwalk exhibition. There were lots of very beautiful embroidered objects, but this dress stopped me in my tracks.
The Red Dress project was conceived by artist Kirstie MacLeod. Between 2009 and 2022, 84 panels of burgundy silk dupion travelled the world, being embroidered by 343 embroiderers from 46 countries. The idea was that this was a way for women around the world, especially the marginalised and those who live in poverty, to tell their stories through stitch and colour. All the commissioned artisans were paid for their work, and receive an ongoing proportion of the fees from the events where the dress is exhibited. In addition, some volunteers, such as students from the Royal School of Needlework, also added symbols that were important to them.
The range of artisans is astounding. From The Red Dress website:
“Embroiderers include female refugees from Palestine and Syria, women seeking asylum in the UK from Iraq, China, Nigeria and Namibia, victims of war in Kosovo, Rwanda, and DR Congo; impoverished women in South Africa, Mexico, and Egypt; individuals in Kenya, Japan, Turkey, Sweden, Peru, Czech Republic, Dubai, Afghanistan, Australia, Argentina, Switzerland, Canada, Tobago, Vietnam, Estonia, USA, Russia, Pakistan, Wales, Colombia and England, students from Montenegro, Brazil, Malta, Singapore, Eritrea, Norway, Poland, Finland, Ireland, Romania and Hong Kong as well as upmarket embroidery studios in India and Saudi Arabia.”
The final work is astounding. I could spend hours looking at it, and still not see everything.
Some of the women chose to embroider the dress in styles that were distinctively representative of their region. Others told powerful personal stories. Some women were rebuilding their lives by learning embroidery skills so that they could earn a consistent income. The finished dress weighs 6.2 kgs, and is covered in literally millions of stitches. It feels like a remarkable coming together of different voices to create one beautiful object.
Rabia Naza-Rhainie created two of the front panels of the dress, filling them with a geometric design, and with a Farsi inscription which reads ‘ “ I have hope… even when I’m alone and in darkness”
The panel below was embroidered by 10 women from the Kisany Collective in the Democratic Republic of Congo. Nicole Esselan, the founder of Kisany, writes this about the commission:
“This commission by a group of 10 Congelese women, shows the best of themselves, a joyful side, bright in colour which bring s a smile to my face! The words they chose to embroider have a strong meaning for them: solidarity, love, friendship, pride, trust, liberty, peace. This is what training and work has helped them to achieve and feel more empowered. Next door to Rwanda, Congo has been war-torn for the last 3 decades; there is not one day that doesn’t come with its toll. These women have been abandoned by the society because they had nothing to offer: they were widows, single mothers, abandoned wives, orphans. They told me one day that they had become invisible! None of their relatives were able to support them or even wishing to do so. From time to time, they would be invited to a family gathering and even though they were free seats, they could not sit!
In 2002, they started from scratch when they decided to embark on this new adventure; they had nothing to lose anyway! Today, most of them have managed to buy a plot of land, built a small house; they can all send their kids to school and look after them properly; they can play their role in their community.”
The panel below was embroidered by Feride and Fatime Hallili, two artisans from Sister Stitch, an organisation of women who had to flee for their lives from Kosovo during the armed conflict of 1998-99. Now returned to their home town of Podujevë, these women are seeking to remake their lives through their embroidery skills. Sister Stitch is supported by Manchester Aid to Kosovo (MaK) which does amazing work in the Balkans, working for recovery through education, justice, human rights, art, music, drama, sport and medical aid.
The panel shows birds that symbolise migration. All the women lost friends and loved ones during the war, but thankfully now most of them are feeling much more optimistic about their futures.
And finally, the panels below were made by two artisans from Chiapas in Mexico. They were suggested for the commission by Kitzen, a foundation that works with people in poverty to help them use their talents to support themselves. They embroidered the two triangular godays on either side of the central panel.
Zenaida Aguilar is one of the most experienced embroiderers in the project, and, after surviving an abusive marriage which left her with nothing, has rebuilt her life using her extraordinary skills. She created the panel below, which shows the flora and fauna of the area, and is made entirely of a stitch called a French knot.
The second artist was nineteen year-old Hilaria Lopez Patishtan, who has been embroidering since she was seven years old. She chose to make her panel in the distinctive style of her local town, San Juan Chamula – it features geometric patterns in pink, yellow and green.
Close-ups of the two panels are below.
If you’re in London, do drop into the Fashion and Textile Museum to see the exhibition and to learn more about the Red Dress. There is also a wealth of additional information about the dress, and the remarkable people who made it, at the Red Dress Embroidery website here.
Photo One from https://reddressembroidery.com/
Photo Two from https://vasw.org.uk/whats-on/the-red-dress
Photo Three by Dave Watts, taken from Selvedge Magazine https://www.selvedge.org/blogs/selvedge/the-red-dress
Photo Four from https://reddressembroidery.com/Rabia-Naza-Rhainie
Photo Five from https://reddressembroidery.com/10-artisans-supported-by-Kisany
Photo Six from https://reddressembroidery.com/Sister-Stitch-artisans
Photo Seven from https://reddressembroidery.com/Sister-Stitch-artisans
Photo Eight from https://reddressembroidery.com/2-Artisans-supported-by-KITZEN
Photo Nine from https://reddressembroidery.com/2-Artisans-supported-by-KITZEN
Photo Eleven from https://reddressembroidery.com/2-Artisans-supported-by-KITZEN