As one khamak embroidery stitch builds upon another, so too does the narrative of each woman’s life touched by the work of Kandahar Treasure and its founder Rangina Hamidi. Rangina and Mary Littrell, co-authors of Embroidering within Boundaries: Afghan Women Creating a Future, captured the stories of the Afghan Pashtun women of Kandahar Treasures. Both authors recognized the importance of their collective work in honoring these women, as well as offering us a unique perspective about their lives. It’s an inspiring and eye-opening story of strength and persistence of women living in a strict Muslim society. The accompanying images of the women by the late Paula Lerner, who was dedicated to telling their stories of a war-torn society and the patriarchal-society boundaries under which they live, magnify the narrative.
From Idea to Creation
After the September 11, 2001 attacks in the U.S., Rangina was urged by her father to return to the Afghan refugee camps in Quetta, Pakistan, where they had fled to in 1981 after the Soviets invaded Afghanistan; they immigrated to the U.S. seven years later. It was after that visit, while she was flying back to the U.S., that the seed of Kandahar Treasure was planted, “If I ever go back, I’m not giving cash. I’m going to do something with the women, building an infrastructure for them to build their own capacity.” She connected the dots of the thriving tailoring business her sisters and mother had run in Quetta and remembered the traditional Afghan embroidery some women did to earn money. In 2008, Rangina created Kandahar Treasure as a social enterprise. It was founded on the premise that women’s traditional skill of fine khamak embroidery was an avenue for generating income for the women, decreasing marginalization of women in Afghanistan and empowering them economically. Since its inception, the safe and secure headquarters of the Kandahar workshop has offered more than 500 women the opportunity to create new answers for their lives in a proscriptive culture.
Stitch by Stitch
The word khamak refers to the embroidery thread itself meaning raw, untwisted, or unspun. This type of thread produces a flat, shining surface so desired by the khamak customer. It adorns the clothing and homes of generations, and is a marked expression of love. Its precision, fineness, and delicacy are in direct contrast to the woman’s typical life.
The high quality of embroidery is exemplified in making designs by counting the pattern threads correctly, no design can be off by a stitch (the fineness of the base fabric is 70 to 72 threads per inch in both warp and weft), and by the work being reversible, the back as perfect as the front.
As you see in these process images, the shape of the yoke is first sketched. Then the lower midpoint of the entire design is counted, thread by thread, and the first satin stitch sewn. The design in filled in diagonally counting and covering a set number of threads in the background fabric with embroidered satin stitches in a prescribed order. The caption on the page spread reads, “Every stitch is a testament to the skill and loving care you are investing in this gift, a gift that will say, “This is a child of Kandahar.” ”
Redefining the boundaries of the Pashtun women’s lives in Kandahar is no easy task. As the women of Kandahar Treasure still stitch within their strictly defined boundaries, they are giving a new meaning to their stitches—the value of pride, ownership, and revival of a historic tradition. This book is the only one marking the role that the revival of khamak embroidery has in a country working to create stability in the lives of its people.
Thrums Books is offering a limited hardbound edition of the book. Each numbered book features a unique and beautiful piece of khamak embroidery inset in the cover, stitched by the artisans at Kandahar Treasure. The softback version is also available through Thrums Books.
Thrums Books had the honor of being guests at the Embassy of Afghanistan in Washington, D.C., for the book launch reception last November. You can read more here.
Mary Littrell speaks about her experiences in writing this book; her recent presentation was at the Wheelwright Museum in Santa Fe. Her next speaking engagement is on April 12, 2018 at the Avenir Museum at Colorado State University in Fort Collins, Colorado.