At the Selvedge Winter Fair, the Crea Team met Eleanor Khan, whose specialist company sells the gorgeous but little known textiles of Pakistan. She kindly agreed to share her passion and her vision with us.
How and when did Nimuri come about?
I spent two years living in Pakistan and really fell in love with it. My husband is of Pakistani origin so I felt very at home. A good friend there worked in fashion and used to take me to all the fashion shows. I was amazed at the creativity and the level of artisanship, but in the UK people don’t associate the country with beautiful things. This incredible workmanship just doesn’t seem to leave Pakistan.
I had no background in textiles but had covered the fashion industries in France and Italy as a journalist – and rummaging through markets has always been one of my favourite parts of living abroad. Once we had finally settled back in London, I decided to set up a company selling Pakistani handicrafts, with a particular focus on textiles.
Nimuri is one of the many names found across South Asia for the fruit of the Neem tree. It’s also the name of a block-print pattern depicting the flowers, fruit and leaves of the Neem tree.
What is the range of your merchandise and how do you source it?
I only set up the company last year so it’s still at the experimental phase as I learn what sells best and how to source it. I have kantha quilts, cushion covers, jewellery, scarves, women’s and children’s clothing, vintage textiles, ceramics and baskets.
So far I have visited Pakistan’s three main cities – Islamabad, Lahore and Karachi – and have a variety of sources: shops and dealers I met while living there, recommendations from friends and others I’ve tracked down on the Internet. In Karachi, my friend Andleeb Rana who works in Pakistan’s fashion industry has given me lots of help. Through her I met Kiran Sidiki (https://www.instagram.com/kiran_sidiki/ . She is a textile expert and designer who has worked for Alexander McQueen as well as Khaadi, a big Pakistani fashion company. I sell her cushion covers and jewellery. She designs the work then commissions the embroidery from her mother’s village in rural Sindh, the Pakistani province most renowned for its textile heritage. I also sell white-on-white applique bedspreads made in her mother’s village. I love the fact that I know exactly where and how these products were made and that the women were properly paid.
I aim to source as ethically as possible, so I also buy what I can from not-for-profit organisations that work with artisans and focus on providing work for women. In many parts of Pakistan it is culturally taboo and/or impractical for women to work outside the home, so embroidery is an important way to provide them with some independent income.
Just how special are Pakistan’s textile traditions and why?
Pakistan has a very diverse textile scene because it combines the ancient traditions of South Asia with the influences of the many invaders and traders that have passed through – from China, Central Asia, Afghanistan, Iran, Turkey and Europe. Also, when British India was split into modern-day India and Pakistan in 1947, many Muslim artisans fled to Pakistan and have combined their artistic traditions with those of the local population. For these reasons, Pakistan has distinct embroidery traditions in each of its provinces. For example, in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa in the north, there are remote communities known for their tiny cross stitch, surface darning stitch and tent stitch. In the south, the province of Sindh, many textile traditions are shared with Rajasthan over the border in India. The folk embroidery there uses bold colours, little circles of mirrored glass and intricate double-buttonhole, square-chain, couched, satin and stem stitches.
I am particularly fascinated by the kantha quilts found in Sindh, which use not just the running stitch of typical kantha but also elaborate embroidery. I have bought them from dealers and have yet to visit the villages where they are made but cannot wait to do so. The dealers tell me that the quality of this embroidery is in decline, that the new generation can no longer do what their grandmothers did because they spend too much time on their phones.
I also find ajrak fascinating. This is an ancient and complex technique for dyeing and printing cotton or silk cloth using mainly natural ingredients. It’s found in Gujarat in India and Sindh in Pakistan. So far, I have only managed to source ajrak scarves and little diaries covered in the fabric, but a lot of my customers have commented on the quality of the fabric and it would be great to use it to make a clothing range.
Tell us about the relationship between you and your stitchers and suppliers.
This year I will start to collaborate more with my suppliers on designs. Often the techniques and designs are fantastic and Pakistani cotton is very good quality, but the colours need tweaking for a Western market. Pakistanis love very, very bright colours. I have to convince them that in the UK the trend is often for softer, more organic colours and simpler designs. For the clothes, I need to work with people on using more Western cuts. Their shirts are made long, to wear over trousers, so some adjustments are needed.
I would also love to start experimenting with designers on different ways of using Pakistani embroidery skills and motifs to create everyday items.
How rewarding is it for these artisans to know their work is bought and admired in the UK?
Pakistan has the fastest growing retail market in the world. That is a great opportunity for the country in lots of ways but it does sadly put artisanal skills at risk. In the cities, young women are not necessarily buying Pakistani-made fabric and taking it to their tailor to be made up into the traditional shalwar kameez (traditional shirt and trousers). They are getting more into the kind of fast fashion we have here. So traditional artisans are always happy to know that their work is appreciated abroad. Also, very few foreigners go to Pakistan, so people are generally just very welcoming and delighted to meet somebody with an interest in the country.
And they are of course very glad to have the income. In rural areas there is little work, especially for women. The hope is always that if a wife can earn some independent income, she is more likely to invest particularly in her daughters’ education. This is really a key issue in Pakistan where there are still so many barriers to female education.
Tell us about your specific interest in vintage textiles.
I buy vintage textiles from dealers who typically come from Pakistan’s embattled Hindu minority. They are often family businesses that have been running for years so they have huge collections built up over generations. It’s sometimes hard to establish the true story behind a piece but the older guys are very knowledgeable and can tell you where something is from, which tribe made it and whether it’s a Hindu or Muslim tribe.
The vintage pieces display embroidery skills that are dying out or have almost entirely disappeared. They are also great examples of the different cultural influences at play in Pakistan, because they vary so greatly from region to region in colour, stitching and motifs.
And your plans for the future…?
I have so many ideas! My main aim is to launch a website. I will do another buying trip before the spring and hope to go to an artisanal trade fair so I can establish some more direct contacts with artisans. I would like to spend more time with some of the people making the products so that I can see exactly how they are made. There are also still NGOs (non-governmental organisations) that support the crafts sector that I haven’t met yet but am keen to collaborate with. I still have a lot to do and learn!
Eleanor’s dates for 2019:
30th March – the Selvedge Spring Fair at the Assembly Rooms in Bath
She also has a regular stall about once a month at the Salisbury Sunday Market in Queens Park, London.
Follow Eleanor on Facebook or Instagram @Nimuri.UK, where you’ll find all her updates and further fair and market dates for this year.