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Discovering Bedouin Embroidery in the Negev Desert

I’ve always admired Bedouin embroidery. To be fair, I love almost any kind of embroidery, decoration and embellishment!

I also love cultural experiences, so visiting a Bedouin village in the Negev Desert, feeling local hospitality and watching women create traditional designs was a special – and fun – experience.

Getting to the Desert Embroidery Center in Laqiya meant getting up early and driving through the desert.

Laqiya (also spelled Lakia) is about 60 miles northeast of the southern tip of the Dead Sea.

The roads are winding and surrounded by desert sands. It’s not every day you see camel crossing signs, for instance…

I had spent the day before soaking up sun and salt while floating in the Dead Sea. Then I had collapsed into bed with wet hair.

So Mr. H thought it would be fun to take a picture of me with puffy morning eyes and salty, slept on hair!

I did manage to clean up before my desert road trip!

We drove through the hills rising up from the Dead Sea, towards the Biblical city of Beer Sheva. Occasionally we passed Bedouin boys on camels or herding sheep. Sometimes, we’d see a woman in a colorfully embroidered dress waiting at a lonely bus stop.

We saw several large signs for the center, written in Hebrew, Arabic and English, as we drove in. I suppose it was the size of the signs that made me imagine a large, almost industrial-sized, tourism-driven facility.

But what we found, was much more intimate and friendly. Once we reached Laqiya, we found a small building and a beautifully decorated traditional wool tent.

Inside the tent were local women working on projects and lounging on pillows. They giggled and hid their cell phones as we arrived.

In the building was a selection of finished products, both traditional and modern, covered with beautiful hand stitched embroidery.

There were bold, color-blocked pillow covers…There were laptop cases and little notebooks with a single square of embroidery. And there were truly stunning djalibya – the long traditional dresses worn by Bedouin women.

The woman managing the shop explained that each dress was different and was a creation of a single village woman. The prices reflected the hours of handwork.

One of my favorite items was not embroidery at all.

These colorful wool tassels are called shar sheeba and are made to be used as decorations on camel bridles. I don’t have a camel – but I knew I needed a shar sheeba! Or two, or three!

The ladies explained how they shear wool from their herds of sheep and twist the raw wool into yarn.

Then they take several strands of hand-dyed wool and twist them into thicker pieces for making the tassels.

But back to embroidery…the stitches were so fine and meticulous they looked as if they’d been machine-made!

And the colors were gorgeous.

We heard about a traditional embroidery pattern called the Path of Love, which is made into wall hangings and given at weddings.

We heard personal stories from the founder of the Desert Embroidery Center and learned more about the true intent of the endeavor.

In the past the tribes were nomadic, moving with their herds and setting up tents and temporary villages. Bedouin women drew water from wells and raised vegetables in small, dry patches of earth. More recently, the Bedouins of the Negev have moved into permanent settlements and villages, meaning women’s roles began to change.

In the 1980s a group of young women from the town of Laqiya got together to organize summer camps for children and reading and writing classes for local women.

Gradually, their ideas evolved into the Desert Embroidery Center.

Now, the women work from their homes. The center, run by a core group of women, provides patterns and materials. Once a week the ladies get together, bringing their handiwork to the shop for sale.

At least once a month they participate in lectures or trips to expand their knowledge base.

Their projects include a mobile library that travels between Bedouin villages, youth leadership and women’s empowerment programs, English classes and math tutoring.

Of course I loved the embroidery – but the center’s purpose made me doubly happy.

So I brought home lots of souvenirs – including plenty to share!

I added a limited number of shar sheeba to our online wanderlust-inspired store, along with a selection of the color-blocked Bedouin embroidered pillows.

I really love how they mix in with our own SmithHönig patterns.

We brought home some gorgeous hand-embroidered dresses, too and put our own spin on them!

So what did I do with my own personal shar sheebas?

Well, it depends on the day.

I almost always have one hanging on a large cabinet in my kitchen…

Another one normally hangs on an armoire in my bedroom, but occasionally it gets moved to a straw bag, to add some boho luxe interest.

And on occasion, it has been draped over the edge of a piece of art…

I love each and every piece I purchased at the Desert Embroidery Center – and I’m happy to be doing even a little bit to help the community. I fell in love with the ladies of Laqiya and I’m so proud of their success.

I’m hoping people will love our Bedouin offerings online at SmithHönig, and that we’ll have to reorder soon! I’d love to be an ongoing part of their community work!

Thanks for an amazing experience, Laqiya!

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