Q & A with Claudia Martinez Mansell of Kissweh

I first met my dear friend Claudia Martinez Mansell about a year and a half ago, when I reached out to her on social media to see if I could carry her line of pillows at my second pop-up shop in LA.  I didn’t know much about her brand, Kissweh, but I immediately recognized how deeply creative and meaningful it was.  I gravitated towards the incredible craftsmanship and attention to detail that went into each pillow, all hand embroidered with ornate geometric motifs.  They felt familiar, like an heirloom or a cherished keepsake.  After learning about the vision of Kissweh and how it came to be, my sense of appreciation deepened. 

Claudia has spent her career in humanitarian work and had the idea to start the business after volunteering at a refugee camp in Lebanon.  Kissweh is a brand that is focused on creating a sustainable livelihood for Palestinian refugee women living in Beirut, who are highly skilled in embroidery work and utilize their talents to create pillows using the best quality materials. 

Kneeland Co. Rarities is proud to stock a full range of Kissweh pillows, all one-of-a-kind.  While Claudia is currently working in Rome, I caught up with her via email and asked her about how she had the idea to start her business; what the embroidered motifs represent, and what sustainability means to her.

Kissweh pillows are available at Kneeland Co. Rarities and the full range can be seen online. 

1. Kissweh is a brand that is focused on supporting skilled craftswomen in the refugee camps of Lebanon who create hand embroidered pillows based on traditional Palestinian folk motifs.  When did you dream up the idea to start Kissweh and how did it come about?

Twenty years ago, I volunteered at Rashadiyeh refugee camp in Lebanon as a homestay at the home of a woman named Ensaf. She taught embroidery to the other women in the camp and through her I learned about the tradition. We kept in touch and over time I learned that they sold very little and were focusing mainly on a local market. And when I saw their work, it was clear that they weren’t using the best quality materials. I had always thought that more could be done with the amazing skill these women have, and when I moved to LA it just clicked: here was a market where we could try out employing their skills on better materials and updated versions of the traditional patterns. After a career spent in humanitarian work with a big personal connection to Palestine, I saw this as a chance to create jobs for the women in these camps that I had been working in, but also to highlight something beautiful and positive about Palestinian culture in a world where those aspects of their culture aren’t always talked about. (Ensaf is now one our key team members!) 

2. Each Kissweh pillow is truly an intricate work of art.  Each time I pick one up I notice something completely different!  They really do seem to hold so much meaning, as if they are telling their own personal story.  What do these embroideries mean to the women who are making them?  

Traditionally women would embroider their dresses with motifs that represented them, but also nature, daily life, the constellations, food, family, animals, and other things. One motif is called “bottom of a coffee cup.” Another is “Star of Bethlehem,” and another is “old man’s teeth.” So, it’s all kinds of things! But they aren’t hieroglyphs; the women don’t necessarily think of them as a text, and my knowledge of the tradition comes mostly from books about it. (Books I’ve tried to buy and send back to the team, as a way of reanimating the significance of the tradition.) But even if they don’t “read” the symbols, the woman have a deep pride in this tradition - even more so as refugees, for whom traditions often fill in the gaps that are left when you’ve lost your villages, your land, the landscape of your people. For example, prior to becoming refugees, people would have been able to “read” a person's place of origin from the patterns and colors of their embroidered garments. When they became refugees, that practice was eventually lost. So the pride they have in their tradition is a way of compensating for that loss.

3. I often think about the importance of craftsmanship, which really resonates with me and my business.  What does craftsmanship mean to you, and was it important to you when starting Kissweh?

You put your finger on the mystery at the center of it all! All I know is that I am in awe of what these women produce, and I want other people to see it, and for these women to benefit from it as they deserve. I love the fact that our pillows are being made by these refugee women in their homes, in between their other daily responsibilities, amid their not so easy lives, and that they draw upon a long and rich tradition as they push their needle through the cloth. Even for someone living in a difficult situation, in a refugee camp as part of a dispossessed people, there is something rich and ennobling to be participating - with hands, not just minds - in a great and beautiful artistic tradition.

4. The word ‘sustainable’ is often thrown around these days when discussing material goods.  But it really goes beyond the actual products we see and touch and how they are made; it’s also about sustaining a community with work and creating pieces that leave a lasting impression.  Is sustainability something you think about with Kissweh?

Yes. Definitely. Your question makes me think of one of the first fairs I did when Kissweh was just starting. A woman of Palestinian-Lebanese origin came to my table and was really enthusiastic about the pillows. We spoke for a while and it turned out that her mother had left Lebanon during the civil war in the 1970s, and one of the few things she had brought with her were some embroidered pillows. She spoke about how they were now among the only things her mother had from her old life, because they were kind of indestructible! The ones we make are the same - they really will last you forever. Well, someday the back might need to be replaced, but the embroidery is super durable. So in that respect, Kissweh is definitely about sustainability. But also in another respect. As Kissweh got going in our first years, one of the things I heard from the women we employ is that they wanted steady work, not work that was boom and bust. So, we have also tried to honor that - and so far, it has been a success at both ends. So, in that respect too, we’ve tried to think about what sustainability really means.

5. Can you tell us about the process that goes into developing a pillow, from start to finish?

Everything we do is based on traditional Palestinian embroidery motifs - ones I’ve found in books or also in museums. Then I’ll sketch and experiment and eventually draw up a pattern based on those and send it to Hanan Dabdoub, our coordinator on site. Hanan then makes suggestions and ultimately, we distribute it to the woman who embroider for us. Normally, I will draw up a color palette or two in which to execute the pattern, but sometimes Hanan does that, or we both do. And then, very importantly, we leave quite a lot of freedom to the women to execute it; we ask them to be creative and tell them not to worry about errors or departures from the pattern. And the results are fascinating - we’ve received back things I barely recognized from the original, and things that are very close. So virtually everything we sell ends up being one of a kind. (Plus, the backs and zippers are matched individually to each embroidered front once it arrives at our workshop in Beirut.) That’s all part of the delight that goes into coordinating an endeavor like ours. But really, Hanan is essential to everything. The company wouldn’t work without her. In addition to her contributions to design, she coordinates between the four refugee camps where we employ women, she endures constant texting at strange hours from me in LA, and just generally sorts out all kinds of issues that arise locally. I love her and have so much admiration for her. Ensaf, Rana, Mariam, Nawal, Zeinab, Malak, Abir, Imm Ayman...  it’s a beautiful team, and everyone makes their contribution.

6. If you had to choose one pillow as a current favorite, which would it be and why?  

Malak in indigo! Based on a piece in our small archive of historic Palestinian embroidery. But also, Holy Mount, which feels like Bauhaus meets traditional Palestinian embroidery. In lots of different palettes.... but ask me again tomorrow, I’ll give you a different answer.