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TŪNIQ: Reviving Indigenous Traditions around the Production of Clothing

More than five months ago, H&M introduced a new recycling machine that can turn any used fabric into a new pair of clothing. According to the multinational clothing retail company, this could be the solution to the billions of tons of textile waste produced every year. But will H&M’s new recycling machine change the vicious circle of overproduction ànd overconsumption that we are currently living in?

According to Iman Masmoudi, co-founder of TŪNIQ, “We’ve doubled the amount of clothes we produced in the past 15 years. We don’t need more clothes. It’s not about how fast to produce anymore. It’s about how we can be more human, have more beautiful communities, and create a more horizontal world where people have more power.”

With this mindset Iman, together with her mother, co-founded TŪNIQ, an artisans co-operation that revives craftsmanship and draws its inspiration from Islamic traditions on doing ethical business as a way to fight capitalism. We had an interview with her to learn more about this topic.

The Craft of Embroidery

“It started off from a much smaller goal, which was to support Tunisian women who were doing the embroidery on my wedding dress. They created the most beautiful garments. I got inspired by that and wanted to start a website to support them. It was about helping them to sell traditional Tunisian items internationally,” Iman explains. She quickly realized that for these women to be able to sell the clothes they could make, she had to provide them with fabric. Having no background in fashion or design at all, Iman started asking questions about the production of clothing, which unlocked a web of dilemmas that were unacceptable for both her and her mother, as Muslims. Starting from raw fiber, TŪNIQ connects artisans all along the supply chain and is producing clothing in the old-fashioned, traditional way.

An Alternative to Capitalism

“Capitalism is a huge global and structural issue. Saying that ethical companies are the solution will just encourage people to spend more money and buy more stuff that they don’t need,” Iman says. At the core of 19th-century capitalism stood the factory worker who did not own anything, except for the labor he would sell for a miserable wage. By toiling long hours in the factory, he became a soulless being that was ripped off of the opportunity to express his creativity and joy through his work. This lack of expression alienated him from the product and from the process of producing that same product. The more he produced, the poorer, more estranged, and cheaper he became. According to Ibn Khaldun, a 14th-century historian and sociologist from Tunisia, the compelling of subjects to perform forced work unjustly is the most oppressive measure that harms society the most.1 This inspired Iman to do things differently and to take the road less travelled. A road that is crafted by Islamic traditions on doing ethical business.

“At TŪNIQ we give full independence to our artisans. They have their own production tools. We don’t own any sheep, land, threads, dye pots, looms or sewing machines. That’s all owned by the people we work with. They even set their own wages and schedules. This creates a world of difference. The power is within their hands. These are independent people that we are in partnership with. When we ask them for something, it’s actually asking them for a favor. It’s not an order,” Iman clarifies.

The artisans, rather than feeling estranged, are feeling connected to the product and the process because it is an expression of their natural talents. Products are not being mass produced. On the contrary, they are being uniquely handcrafted by the artisans whose hands and souls they touch.

“These indigenous traditions around the production of clothing are in harmony with the natural rhythm of life and our planet. We try to advocate for this as well. The Industrial model just hasn’t worked,” Iman adds.

The Journey of a Thread

It is needless to say that craftspeople produce clothing much slower than multinational retail companies such as H&M. However, it is through their talents and the opportunity to express these talents that they create unique, meaningful products of high quality. The journey of a thread in TŪNIQ’s supply chain starts with nature’s biggest providers of wool: sheep.

Sheep grow their hair for an entire year and rely on humans to shear it during April, at the beginning of spring. “Whatever you cut off during spring, that’s your supply for the entire year. You can’t produce anything more than the quantity that nature has given you,” Iman emphasizes.

After the hair has been sheared, they wash, bathe, soap, and dry it thoroughly five times. “This would take about a week. These sheep are free-range sheep, running around freely in the country yard. Their hair needs washing,” Iman laughs. Afterwards, the wool is spun into a thread. “It’s a loose pile of fluff and somehow it forms itself in this amazing thread. It will naturally take the shape. It’s almost like it’s a human being and it feels it in its fitrah to be spun and pulled in a particular way.” This step takes another week.

After the thread is formed, it is set up horizontally on a loom to weave the fabric. This would take a few days. When the fabric is ready, the next steps are to lay the pattern out, cut the shape, and sow the wanted design. Pockets and delicate finishing touches like embroidery have to be done by hand. This last step would take another week.

“At least one month is needed to make a piece of garment. This would usually take longer, because the weavers are spread among the country and they need to weave, cut, and sew a lot of fabric. For one entire collection, we would need around nine months,” Iman concludes.

A traditional loom

TŪNIQ works with around 25 artisans spread across Tunisia. This number fluctuates, because the cooperation process does not run throughout the entire year with all of them. “There is some seasonal work such as shaving wool and spinning which only happens in the summer. In the late fall, our artisans harvest their annual olive trees. There’s a rhythm of life there. They don’t do the same crafts during the entire year,” Iman explains.

“What we make in a day, a factory mill makes in a minute. The problem with that is that they make way too much. They need consumerism to solve their problem of overproduction. Every single piece of media is designed for people to buy more and more. They have to create that need in people to buy all of their stuff. When we make more, we consume more. This is the core of waste.”

Along its supply chain, TŪNIQ tries to minimize the amount of waste and use tools that are regenerative. “When we use plant dye, we are boiling a pot of fig leaves and if you dump it into your backyard it’s like a fertilizer for your soil. If you throw our garment away in your backyard, it will decompose in the soil after a couple of months. It’s not waste, it’s like food for the plants, animals, and soil. Traditional crafts are built into this natural cycle,” Iman adds. Unlike H&M and other multinational retail companies, TŪNIQ’s way of producing is circular and does not need a recycling machine to solve its waste issue.

The Hidden Wisdom of Craftsmanship

Tunisia has a long history of agricultural work and traditional crafts, in particular wool making and weaving. Tunisians produced the well-known chechia, the red hat associated with the Ottoman Empire. Some crafts have the tendency to become a symbol of resistance for their people, like the Palestinian embroidered thobe. Crafts even have the strength to hold these people together, which Ibn Khaldun referred to as ʿasabiyyah or group solidarity. This feeling of group solidarity contributes positively to the success of a society.

Some Muslim philosophers even linked crafts to our closeness to the Divine. It is said: “‘God loves the wise craftsperson.’ The Prophet said: ‘God loves the craftsperson who perfects his or her craft. Hence, philosophically, the perfected craft resembles the Divine according to human capacity.’”2

A craftsman puts his entire soul into making a piece of art perfectly, without any flaws. Some Turkish and Persian carpet weavers would deliberately leave a small error in their pattern or threading to symbolise that only God (swt) is perfect. The better one is in his/her craft, the closer one is to God. And this is the ultimate goal. Closeness to God. Through art one creates, and gives expression to God’s attribute of al-Khaliq, “The Creator”.

Iman beautifully explains that“there is a native human impulse to excellence. So many of us love to create things with our hands. Making something with your hands looks bad until the very end. It teaches you all sorts of moral values such as patience and ihsaan, pursuing excellence. With small repetitive crafts these artisans are doing dhikr with every stitch. It’s an opportunity for mental clarity. They have all felt how fulfilling that is and how it cultivates that inner state of inner peace, slowness, and achievement. And it is an aspiration towards the Divine. To invest yourself into something and to create it is to aspire how God has created the planet. It is a divine attribute that we are trying to mirror in ourselves.”

In today’s time, clothes have been devalued. Yet they are not just lifeless fabrics that we buy and wear. Behind every knot are either the hands of a human being who’s uttering words of remembrance of God or singing songs about the patterns of the carpets, or a system that supports mass production, child labor, and poor working conditions to name a few. Our choice matters and can make a difference.

If you would like to support TŪNIQ, you can donate a small amount through their journal, Oasis Journal, on www.tuniqoasis.com. TŪNIQ’s handle on Instagram is @tuniq_official.

Literature for Further Reading

*Disclaimer: The views and opinions expressed in this post are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect those of the Tayyib Society team.

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Sources

  1. Ibn Khaldun as cited from Charles Issawi, An Arab Philosophy of History, Selections from the Prolegomena of Ibn Khaldun of Tunis (1332-1406) (John Murray, 1950), p. 85, by Ibrahim M. Oweiss on https://faculty.georgetown.edu/imo3/ibn.htm, accessed June 18, 2021.
  2. Ikhwan al-Safa’, Rasa’il Ikhwan al-Safa’, ed. Khayr al-din al-Zirikli, 1-4 (Cairo: 1928), 290-92, as cited by Yasien Mohamed in “The Islamic Philosophy of Labor and Crafts: The View of the Ikhwan al-Safa’, Isfahani, and Ibn Khaldun”, The American Journal of Islamic Social Sciences 23:1, 2006, https://www.academia.edu/25770387/The_Islamic_Philosophy_of_Labor_and_Crafts_The_View_of_the_Ikhwan, accessed on June 18, 2021.

Adela is a founding member of Tayyib Society.

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