Stitched in the desert: Iota’s Products Are Made by Bedouin Women in the Negev

06.29.18 | By
Stitched in the desert: Iota’s Products Are Made by Bedouin Women in the Negev

A home interiors and accessories company is providing jobs for Bedouin women who aren’t allowed to hold employment outside of their home. Tal Zur, CEO of Iota Hand Stitched, speaks to Design Milk about why they think “soft furniture” is the next home design frontier, how they found themselves in the Negev, and where their designs are going this summer.

Tal Zur, CEO of Iota Studio. Photo by Or Kaplan.

Design Milk’s Keshia Badalge at Iota Hand Stitched in Tel Aviv, Israel.

“If you want a product that is straight, where all the sides are equal, the color is all the same, then that’s not us. Our products are alive,” Zur tells us as we sit in her studio in Tel Aviv. And sure enough, her studio emulates that same liveliness, with hanging swings, chunky-knit rugs and pillows and shelves full of colorful yarn, specifically put together by a colorist on their team.

Inside Iota Hand Stitched in Tel Aviv, Israel. Photo by Or Kaplan.

These home accessories are not only a delight to look at and plop down onto, they also tell a small but proud story of Bedouin women empowerment. Bedouin women are traditionally not allowed to hold jobs outside of their home. After getting married, most women spend time on domestic chores and taking care of their children.

Zur first learned about a group of Bedouin women working with a designer in Jaffa in Tel Aviv. She had never interfaced with the community before that; She admits that the Israelis in Tel Aviv usually don’t venture into the Negev to work with Bedouins, and that the two communities live relatively separate lives. Seeing that such collaboration was possible inspired her to do the same. Through her friend and over a series of months, she was able to slowly get introduced to the community of Bedouin women and gain their trust.

Now, Zur and her team go to Hura, a Bedouin township in the Negev desert, to teach Bedouin women how to crochet and make Iota’s home products. Not only have they created a home-based industry in the Negev where women can work, for most of these women, it is their first opportunity to earn an income.

Bedouin women making products for Iota Hand Stitched. Photo by Via Tolila.

Zur says, “When they finally have some money that is their own, it makes them confident, it makes them feel important. They can make certain decisions at home, like picking clothes for their children. It sounds so simple to us but to them, it is a big change.”

Photo by Via Tolila.

Majority of Bedouins live in townships or nomadic enclaves that are at least an hour away from the city. City planning in Israel is continuing to diminish Bedouins communities in the Negev and prevent construction of structures or homes. The Israeli government does not recognize rural Bedouin communities as legal.

“I don’t think it is good or bad to live as a Bedouin woman,” Zur says, “but it is important for these things to happen, for people to see, for communities to understand each other’s culture better.”

In 2017, Iota was tapped by the car company Peugeot to make a special line of car mats for their concept car. Peugeot had asked for grey mats, but Zur remarked, “What we do is colors!” So, in trademark Iota style, the team tagged their samples of grey with their signature, colorful yarns. Peugeot did not miss the gesture, and responded by asking Iota to mix pops of color into their yarn.

“You know how people started talking about everything slow…slow food, slow fashion,” Zur said, “We think that the next generation will be soft. Soft furniture. Soft living.”

Design Milk’s Keshia Badalge at Iota Studio. Photo by Or Kaplan.

Zur also told us that they just got an update this week that the Black Forest swing is hanging in Tom Dixon’s new office.

This summer, Iota will be hosting knitting parties in London and New York to launch their DIY bag kits. The philosophy behind this, Zur says, is “to make your own things, to do something slowly. It is social as well, in that we believe making things that you own and use is good for you.”

She also believes these knitting parties will offer a sense of solidarity and community to the Bedouin women she works with. A lot of them have never ventured into cities for social gatherings, so an event such as a knitting party is foreign to them. “They’re so surprised when they see photos of people in the cities knitting the same bags that they’re now so experienced at making. It’s a ‘wow’ for them, it’s very eye-opening, and informative, and empowering.”

Keshia grew up in Singapore and moved to the U.S. to attend Dartmouth College. When she was living abroad after graduation, a chance enrollment at the Architectural Association Visiting School led to her becoming enamored with door schedules and architectural écriture. She's particularly interested in design for aging, rural architecture, and Asian design heritage.