“Twilling Tweeds” project. 2012 awardee Adil Iqbal.

Adil Iqbal

I’m a textile and craft practitioner and currently run the Twilling Tweeds project that was funded by the Dewar Art Awards. I’m also currently starting a PHD at the University of St Andrews in anthropology and have just completed an MRes in anthropology, art and perception.

Twilling Tweeds includes my own work and collaborations with other artists around the world but specifically at the moment it’s focused on the Harris Tweed weavers of the Outer Hebrides and embroiderers from Pakistan. I work in collaboration with a social enterprise in Chitral called ‘Mogh Limited’ who really were a catalyst because through them we were able to access artists and the community across a valley.

My development as an artist really started as a child growing up in a South Asian culture in a Pakistani household. I’ve always been surrounded by Pakistani textiles, in various different Eid celebrations, family weddings, and my grandmother was a keen embroiderer herself.

When I was a teenager in high school I used to go back to Pakistan and every time I would go to the Bazaar. I would always see men and women doing embroidery. They would be doing all sorts of craft work and it always intrigued me; just the art of making. Then I chose to study at the School of Textiles in Galashiels. I did a Bachelors degree in clothing design and manufacture. At that time I didn’t know much about the textile industry or fashion. This course was interesting to me because you could do a 6 month placement and I think that really excited me as I’ll get to work as well being a student.

It was really hard in the beginning. Coming from a very protective family background going to live in the borders was a big thing for me. I was the first person in my family to go to university. I don’t think my family really knew too much about it. I didn’t want to do engineering, law or that sort of career, it was very much craft and design but that was overlooked because of the fact that I was the first one to get in.

My three years at Uni were amazing. We were taught about fabrics, about making, about the technical aspects, about pattern drafting, marketing, finance, the entire industry and how it’s all interconnected. So I think the great thing about that course is that it was an all rounder, it didn’t just emphasise drawing and art. My passion grew and my third year collection was inspired by my childhood memories of my grandmother and all of the textiles that she got when she was a child. I went back to Pakistan that summer and I saw a lot of textiles of my grandmother’s and my aunts’ and I brought them back and it was a very organic thing.

2012 awardee Adil Iqbal.
2012 awardee Adil Iqbal.

I didn’t deliberately choose to focus on my origins. At that time we were really conditioned that Paris and Milan were the main goals, but very organically the family heirlooms really attracted me and I used a lot of the original textiles to create a short capsule collection and continued from there onwards.

I had a great relationship with my tutors, especially in my final year and when I finished my degree they all said ‘you really should stay for your honours, you have a lot of creativity to do whatever you want to do’. But for some reason I was adamant to leave and just go out and explore. I was on a journey but I didn’t really know where that journey was taking me, I wanted to go to Paris to study French Fashion Design (Mod’Art International), and then I did an internship working as a Junior Designer in Hugo Boss Orange and it was incredible, a really international team. I was learning about how the real fashion industry works as a multi-national company. So for me it was more about putting what I felt and what I wanted to do as an artist aside and learning what the process is for doing a collection; how you have to chase suppliers, make a sample collection, showcase it; how orders work, how production works.

I showcased my first collection in 2008 at Alternative Fashion Week in London and it was under my name ‘Adil’ and was inspired by the indigenous Kalash Tribe in Northern Pakistan, an influence and association with that part of Pakistan that has impacted all of my other work. I went to New York Fashion Week as well in 2009. I was selected by an organisation called Fashion Capital who selected designers to take their collection and I was the only one from Scotland.

In 2010-12 I was a fashion team leader with a social enterprise called Waste Innovations. They worked with the community and recycled fabrics/textiles but I also launched a collection with a boutique, Kakao by K, and with Che Camille, a boutique in Glasgow and the odd fashion shows here and there.

It was the end of 2009 when I heard a story of two Australian designers, who were doing textile work up in Northern Pakistan and that really inspired me. The very fact that these two Aussie girls were up in a crazy place in Pakistan making amazing textiles and fashion really drew me to what was happening there.

"I think my reason was I had grown myself, and realised that textile and craft wasn’t just about fashion or the commercial idea of fashion, or the craft. It was a part of me saying that I wanted to understand the relationship between craft and the maker."

It was such an adventurous thing that I wanted to go and just explore myself, so I submitted a proposal in late 2009/10 to Arts Trust Scotland. It was a research project in traditional embroidery and textiles in the Chitral valley and I got a very small budget, about £500 but it was amazing. It was the first research proposal I had ever submitted and I had no idea how to even pitch one and I was 25 at that time. And I was still working for Waste Innovations and during the summer I had asked for some time off and they said that’s fine you can go for it. So I went for 2 months to Chitral during the summer of 2011 to understand textiles.

I interviewed elderly artisans, I went up in the mountains, looked at different crafts, techniques, textiles; looked at how the social enterprise actually worked and came back absolutely fascinated. In a way it changed very much who I was, because it allowed me to go back to a country where I’d come from but I was very much an outsider because my trips to Pakistan have always been that you go with family, back to your family village and you spend 6-8 weeks with your family. So you’ve no idea what Pakistan looks like apart from that little place that is your home.

So I was independent in a place where I didn’t speak the language. These communities speak their own language, they have their own craft, their own culture. I came back wanting to return, very much. But at the same time I really wanted to pursue a Masters degree in textiles or in the arts and during that time I had applied to Central Saint Martins and was accepted. My first application to the Dewar Arts Award was for that and I got accepted for that too.

It was that idea of going to the very best school. You’re conditioned to look at all these best platforms. I wanted to go there. I got the Dewar Arts Award and I had paid my deposit for my flat down in London and but then I chose to withdraw. My heart wasn’t in there.

The very fact that I had just come back from Pakistan and I had this project under my belt gave me so much and I had to make that choice. The support I got from the Dewar wasn’t full. I still had to put a lot of my own money and I needed scarce family support. I had to ask, do I really want to be in that one year surrounded by arts in this crazy cosmopolitan city or do I have to just trust my instinct and go for where my passion really lies. So I chose the latter.

I chose Pakistan and I just said to Dewar, thank you so much for your support but I’m turning it down. But I didn’t actually go to Pakistan straight away as I had to design a project for going back to Pakistan and a way to get there. And I think the Dewar Trustees were really supportive because I was honest with them.

Clothing designed by 2012 awardee Adil Iqbal.
Clothing designed by 2012 awardee Adil Iqbal.

So I was in this free space, yet a space that allowed me to think and create. And that’s when I created the Twilling Tweeds project. That’s when I started to think about the isolation of the weavers in the Hebrides and how they weave in their sheds in isolation, together with this idea of the embroiderers being in their remote part of Pakistan.

Part of that was also because I was really curious about my own identity, Scottish and Pakistani, and I didn’t think I had to pick one, I could pick both because I was made of both. It was an organic, natural process for me. I was drawn towards tweed and embroidery naturally, so I just wanted to build a project around that. I wrote to the Harris Tweed authority and then resubmitted a proposal to the Dewar Arts Awards and in May 2012 I received an award from them.

Then I started the process of going to Pakistan. A lot of the Hebridean people supported me. The Harris Tweed authority helped me out. They had a lot of archival detail that I could use. Books that they had already collected, since the idea was, how do you take Scotland to the embroiderers? Because I wasn’t doing the workshops in Lewis, I was doing them in Chitral. To take Scotland and Harris Tweed to the embroiderers in Chitral, the 12 artisans, was very much through lots of images – photographs, short films, stories, Harris Tweed cloths. All that and showing them books we had collected, bought from the award that I had received, even audio, old songs in Lewis, were all part of the process.

The embroiderers had never been to Scotland and I think their initial idea was that Scotland is this crazy place where it’s all technology, cars; a very clean place, an affluent place, because obviously they’re living in Chitral and it’s a very backward place. But yet they felt so much of the old Hebridean culture is actually their own culture.

There were lots of similarities that they saw, in the way the old Hebridean community live, even the idea of craft and what it meant to them was very close. Harris Tweed is a Hebridean craft and in Chitral they make ‘patti’, a cloth made out of sheep’s wool. It was fascinating for them to be connected in a way, even though an embroiderer and a weaver had never interacted or exchanged, but they were still somehow connected and that was the main objective of the project. Through the workshops, and through the idea of art making, the idea of imagination, through the stories, one can actually be connected to these two different cultures.

Through the workshops, the idea was that we took themes from everyday domestic scenes to how they celebrate their own culture in Scotland, and in Pakistan, in Chitral in particular, and we juxtaposed the stories. Once we got the artworks and they were finalised, they were then transferred onto tweed and were then hand embroidered. Tweed and also calico.

“Twilling Tweeds” project. 2012 awardee Adil Iqbal.
“Twilling Tweeds” project. 2012 awardee Adil Iqbal.

The Scottish stories were embroidered on calico while the Chitrali embroideries were hand-embroidered on Harris Tweed. Once we were finished and the tapestries were made, they were framed then we brought them over to Scotland and did the first exhibition in August 2013, on the Edinburgh Festival Fringe and after that at the Nomad’s tent in November/December 2013.

The website came later because there was a lot of customer feedback that they loved the work and the project but they couldn’t all afford a tapestry. They wanted to pick things up and I think that is when I wanted to develop a product range using this idea of tweed and embroidery. So I did some research. I was working on the side, and then in 2014 I was appointed as a creative director for Popinjay, a company with similar ideals to mine that was based in the US and Pakistan. Twilling Tweeds until then was just an arts project endeavor and it was slowly forming into something else.

I did an exhibition at Howe Street for one month for Christmas and I developed a Twilling Tweeds product range of clutches, cosmetic bags, totes, a variety of products. Working with Popinjay allowed me to have savings because I was living at home so I could save lots of money. I really had to do that to move Twilling Tweeds to a second phase. I had planned to launch the website with a few products that I had made and do a first batch of production.

At the same time I did my first ever international exhibition with the tapestries in Islamabad, a solo exhibition, also with all of the product ranges. And that was a success because that was my first platform where I had the tapestries and the full product range. Then I basically brought everything back to Scotland and started a Masters degree in September 2015 in St Andrews in Anthropology.

I think my reason was I had grown myself, and realised that textile and craft wasn’t just about fashion or the commercial idea of fashion, or the craft. It was a part of me saying that I wanted to understand the relationship between craft and the maker. It was a much deeper thing and no other area apart from anthropology could have allowed me to do that.

And anthropology in a way is about how you understand a human and the different cultures that we live in and in particular I was interested in material culture. I really learned a lot from a theoretical and academic perspective, but because I had a lot of practical, real-life experience behind me I was able to bring that in.

“Twilling Tweeds” project. 2012 awardee Adil Iqbal.
“Twilling Tweeds” project. 2012 awardee Adil Iqbal.

As I was doing my Masters, An Lanntair in Stornoway approached me because these tapestries had not been shown in the Hebrides yet. They funded everything and the entire exhibition with the product range went to An Lanntair from December to March 2015-2016.

I was also doing field work as part of my Masters and that took me to Chitral valley. It was a particular place there that I went and made a short film because again I was interested in using other tools as a practitioner and wanting to pursue photography and film. I made the short film as part of my Masters came back in June, submitted it, wrote up my paper and submitted that in August and at the same time I was accepted to do a Phd which I start soon.

I think a lot of what I’ve done is to do with the Dewar Award in itself. Had I not done that project in Chitral, that cross-cultural project, I wouldn’t be sitting here right now. I mean Twilling Tweeds was born out of this award, because it gave me that space and time to explore that individuality; to really understand myself as a person and as a practitioner. The project also informed what I wanted to do with the art of craft, how I see craft-making. Perhaps that’s why I’ve really strayed away from the commercial industry of fashion, because I didn’t really feel that I was in there in the first place.

I think the award really gave me strength to pursue a lot of independent projects and how to use self-motivation. Not just to be successful. If you want to achieve something you can do it. If you don’t have the money you can still find the finance somehow. I think the idea you really have to stick with your guts and believe in yourself came through that project.

There were days where I would be really stressed out and I didn’t quite know where it was going, but you just had to have enough faith in yourself. So that experience of the Dewar Arts Award meant I was able to pitch my project to galleries, write my project for my PHD; it was all part of my learning process.