Exquisite Embroidery from Jamaica Purchased by Royalty
For a long time it seemed to be only myth and rumor that there was a group of embroidery makers in Jamaica who made work so beautiful, so refined, that it was purchased by royalty. I remember the first time I heard the story, I considered it nothing but a tall tale, and immediately dismissed it, only to find out that it had been true all along. The women of the Jamaica Hardanga Heritage Trust in the parish of St. Mary did make work for the royal wedding of Prince Charles and Lady Diana.
“It is a fact,” says Ms. Norma Nugent, President of the Jamaica Hardanga Heritage Trust, “that the Queen of England ordered a tablecloth from the group for the royal wedding, which the then Jamaica government paid for as a gift to her.”
What is Hardanga Embroidery?
But of course you, my loyal readers, are wondering: What is Hardanga? Hardanga or Hardanger is a form of embroidery done with only white thread on cloth. The embroidery is made by the pulling and counting of thread and the stitching of fabric. Because it often involves white thread on white cloth it is sometimes called white-work embroidery.
Hardanga Embroidery in Jamaica
Hardanga has long been practiced in Jamaica, but, like so many handmade art forms, it was in rapid decline on the island. That is, until Ms Inez Barrett, who first learnt the art form as a student at the Moneague Teachers’ College, became so enamored with the all-white embroidery some thirty years ago that she ended up putting together a group of five women to continue the embroidery tradition. The group has grown to twenty-five women, with fifteen very active members. Backed by the Bureau of Women’s Affairs, the group was initially a skills training group for middle-aged women, but today the Trust caters to all groups of women.
The Jamaica Hardanga Heritage Trust
With headquarters in Richmond, St. Mary, the Jamaica Hardanga Heritage Trust makes delicate and exquisite tablecloths, table napkins, runners, sheet sets, curtains, and, to a lesser extent, garments. Given the counting of thread involved, I wondered how long it takes to produce a piece of work.
“Usually a job takes anywhere from five to fourteen days to complete. A runner, for example, takes from three to five days, which is not that long,” Ms. Nugent explains. “A sheet set, however, can take up to three weeks and we have to work as a group to complete works on larger pieces, which we actually enjoy doing, in fact. In the same way that the construction of a car takes on many different skills, so too the workers of the Trust come together as a group to complete a job, when we have a really big project on hand.”
The group is looking to be contracted to do much larger pieces, however. “Today, the Trust remains a form of part-time employment, but the aim of the group is to make it a means of long-term employment for more women in the community,” Ms. Nugent shares. “Should we be contracted to do larger pieces, we will be better placed to offer more consistent employment to members of the group, and to more women in our area.”
The Trust has had some notable successes: In 2009 some of the members travelled to Santa Fe, New Mexico, and to Barbados and St. Martin to showcase their work. They have also gotten a few gifts of sewing machines, needles and thread, fabric, and even office furniture, from various organizations. The Bureau of Gender Affairs also assists with materials and training.
But challenges remain. Presently, there is no electricity in the Trust’s office, and indeed a bigger office is needed to accommodate larger works. There is also some difficulty in consistently paying workers. “What we would really like to do is break into the overseas market. We also need more funds to take our products to more craft fairs abroad. We are also thinking to expand into doing more clothes for sale,” Ms. Nugent notes.
Creativity as a Means of Development
“If we could do those things, if we could get more of our products sold, and develop more of a local and overseas clientele, there is so much more we could and would do for our community, especially for the women in our community,” Ms. Nugent continues. “I am hoping that more and more people hear about, and see, the work that we are doing, and buy our work, contract us to do work, and help us to showcase our work in craft fairs and other venues around the world.”
The work of the Jamaica Hardanga Heritage Trust is gorgeous and despite its delicate appearance, the embroidery is in fact, long-lasting. I wouldn’t mind filling my own home with the all-white embroidery of these women. It truly is heartening to see the women of the Jamaica Hardanga Heritage Trust, despite their many obstacles, working so hard to safeguard a tradition that they find meaningful.
The Jamaica Hardanga Heritage Trust best exemplifies how creativity can become a means of economic development. Let’s hope that the group will break into the overseas market — and get commissions for larger pieces, indeed for pieces of any size — that would see the group meeting its day-to-day needs, maintaining an office, and providing even more employment for women in the community.
The Jamaica Hardanga Trust has a Facebook page (jamaicahardanga) and can be contacted by e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org, and by phone at (876) 418-2597; 876-541-4077.
Until next time.
Norman Gordon contributed reporting for this article; some of the photos in the article are copyrighted by Norman Gordon.