The Thread project – a multilingual approach to textile terminology

Susanne Lervad & Christian Gaubert

Presentation of the Thread project at CTR – a 3-year Innovation Fund Project in order to create a network model for refugee women in Denmark in the domain of textile and design. The article reports of a case model on an internship of refugee women from Eritrea and Turkey at the CTR in 2017–18 and the vocabulary results of the multilingual sessions in Arabic, English, Danish, and Tigrinya on textile vocabulary. The terminology work includes verbal as well as non-verbal representation of the textile concepts, such as dress by photos, drawings, and models in order to combine different ways of representing the basic concepts of the field. The article finally sums up the work at museums in order to combine the Thread results with refugees’ knowledge of Danish history.

THREAD is a dynamic and innovative collaboration of diverse partners from business, design, education, research, and refugee support agencies aiming to achieve life-changing results for women who are forging new lives in Denmark.

Integration is a key problem for refugees and their host countries. This project seeks to help address this problem by developing and testing a pioneering themed model of Empowerment, Employment, and Entrepreneurship opportunities. The model offers a step-change programme to women refugees with differing levels of life experience and educational qualifications, which may be accessed according to their individual confidence and competence.


THREAD aims to build a dynamic hub of organisations and individuals from the public and private sectors offering creative opportunities for personal development, skills acquisition and self-employment to women refugees. THREAD tests how textile creativity, design, and production can be used as a powerful means of integration through a range of practical activities directed at the three main aims: Empowerment, Employment and Entrepreneurship. Based on our experiences and results since 2017, three more Es – Enlightenment, Education and Evaluation – were added to the core ideas of THREAD.

Case study: Eritrean textile terminology

Two refugee women from Eritrea, Alem and Mleta, had internships at the Centre for Textile Research for 16 weeks. As a textile terminology expert, Susanne Lervad devised multilingual sessions and documentation of vocabulary for knitting, tools and materials in Arabic, Danish, English, and Tigrinya thereby establishing a relationship with the refugees by exchanging knowledge on textile history. In 2017, THREAD established a relationship with two Eritrean refugees by focusing vocabulary work on Tigrinya, which is not a well-documented language – especially for textile terms. The two women were native speakers of Eritrean with poor Arabic, for which we had more in-house support. The Centre for Textile Research hosts a website reporting issues about textile craft with a section on multilingual terminology and different concepts/terms for materials and techniques such as spinning, weaving, tools (pins and shuttles) and other equipment.

The terminology table had unfinished columns for some Arabic terms. However, it became apparent that the women’s own language of Tigrinya was an equally valuable resource. During the first sessions, we discussed tools and materials, such as wool and silk. We documented material use, spinning, and yarn vocabulary in Tigrinya and we started to knit, which the refugees had not learnt before. The knitting was very beneficial for the refugees’ well-being as it is contemplative and also provides a sense of accomplishment. The knitting processes were documented in instructions including the categories from the previous sessions about material, and the spun and twisted yarns. The wool and silk yarns for knitting a traditional triangular Danish shawl were pleasant to work with and, in addition, soft and warm in the cold Danish winter. Hours passed as we talked about our lives, families, home countries and language but also textile-related issues: Who had taught us how to knit? Did our children know the techniques? What are the different ways of knitting to achieve the same result?

The instructions were simple. We started with three loops and then increased the number of loops until the shawl was finished. Hand knitting the shawl and handwriting the terminology were very easy ways in which to work. The discussions helped us connect through an understanding of dress and how the refugees’ work with their clothes to adapt to their new life in Denmark. When it came to the evaluation of the internships, Alem and Mlete’s comments were very strong and positive about these word/practice sessions. They prepared a PowerPoint presentation of their experiences and gave a short talk explaining some of the Eritrean dress traditions and describing their work with knitting terminology. Both Eritrean women live close to Copenhagen (Køge) with their families. The Danish History is present at the local museum by Bjørn Nørgaard’s cartoons and paintings for the historical tapestries produced at the Manufacture des Gobelins in Paris for the Queen’s 60th birthday. We made an excursion to both museums with the refugees’ families and colleagues and especially the first visit to their local museum in Køge was the starting point for understanding Danish history. Definitely, an approach and an initiative, we will repeat in another phase of Thread-related project. Today, the academics at CTR and the refugees have continued to be in touch via social media as well as by meeting up in museums and the refugees’ homes. The two academics have now presented and published the Tigrinya vocabulary at several terminology conferences with appropriate acknowledgement of Alem and Mlete’s contributions.

Entrepreneurial activities:

Providing opportunities for refugee participants to accomplish something was a very important source of motivation for their continued participation in the textile-based activities and served to demonstrate their skills. Finding vehicles for the refugee participants to demonstrate their capacity for work (for example certificates of attendance and portfolios of work) was a good way of compensating for their lack of recognized qualifications. In particular, these strategies recognized and built on the propensity for refugee women to gain from the education and skills they acquired in their home country by providing opportunities for them to demonstrate and document their abilities – and for that purpose they need textile terminology/specialized communication.

Termplus Aps has been a partner of the Thread project since June 2018. As a continuation of the terminology work with Alem and Mlete, it seemed particularly effective in the activities of Igne Oya, a design workshop in Tingbjerg/Husum in Copenhagen to use one’s own social network to leverage opportunities for refugees. Family, friends and colleagues were able to support specific refugee participants in the entrepreneurial phase. We had to raise awareness and descriptions about textile material in order to make smaller items for sale in shops in Copenhagen and France. The need for categorizing the materials and tools is a way to apply specialized communication within the field of textiles and once again, textile terminology was at stake. Despite that need, it took a considerable investment of personal time and energy to open negotiations, follow up with introductions and keep the relationships going until both sides could see the mutual benefit that was possible.

These two examples of how THREAD has included terminology work and textile words and culture as an important element of the project. THREAD has already received inquiries from Finland and the Netherlands, where organisations are developing similar projects. In addition, a representative from Trampoline House (Copenhagen Refugee Community Centre) has asked THREAD for advice on how to begin textile-related projects with the users of the centre. The unique selling point for THREAD is its themed core of activities, which is the key to adding value to initiatives currently focused on employment outcomes such as entrepreneurship. The Fabric of My Life project and SheWorks initiatives will be crucial ambassadors for the THREAD concept in the future. Igne Oya and Termplus Aps have negotiated a legacy project scheduled to begin in 2020 with AOF Denmark evening classes. The aim of the classes is to integrate refugee women into the teaching program, which provides workshops on textile handicrafts for Danish attendees.


About the authors:
Susanne Lervad is Terminologist at the Centre for Textile Research (CTR) at the University of Copenhagen. Christian Gaubert is an Arabist and currently an IT engineer at the French Institute for Oriental Archaeology in Cairo (IFAO, Egypt).