Why you should care

Can your handbag say it once fanned a fire in Dahab?

At first glance, Peace Road Designs handbags — busy with sequins and embroidery — look a bit like other ethnic-inspired satchels for sale everywhere from Goa to Guatemala. But the story behind these unique, upcycled bags, made in Dahab in Egypt’s Sinai Peninsula, is a special one.

At the hands of Bronwyn Jones, old galabeyas — colorful, long cotton dresses Bedouin wear around their homes — are transformed into one-off carryalls that breathe stories of their former wearers. The slouchy tote-size bags, stitched onto a sturdy base of superior Egyptian cotton canvas, have vibrant interior pockets and linings made from cutoffs from other dresses.

I want the [bags] to have a previous energy and life to them.

Bronwyn Jones, founder of Peace Road Designs

Galabeyas are made in India for the Middle Eastern market and sold in the Sinai Peninsula by salesmen who cruise Dahab’s neighborhoods — “like the [Home] Shopping Network on four wheels,” Jones says — selling to Bedouin women who tend not to stray too far from their homes. But for her creations, Jones prefers to buy used dresses directly from neighbors. “I want the [bags] to have a previous energy and life to them,” she says, which might mean a threadbare section here or a hint of burnt cloth there, when a woman fanning cooking embers with her hem got too close to the fire. Jones, 47, worked as a fashion merchandiser in Auckland, New Zealand, before relocating to the Bedouin fishing village. In January 2014, a colorful but little-used galabeya sitting in her own closet sparked the idea for the bags.

handmade bags

Bronwyn Jones, designer and owner of Peace Road Designs in Dahab, Egypt, stands in her workroom next to a creation.

Source Terry Ward

I joined Jones for a visit to the home of a Bedouin woman named Sloh, who gathers used galabeyas from friends looking to make some cash. Trends, Sloh says, are constantly changing — beading on the sleeves may be in one season and out the next — so her friends are always interested in selling their old dresses. After a simple lunch of fried eggplant, spaghetti and traditional libba, Sloh pulls exquisite galabeyas out of a plastic bag like rabbits from a hat. Jones says yes to most and no to the ones that are a bit too worn, tallying her purchases on an iPad.

But if you want to buy one of Jones’ creations, don’t go looking on Etsy. You need to visit her atelier, where for around $105 you can select the galabeyas you want to be made into a handbag. There is a Facebook page, and a website for orders is in the works, but Jones says most of the bags are already sold. “I’m always making to order,” she says. Production is also an issue. Jones is a one-woman show, and makes only around 20 to 25 bags a month.

Paying $105 for a bag in a village where a basic hotel room costs around $10 per night might seem exorbitant. But handiwork has its price. Skye Salveson, an American who visited Dahab on a diving vacation and has purchased several of Jones’ creations, thinks the prices for the custom-made, unique pieces are “reasonable for the quality of work.”

Bags worth bagging, in other words, for an upcycled souvenir with a cool story to tell.

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