Authentic Palestinian Embroidery
Contributed by This Week In Palestine on 23.09.2006:
By: Nuha Muslih
A main characteristic of Palestinian ethnic art is embroidered costumes worn by women during various ceremonies. This importance does not stem only from the artistic and stylish motifs reflected on these pieces but also from the social values, norms and modes that were associated with this type of art before dismantling the Palestinian society in 1948. It reflects a strong sense of belonging to its surrounding where each village tried to develop its own distinctive style. At the same time colors and materials used were very depictive of ethnic beliefs and were abstractive of the natural surrounding.
To understand this form of Palestinian art, attention needs to be given to its texture, composition, geographic classification, ethnic implications and the socio-economic context in which it developed and nurtured. Ethnographists specialised in the subject, have been using the term costumes in order to refer to the complete woman attire which included amongst others the dress, jewelry, head covers, veils, scarves, belts, ceremonial handkerchiefs, cushions, mini coats, perfume containers, tobacco bags etc.
The Palestinian costume as such, is made of locally cultivated, hand-woven and dyed material occasionally lined with green and red vertical silk stripes known as hell and heaven. The fabrics were traditionally embroidered with local natural silk threads imported from Syria and dyed with local natural extracts. Cotton was cultivated in the Southern Coastal Plain of Palestine. Red, blue, yellow, orange brown and other colours were obtained from local and natural extracts such as indigo, madder roots, kermes, cochineal insect, and walnut shells (see chart).
The Palestinian society, being characterized by its peasant’s majority was left with little time for artistic activities. Though the oral traditions were very rich, the material possessions were simple and did not differ from one part of the country to another. The beauty and variety of Palestinian costumes make them an outstanding exception of this rule to understand why this particular craft developed in this way requires some knowledge of the traditional way of life of Palestinians before the catastrophe of 1948. Regional styles of embroidery were able to develop because women had little contact with the outside world or outside their own group of villages.
A great deal of Palestinian social life revolved around marriage and preparing for the wedding.
Marriage usually took place between relatives and most women married men from their own village or from a neighboring village. Although women were expected to assist men in the fields at certain times of year, for most of the time their duties centered around fetching water and taking care of house affairs. The art of embroidery was sustained in Palestinian society because it was highly valued and was an essential feature at important events in Palestinians’ life. In a sense the finery of the wedding clothes can be seen to symbolize the importance of the marriage itself in a society where family ties are the main fabric of life. During the months after engagement, many festivities used to take place and reach climax in the wedding week.
Before the wedding the groom was expected to give presents of money and clothing to the bride, her father and other relatives. The clothes given to the bride formed an important part of her trousseau and the expedition to town to buy the wedding gear was a great event. There had to be a number of dresses in the trousseau and those not provided by the bridegroom were made by the girl herself. Every young girl looked forward to the day when she would become a bride and as soon as she was old enough to sew, she would begin preparing her wedding outfit. The most heavily embroidered dress was worn on the actual wedding day and dresses with less embroidery were worn on the other days of the wedding celebrations. After marriage ceremonies are over, the best dresses were stored carefully in a carved wooden bridal chest to be worn only on special occasions such as the weddings of relatives and feast days. Dresses with little embroidery were used for everyday wear after settling down as married women.
All motifs embroidered on Palestinian women costumes have been of great interest to village women who could recognize the smallest variation in detail where each motif had a name and an emulated meaning. The design of motifs has been constantly changing. The main ethnic motifs are: the Cypress tree, tall palm, rosette, peacock feather, peacock tail, moon, lantern, airy fairy, the tree of life, sea horse, hen scribbles, tree of life (known as watch). The earlier embroidery was abstract and geometric with a few representations of floral designs. The mandate period in Palestine has witnessed the introduction of curvilinear and depictive designs from Europe, which, were gradually integrated into local costumes.
Palestinian women used a colour scheme consisting of one main colour and several complementary colours such as brilliant orange, pink, green, violet and yellow. Black and white was used for contrast and outline. The main colour is usually a shade of red but there are some exceptions. Different shades of red may appear in one dress. This might have been deliberate in order to create variations, but also may be the result of using whatever is available. A main feature of authentic Palestinian dresses is how the embroiderer plays with colour creating imbalance with asymmetry and therefore interest into what appears to be a perfect pattern. This is probably owed to the belief that perfection should only be attributed to God.
The blend of colours and motifs may help sometimes in determining the origin of the dress. For example the dress of Beit Dajan dominant colour was maroon highlighted with green, mauve and orange, Ramallah’s dominant colour was orange-red shade with green, yellow, mauve white and magenta pink. On the other hand, old dresses from Hebron Hills were embroidered with scarlet and crimson, details in brown purple and pink.
Dress color varied according to the region: in Nablus and Tulkarem dresses were white striped with green and red silk, in Hebron Hills and Southern Coastal they were indigo; or black, in the central region; they were either black or white; In Bethlehem area they were indigo striped with maroon and green lines; in the villages surrounding Jerusalem, they were silk-mounted cotton imported from Syria; in the Galilee region, red, indigo, green and black silk or cotton fabrics were used.
The most commonly used embroidery technique was the cross-stitch with the exception of the Bethlehem and Jerusalem ceremonial dresses who used extensively the highly valued embroidery technique, couching, in which thread or cord is laid on the fabric in a design and attached by over-sewing. Other stitches have been used such as herringbone stitch (for joining and framing appliqué panels or hems), over-sewing stitch (used for edges, seams, and around openings), zig-zag stitch (used for seams on sleeves), zig-zag edging stitch (used for attaching appliqué patches), running stitch (used for seams and hems), stem stitch and satin-eye stitch (used for filling the couched design).
The Palestinian traditional attire can be classified into three main groups and several subgroups according to the social descent and economic activity as well as to the geographic distribution of people consisting mainly of three categories; villagers, city dwellers and the Bedouins.
City dwellers have been strongly influenced by Turkish and European life style. They earned their living through commercial activities or through working in public institutions. The ceremonial dress was imported from Turkey embroidered with metal threads mounted on black or dark blue velvet. This style was widely used in the main towns such as Jerusalem, Nablus, Jaffa, Haifa, Hebron and Lydda.
The Bedouins live a semi nomadic life distributed over the Naqab desert and the hills stretching from Bethlehem until the southern part of the Jordan Valley earning their living out of grazing and selling livestock to villagers and to city people.
The Bedouin attire can be classified into three sub groups: Naqab, Ta’amreh and Jericho. Technically speaking, it can be distinguished from other Palestinian traditional dresses by the intensive embroidery around the whole lower part of the dress. The blend of motifs and colours has to reflect the marital status of the women. For instance, an unmarried woman in the Naqab would wear a gown embroidered with blue. The colour of the fabric is usually a soft black material where the majority of the needle-work is done on the chest panel and all the lower part of the dress. Its wing-like sleeves lack any form of embroidery. The Bedouin woman covers her face with an intensively decorated veil known as “Burqu'”. She is very keen on demonstrating her silver jewelry and the large variety of beads such as amber to express love, coral for wealth, cornelian and agate for health and jade for fertility.
Palestinian villagers comprised the majority of the Palestinian society depended economically on farming and agriculture. Palestinian village women have been always the main producers of most cottage crafts in which they excelled in making: pottery, straw work, weaving and embroidery. The village attire, which is the most variant, can be classified according to the following areas (each has its own technical and stylish features): Ashdod, Gaza, Hebron hills, Bethlehem, Jerusalem, Ramallah, Jaffa region, Nablus and the Galilee. Costume, however, from villages close to each other had many features in common. The further apart the villages, the more costumes differed.
After providing this brief background about the technical and social characteristics of Palestinian costumes. Illustrative explanation covering the aforementioned areas will be discussed in the next issues.
Photography: Raffi Safieh Garabedian
This Week in Palestine