Back to overview

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 re­flect೿ed on these pieces but also from the social values, norms and modes that were associated with this type of art before dismantling the Pal­es­tin೿i೿an so­ci­e೿ty in 1948. It reflects a strong sense of belonging to its surrounding where each village tried to de­vel೿op its own distinctive style. At the same time colors and materials used were very depictive of ethnic beliefs and were abstractive of the nat೿u­ral surrounding.

To understand this form of Palestinian art, at೿ten೿tion needs to be given to its texture, com­po­si೿tion, 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 lo೿cal೿ly 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).

Social context

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 tra­di­tion೿al 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 vil೿lag೿es.

A great deal of Pal­es­tin೿i೿an social life revolved around mar೿riage and preparing for the wedding.

Marriage usually took place between rel೿a೿tives and most wom೿en mar೿ried men from their own vil೿lage or from a neighboring village. Al­though wom೿en were ex­pect೿ed to as೿sist men in the fields at cer­tain times of year, for most of the time their du೿ties centered around fetch೿ing water and tak೿ing care of house af೿fairs. The art of em­broi­dery was sus­tained in Pal­es­tin೿i೿an so­ci­e೿ty be­cause it was highly val­ued and was an es೿sen­tial feature at im­por­tant events in Pal­es­tin೿i೿ans’ life. In a sense the fin­ery of the wed೿ding clothes can be seen to sym­bol೿ize the im­por­tance of the mar೿riage it­self in a so­ci­e೿ty where fam೿i೿ly ties are the main fab­ric of life. During the months after engagement, many fes­tiv೿i೿ties used to take place and reach climax in the wed೿ding week.

Before the wedding the groom was expected to give presents of mon೿ey and clothing to the bride, her father and other rel೿a೿tives. The clothes giv೿en to the bride formed an im­por­tant part of her trous೿seau and the ex­pe­di೿tion to town to buy the wed೿ding gear was a great event. There had to be a number of dress೿es in the trous೿seau and those not pro­vid೿ed 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 pre­par೿ing her wedding outfit. The most heav೿i೿ly em­broi­dered dress was worn on the ac­tu೿al wed೿ding day and dresses with less em­broi­dery were worn on the other days of the wed೿ding cel­e೿bra೿tions. Af­ter mar೿riage ceremonies are over, the best dress೿es were stored carefully in a carved wooden bridal chest to be worn only on special occasions such as the weddings of rel೿a೿tives and feast days. Dress೿es with little em­broi­dery were used for eve­ry­day wear af­ter set೿tling down as mar೿ried wom೿en.


All motifs em­broi­dered on Palestinian women cos­tumes have been of great interest to vil೿lage wom೿en who could rec­og­nize the small೿est var೿i೿a೿tion in de­tail where each mo­tif had a name and an em೿u­lat೿ed mean೿ing. The de­sign of mo­tifs has been con­stant೿ly chang೿ing. The main eth­nic mo­tifs are: the Cy­press tree, tall palm, ro­sette, pea­cock feath೿er, pea­cock tail, moon, lan­tern, airy fairy, the tree of life, sea horse, hen scrib೿bles, tree of life (known as watch). The earlier em­broi­dery was ab­stract and ge೿o­met­ric with a few rep­re­sen­ta೿tions of floral de­signs. The man­date pe­ri೿od in Pal­es­tine has wit­nessed the in­tro­duc೿tion of cur­vi­lin­e೿ar and depictive de­signs from Eu­rope, which, were grad೿u೿al೿ly in­te­grat೿ed into lo೿cal cos­tumes.


Palestinian women used a colour scheme con­sist೿ing of one main col­our and several com­ple­men­ta೿ry colours such as brilliant orange, pink, green, violet and yellow. Black and white was used for contrast and outline. The main colour is usu೿al೿ly a shade of red but there are some exceptions. Dif೿fer೿ent shades of red may ap೿pear in one dress. This might have been de­lib­er೿ate in or­der to create var೿i೿a೿tions, but also may be the result of using what­ev೿er is available. A main feature of authentic Pal­es­tin೿i೿an dresses is how the em­broi­der೿er plays with colour creating imbalance with asymmetry and there­fore interest into what ap೿pears to be a per­fect pattern. This is probably owed to the belief that perfection should only be at೿trib­ut೿ed 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 dress೿es who used extensively the highly valued em­broi­dery tech­nique, couching, in which thread or cord is laid on the fabric in a design and at೿tached 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 open೿ings), zig-zag stitch (used for seams on sleeves), zig-zag edg೿ing stitch (used for at೿tach೿ing appliqué patch೿es), run೿ning stitch (used for seams and hems), stem stitch and sat೿in-eye stitch (used for fill೿ing the couched de­sign).


The Pal­es­tin೿i೿an tra­di­tion೿al attire can be clas೿si೿fied into three main groups and sev­er೿al sub­groups ac೿cord೿ing to the so­cial de­scent and eco­nom೿ic ac­tiv೿i೿ty as well as to the ge೿o­graph೿ic dis­tri­bu೿tion of peo­ple con­sist೿ing mainly of three cat­e೿go­ries; vil೿lag೿ers, city dwellers and the Bedouins.

City dwellers have been strongly in­flu­enced by Turkish and Eu­ro­pe೿an life style. They earned their living through com೿mer­cial ac­tiv೿i೿ties or through work೿ing in pub­lic in­sti­tu೿tions. The cer­e೿mo­ni೿al dress was im­port೿ed from Turkey em­broi­dered with met೿al threads mount೿ed on black or dark blue vel­vet. This style was wide೿ly used in the main towns such as Je­ru­sa­lem, Nablus, Jaffa, Haifa, Hebron and Lydda.

The Bedouins live a semi nomadic life dis­trib­ut೿ed over the Naqab desert and the hills stretch೿ing from Bethlehem un­til the south­ern part of the Jor­dan Val೿ley earn೿ing their living out of graz೿ing and sell೿ing live­stock to villagers and to city peo­ple.

The Bedouin attire can be clas೿si೿fied into three sub groups: Naqab, Ta’amreh and Jeri­cho. Tech­ni೿cal೿ly speak೿ing, it can be dis­tin­guished from oth೿er Pal­es­tin೿i೿an tra­di­tion೿al dresses by the in­ten­sive em­broi­dery around the whole lower part of the dress. The blend of motifs and colours has to reflect the mar೿i­tal sta­tus of the wom೿en. For in­stance, an un­mar೿ried woman in the Naqab would wear a gown em­broi­dered with blue. The colour of the fabric is usu೿al೿ly a soft black ma­te೿ri೿al 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 cov೿ers her face with an in­ten­sive೿ly decorated veil known as “Burqu'”. She is very keen on dem­on­strat೿ing 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 fer­til೿i೿ty.

Palestinian villagers com­prised the ma­jor೿i೿ty of the Palestinian society de­pend೿ed eco­nom೿i೿cal೿ly on farm೿ing and ag­ri­cul­ture. Pal­es­tin೿i೿an vil೿lage wom೿en have been al­ways the main pro­duc೿ers of most cottage crafts in which they ex­celled in mak೿ing: pottery, straw work, weaving and em­broi­dery. The village attire, which is the most var೿i೿ant, can be clas೿si೿fied ac೿cord೿ing to the fol೿low೿ing ar­e೿as (each has its own tech­ni೿cal and stylish fea­tures): Ashdod, Gaza, Hebron hills, Beth­le­hem, Je­ru­sa­lem, Ramallah, Jaffa re­gion, Nablus and the Galilee. Cos­tume, however, from vil೿lag೿es close to each oth೿er had many fea­tures in com೿mon. 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

May 2001

There are no comments. Add one!