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The Embroidery of Ramallah

Contributed by This Week In Palestine on 17.06.2006:

By Nuha Musleh

This is the first article in a series on Palestinian embroidery and especially that of the Ramallah area, looking at the meaning of the patterns used and their significance, the stories behind them and their importance in Palestinian folklore. This article will look at Ramallah’s festive attire, referring to an article that was written in 1935 by Grace Crowfoot and Phyllis Sutton. Sutton worked at the time at the Friends’ School in Ramallah.

Festive costumes are a main feature of Palestinian social traditions. They have been central to most happy occasions in Palestinian life. The festive attire is made up of an embroidered dress, a long head cover, a hat decorated with silver or golden Ottoman coins, a neck choker and silver bracelets. Palestinian festive attire, however, varies from one district to another in its patterns, the blend of colours and the density of its embroidery, to the extent that a woman’s village of origin could be deciphered from her dress.

The traditional use of embroidery in the Ramallah region is limited to the dress and the head dress, with the cap worn under the veil being heavily embroidered. The dresses depicted here are quite typical of the traditional style. Both date back to the beginning of the 20th Century or early Mandate period. They are made of locally woven linen. The blue dress is dyed with indigo dyes extracted from wild flowers that grow in the Jordan Valley. The method of making the dress is very simple. A length of material, usually 44 cm. wide is taken and doubled in order to form the back and the front. A hole and a slit for an opening at the front is cut and folded. To give the necessary width to the bottom of the dress, long V-shaped pieces are added. The sleeves are straight pieces and a triangular piece is added to form a wing-like shape. The embroidered breastplate (qabeh) is made separately and sown on the dress’s front. It has a slit that corresponds to that on the dress and the edges are fastened together with ornamental buttons around the opening. A small plain strip (dafkah) is added to strengthen the neck at the back.

There are two vertical panels of embroidery (banayek) on the sides of the dress and motifs on the sleeves. At the back of the dress, known as the dail, there is a deep panel at the bottom with vertical bands. The shoulders and the back neck are not ornamented in any way, because they are meant to be covered by the head veil. The head veil (khirkah) is a strip of linen that varies a great deal in the richness of its decoration. It often has an added fringe (as shown here).

Traditionally, the summer or festal dress as well as the head veil should be in undyed hand-woven linen (Roumi) and this differentiates it from most Palestinian dresses, which are, like the work or winter dresses of Ramallah, of a dark blue (Ruhbani) material. This use of a light coloured material for the women’s best embroidery has probably contributed not a little to the preservation of the patterns where the shape of a pattern matters so much more if it is clearly seen than when it is just part of a rich mixture of colours on dark blue or even black material. The Roumi is said to come from somewhere in Eastern Europe. It is a variable shade of cream and varies in width from 30-44 cm. Unfortunately, it has vanished from the market since a long time. In response to the needs of embroiderers, it was substituted with cotton and synthetic materials, which do not provide the beauty and magic of linen, either in tint or in texture.

Silks for embroidery are red and black. Green is permissible as a possible substitute for black and in practice one often sees pink and other colours inserted, but always in the part of the pattern which should be black. The mass of the pattern is always red. The natural silks used to come from Damascus but they are not in production anymore. Nowadays, DMC and other synthetic silks are used instead because they are readily available, are much cheaper and require less skill to work with than the raw, uneven hanks of Damascus silk, out of which the embroiderer had to from a suitable thread with her own hands.

The cross stitch is widely used throughout Palestine. In Hebron and other places the running stitch and the half cross stitch are also used, but in Ramallah if an embroiderer fails to cross her stitch, it would have been taken for granted that she has fallen into the sin of sloth.

Whoever looks at the illustrated examples will certainly recognise and admire them, but will probably be struck with their variety as much as with their originality. Palestinian villages have indeed a goodly heritage in patterns and the question is often asked: Where do the patterns come from? Sutton tells us that they were introduced into the country by the Crusaders, and the same suggestion is also often made with regard to the head dress and the embroideries of the women of Bethlehem. We should dismiss, however, the stories of the Crusaders as these patterns are a common repertory of the Mediterranean tradition. This will become more apparent when we discuss them in detail and are able to point out how some of the designs go back to early Islamic textiles and others go further still to Coptic tapestries. An argument often used to support the Crusader theory is that embroidery in Palestine is mostly made by Christians. Certainly most of the embroidery sold to Europeans was made in the Christian centres of Bethlehem, Jerusalem and Ramallah. But this may be because these communities were more enterprising in this specific field. The evidence, however, shows that there were many Moslem villages in Palestine in which embroidery was made and worn.

With rare exceptions, all the patterns used in the Ramallah area had names, but the names often vary and it would take a researcher a long time to find common definitions amongst different villages due to individual flights of fancy. There are names that seem to be known to everyone and yet there has been much disagreement as to which patterns should be known by them. Such names cannot be recent inventions. For example, a name like Salata’an, a crab, must be old, for the word is not used in the modern Arabic language, except in the realm of the zodiac. Again, other names are used quite commonly but are not fully understood or have variant meanings. These things afford some evidence of a certain age to at least some of the names. There was a certain classification of the patterns used in Ramallah, which can be noticed in the illustrations: there are, of course, borders and other group names commonly used such as trees, roses, swans, Kohl pots, moons, flower pots, and birds.

Nuha Musleh is an expert on old Palestinian embroidery and jewellery. She can be reached at


This Week in Palestine

September 2004

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