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Embroidery Traditions

Contributed by Turathuna Bethlehem University on 18.10.2006:

Women’s embroidery gatherings contributed to solidifying and intensifying community ties, whether they took place under the shade of carob trees or grape arbors, or at home around a fire. Women gathered to exchange patterns and discuss new stitches and color schemes. Girls would start embroidering their own dresses at the age of nine or ten, and many spent their spare time as young teenagers embroidering their wedding dress and trousseau under the supervision of their mothers, older sisters, and sister-in-laws.

Although women were free to choose their own designs for their embroidery and they did, varying stitch, color, density, and pattern; they were also bound by tradition and the context in which they lived. A woman who feared the evil spirits would embroider a protective eye into her dress; pious women wove in religious motifs, such as crescents or crosses. The use of vibrant colors on a densely stitched bodice was believed to protect the vulnerable chest area from illness and to enhance the women’s ability to breastfeed her children. A camel meant the woman came from a desert region, while grapes, flowers, and orange blossoms meant she came from an agriculturally rich community. Geometric patterns tended to indicate a coastal region. The eight-pointed star and S-shape designs that recur across the regions are believed to be inherited from ancient, premonotheistic times.


While the color red, purple, indigo blue, and saffron are part of the ancient color schemes of Canaan and the Philistine coast, Islamic green and Byzantine black have more recently been added to palette of “traditional” embroidery colors.

Red, the most prominent color for embroidery, served several purposes. The tribe of Yemen, one of the two Arabian tribes in Palestine, used red as an identification symbol. Hence, brides of the tribe of Yemen wore and dress on their wedding day. The other major Arab tribe of Palestine, the Qais from northern Arabia, was identified with white. According to lore, red is also the color of sensuality and sexual maturity, so unmarried girls and women never embroidered their dresses with red thread.


Cross-stitch is the most commonly used stitch in embroidery, whether for thobs, cushions, doilies, or headdress. Couching stitch, a more complex, sophisticated stitch, involves ample silver and gold qasab threads to achieve the Bethlehem-style embroidery. Other stitches such as manjel (sickles), tinbeeteh (plant sprouts or shoots), daisy-chain, and satin stitch were used as decorative stitches, as well as for appliqué, edging, and hemming.

Density of stitches on a thob could imply its origins. Thobs of the Hebron area are famous for their remarkably dense embroidery; thobs from the Ramallah area are much more lightly embroidered. Thobs of the Jaffa area are marked for the finesse of their stitches, while Gaza thobs are characterized by striped cotton fabrics with minimum embroidery.

Source:Palestine A Guide by Mariam Shahin.

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