ONE Magazine

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Catholic Near East Welfare Association

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Spinning Magic With Silk: Palestinian Embroidery

Often passed from mother to daughter, the art of embroidery remains a mainstay of the tapestry that is Palestinian culture.

Few areas of the Middle East have a richer tradition in the ancient art of embroidery than the Holy Land – modern Israel and parts of Jordan and Syria. National and ceremonial costumes have been decorated for centuries with gold stitching and applique braid for men and elaborate, colorful embroidered patterns for women. Although Middle Eastern men seldom wear traditional costumes today, quite a few women still do. Their clothing displays not only their skillful needlework but local customs and heritage.

The national dress of any land has a significance beyond mere fashion. The color, patterns, and style of head dress often represent the wearer’s village, religious affiliation, marital status, rank, and wealth. In the Holy Land and the surrounding region, where sects of Christians, Jews, Muslims and Druse have lived uneasily alongside each other, such information might be very important.

The women’s garments that are most commonly embroidered are dresses and veils, although caftans, jackets, caps, belts, and the baggy trousers called sirwal may be decorated as well.

Since most of the Holy Land has a cold winter and a hot summer, many areas have two types of dress, one dark and the other light. The most common background colors are natural or white for summer, and black, dark blue, or red for winter. Black or purple velvet is used in some areas for special occasions. In Samaria, a striped pattern called “Heaven and Hell” is popular; red stripes symbolizing hell fire alternate with green, representing paradise.

The typical dress in the Holy Land is a one-piece garment, with a round neckline and a slit down the front. Triangular sections of cloth, sometimes in a contrasting color, are inserted at the sides to make the skirt wider. The sleeves are usually triangular also, with long hanging points, like the ones worn in medieval Europe. Women sometimes use the sleeves as purses, knotting the ends for safety. When they work, they tie the sleeves back.

Traditional dresses like the ones seen in Bethlehem may contain 21 pieces: one is the basic garment and the other 20 make up the sleeves and the side panels.

The sections of the dress that are decorated with needlework vary a little depending on local custom, but the most important piece is the embroidered square on the breast. It is often made separately, and because the embroidery strengthens the material, it frequently outlasts the dress and may be handed down from mother to daughter. During periods of mourning, the bright square is covered or removed from the dress.

In the city of Ramallah, eight miles north of Jerusalem, dresses often have two bands of embroidery down the front, like the Coptic robes of Romano-Christian Egypt and the tunics depicted in some of the early Christian mosaics from Tunisia. Two similar strips running down the back join a horizontal embroidered band along the hem, and the sleeves are often worked also, especially near the wrist.

In the seaside town of Jaffa, there are often six bands of embroidery – three on each side of the dress. The typical dress in Bethlehem or Jerusalem has no vertical bands, but the inserted triangles on the sides are richly worked. In general, the more lavish the embroidery, the wealthier the wearer, and the more important the occasion for which the dress was made. Bethlehem was famous for its embroidery, which was often enhanced by gold couching and silk applique. It was greatly prized – and still is, to some extent – for trousseaus.

One part of the dress, the shoulders and back of the bodice, is very rarely decorated, because it is traditionally covered by the veil or mendil. In the Holy Land, the Arabic word mendil refers to a rectangular piece of cloth worn over the head and embroidered on one or both ends.

Traditional embroidery patterns were mostly geometric or stylized floral. A little bird was characteristic of the Bethlehem style. Women in Ramallah sometimes used the motif of a pair of lions flanking a tree; it was found at Mycenae, and is one of the oldest Mediterranean patterns.

It is difficult to know, however, whether this pattern and others have been used since ancient times or appeared more recently. Since the 1930s women have copied designs from foreign embroidery books, introducing swans, cherubs, and even reindeer. The basic stitch is cross-stitch, but petit-point, herringbone, satin stitch, stem, Cretan, and Turkish are also used.

The names of the patterns are often as colorful as the embroidery itself: Bald Palms, False Tree, Two Frogs in a Pond, Lion’s Paw. Sometimes the names don’t resemble the patterns: a row of crosses and diamonds from Ramallah is called the “Baker’s Wife”; multi-colored diamonds are “Apples”; a simple maze is “The Road to Egypt”; and a checkerboard is “Chick Peas and Raisins, New Style.” Since many of the designs are very old, it is likely that they have been simplified and altered as they passed from generation to generation.

Splendid embroidery is also found on head-dresses. Styles very, but most head-dresses consist of an embroidered cap covered with coins, which formed part of the woman’s bride-price and represented her “nest egg.” The caps were also decorated with amulets and good luck charms. Sometimes they had embroidered “tails” to wrap the girls’ braids, which were not supposed to be seen even in Jewish and other non-Muslim communities.

In some districts, including Hebron, head-dresses were so elaborate and valuable that each community would have very few, or perhaps just one. They were loaned or rented to brides for their wedding day.

In many parts of the world, modern dress is replacing traditional native costumes, but the beautiful art of needlework in the Holy Land may survive. In Lebanon, a program was started two years ago by a group of women, mostly the wives of United Nations officials, to help Palestinian refugee women earn money to support their families. The Palestinian women make and embroider aprons, dresses, skirts, pot holders, tablecloths, and other articles, which are sold at the Lebanon Field Office of the United Nations Relief and Works Agency.

Some of the Palestinians who participate are trying to supplement their family income because their husbands had to leave Lebanon. Embroidery is a practical way for the women to earn money because they can work at home and need not leave their children. By Western standards, the remuneration is small: a woman who sews for the full day can earn about 500 Lebanese pounds ($120) a month, about half of what a typist earns. Yet even this amount can make a difference to a poor family.

Married women are not the only ones who are selling their needlework through the program. Schoolgirls in a Beirut refugee camp also participate. Perhaps they will someday hand on to their daughters not only the exquisite pieces they have worked, but the ancient and delicate craft of embroidery itself.

Caroline Stone, a freelance writer who lives in Rome, writes frequently about the cultural heritage of the Near East.

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