Palestinian Embroidery Motifs Dresses That Tell Stories
by the patterns of the embroidery on a dress, one can determine where someone
comes from – almost each Palestinian town has its own unique pattern. Now a
newly published book is tracing the history of this Palestinian handcraft. A
review by Susannah Tarbush
The embroidery with which Palestinian women
have traditionally decorated their dresses is one of the most characteristic
elements of Palestinian material culture. In her recent book Palestinian
Embroidery Motifs: A Treasury of Stitches 1850-1950 – published jointly by
Melisende Publishing of London and Rimal Publications of Nicosia – Margarita
Skinner focuses on the motifs used in embroidery. They include the Tall Palm
motif (also known as Ears of Wheat) of the Ramallah area, Scissors and Roses
from Gaza, the Key of the Heart from Bethlehem and the Cypress Tree motifs
found all over Palestine.
writes: "The embroidered dresses of the Palestinian women are very much
like Persian carpets. They are not only unusually beautiful. They also tell
stories." In the Negev, unmarried Bedouin girls and widows wear dresses
with blue embroidery. Once a widow remarries, red or pink embroidery is added.
and vibrant colours
wrote the book in association with her friend of 40 years Widad Kamel Kawar,
the legendary Amman-based collector of Palestinian costume. Skinner documents
more than 200 motifs, giving their names in Arabic and English and identifying
the areas of Palestine from which they come. Falak Shawwa‘s photographs capture
the artistry and vibrant colours of the motifs, and the splendour of festive
dresses. There are also diagrams of each motif.
information on the motifs was not easy. The names of motifs change from area to
area, and often from one generation to another. "What is a Moon in
Ramallah is a Star in Hebron. What is an Orange Branch to a grandmother is a
Rose Branch to the granddaughter," says Kawar.
is not known exactly when women in Palestine started to put thousands of
stitches on dresses, coats, jackets, veils and cushions. Research on Palestine
embroidery has found no examples earlier than the 19th century.
the 1930s, the French company Dollfus, Mieg & Co (DMC) distributed pattern
books that introduced foreign motifs. Before long, these appeared alongside
traditional motifs on women‘s costume. DMC also introduced the so-called perle
cotton thread. Previously, women had used lustrous floss silk thread from
Palestinian villages, the tending of chickens and selling of eggs was the
domain of women, who used this source of income to buy thread and fabric. Girls
grew up watching their mothers embroidering, and learnt the skill from the age
of about ten.
main stitches used in Palestinian embroidery are cross-stitch and couching. In
couching a thick thread is positioned on top of the fabric, and a thinner
thread is stitched over it to keep it in place. This gives a curving design, of
which there are many examples in Palestinian Embroidery Motifs.
"Paris of Palestinian village fashion"
area of Palestine had characteristic embroidery. Ramallah, together with
Bethlehem and Beit Dajan, was well known for its lavish embroidery. The
embroidery on a festive dress could have 200,000 cross-stitches. Bethlehem‘s
skill in the art of couching made it the "Paris of Palestinian village
book organises the motifs within six sections. The first consists of border
motifs, while the others sections are based on the sources of inspiration:
daily life, fauna, the garden and fields, nature and the environment, and
the mid-20th century Palestinian embroidery started to decline. The
establishment of the State of Israel in 1948 and the 1967 Arab-Israeli war
uprooted hundreds of thousands of Palestinians, many of whom ended in up
refugee camps. "With their own local culture dispersed, they lost parts of
their village identity and the embroidered motifs of certain areas became mixed
with others in names and motif arrangements," Kawar notes.
style referred to as The New Dress developed in refugee camps. This dress tells
us only that the wearer is Palestinian, and indicates little about its origins.
Some organizations now run modern embroidery projects, helping to keep skills
hopes that her book will help to preserve and revive the heritage of
Palestinian embroidery. "Let the stitches speak to us again," she