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Spinning Magic With Silk: Palestinian Embroidery

by Caroline Stone

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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.

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Tags: Middle East Holy Land Cultural Identity