Embroidery (taṭrīz) is the art of creating decorative designs on fabric using needle and thread, and occasionally with objects like shells or beads. The earliest extant examples of Palestinian embroidery can be found on dresses dating back to the 1840s; cross stitch (quṭbah fallāḥiyyah) is the stitch most commonly and strongly associated with Palestine and seems to have become ubiquitous by the end of the nineteenth century. Until 1948, Palestinian embroidery served to embellish primarily rural and Bedouin women’s clothing, including dresses (thawb, pl. athwāb), overcoats, headdresses, veils, and pants in discernable regional styles. On dresses, embroidery and applique work adorned the chest panel, along the shoulders, down the sides and along cuffs of the sleeves, and in bands along the front, back, sides and hem of the skirt.
Embroidery stitches, motifs, colors, and arrangements varied across space and time, with regional variations and period fashions impacting the look and style of the dresses and the embroidery patterns on them. Political upheavals and ensuing social and economic changes of the second half of the twentieth century impacted the style and dress of Palestinians and village women in particular, ultimately leading to an intense commodification of embroidery with radical shifts in its use and meaning.
Palestinian Embroidery in the Nineteenth and Early Twentieth Centuries
From the mid-nineteenth century to the 1940s, Palestinian embroidery was done using silk, gold, and silver threads on locally hand-woven, open weave textiles made from cotton, linen, and silk yarns imported from
Shifts in trade practices during the British Mandate period impacted the production of locally made fabrics and types of embroidery threads used, as well as embroidery styles. Varieties of finer European cotton, silk, and velvet cloth were imported on a larger scale; as a result, production of locally made textiles waned. Because of the finer weave of imported cloth, traditional embroiderers began using superimposed canvas weaves as guides, particularly when making cross-stitch patterns. Mercerized cotton threads, like those made by the French company DMC, were introduced to the Palestinian market in the 1920s and soon became more popular than Syrian silk floss. These new cotton threads not only added new colors to the repertoire of Palestinian embroidery; the growing popularity of more complex and figurative motifs – such as urns, human forms, or birds – in cross-stitch work during this period has been attributed in part to the pattern books and magazines that were sold with DMC threads.
Regional Embroidery Styles
The regional varieties of embroidered dresses worn by village and Bedouin women manifested in the type of embroidery and motifs; the arrangement of the motifs and their location on the dress; the colors of the embroidery threads and fabrics; and the style of the dress. Regional varieties of embroidery styles and patterns serve as strong visual cues about the wearer’s place of origin, wealth, and marital status. Styles changed over time, and evidence of inter- and intraregional borrowing of motifs is evident in surviving pieces. There were various opportunities for women to interact with residents of other villages; market days in nearby towns or holidays provided such occasions where women could mix and mingle, and they undoubtedly seized the opportunity to observe and copy unfamiliar embroidery patterns and motifs they saw.
The Bethlehem and
Some dresses and coats from the
The most intricate and complex embroidery patterns could be found in central Palestine, particularly in and around Bethlehem, Hebron, and
In central Palestine, it was customary for widowed women to stitch over their red embroidery with blue thread, or simply dye the stretches of embroidered panels blue. Likewise, the southern Bedouin women’s choice of embroidery color reflected marital status; until a girl married, she would wear the traditional black dress with blue embroidery, and only after marriage could she begin to wear dresses decorated with red embroidery thread.
Palestinian Embroidery from 1948 to the Present
A new style of dress was born out of the refugee camps during the 1960s, referred to as the “New Dress.” What made these dresses new was the embroidery on them, done almost entirely in cross-stitch and displaying an experimental mix of European and Palestinian patterns and new color combinations. This pastiche was a reflection of the cultural exchange occurring in the refugee camps, where life was lived in close proximity to others from villages or regions not one’s own. Women were thus exposed to a greater variety of embroidery styles, patterns and arrangements from other parts of Palestine, which they began to copy and include in their handiwork. Access to new foreign handicraft magazines and new colors of cotton embroidery threads compounded the mixture, creating a style of dress that was undeniably Palestinian but from no identifiable region—at once from nowhere and everywhere in Palestine. The New Dress’s appearance was the first step toward the transformation of embroidery from a vernacular that expressed village origins and social status to a symbol of Palestinian national identity. The most politicized manifestation of the New Dress was the “Intifada Dress,” made and worn during the popular uprising of the late 1980s and early 1990s. Women defied the Israeli ban on publicly displaying the Palestinian flag by embellishing new dresses with cross-stitched maps of Palestine, the acronym “
By the late 1960s and 1970s, the decision taken by community associations—like In‘aash al-Usra in Ramallah and In‘aash al-Mokhayyam al-Falastini in
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