Monday, 30 July 2018

Textiles from the Arab World: A dress from Palestine

I am working on the Esmée Fairbairn-funded Multaka-Oxford project. As the Collections Officer, part of my role is cataloguing a recent offer of textiles collected from across the Middle-East and North Africa, which the museum is in the process of acquiring. Costume and textile collections are some of my favourite to work with, particularly because how we dress can say so much about us. As such, costume and textile objects will be a great jumping off point for discussions with our volunteers and participants.

Lately I’ve been working on textiles that were collected from Palestine, like this beautifully embroidered dress:

This traditional dress (thōb) is probably from either Ramallah or Bethlehem and likely made around the 1920s-30s. It is made from hand woven natural linen and decorated with distinctive red silk embroidery. The silk would likely have been imported from Syria. The dress shows many of the features of traditional Palestinian costume, including the rich colour of the threads and the square chest panel (Qabbah) with embroidered motifs.  

The embroidery on the dress is mainly in cross-stitch and couching, and features beautiful geometric, floral and foliate patterns. Such motifs and how they are laid out is significant in traditional Palestinian embroidery, saying a great deal about who made it and where it was from. Creating embroidered dress was (and is) traditionally an art carried out by Palestinian women, passed down through families, and the particular patterns are deeply tired to identity. Specific motifs may speak to family, age, social status or location - even down to a particular village!

                                                                                       This dress features motifs such as ‘feathers’:

‘Moon of Bethlehem’ (or possibly ‘Moon of Ramallah’):

The weave of the linen on this dress is quite open, which makes it easier to produce counted thread embroidery, such as cross-stitch.

I love being able to see the smaller details, such as the reverse of the embroidery and the clearly hand-finished hems. As someone who sews, knits and embroiders in my spare time, the care, skill and patience involved in producing a dress like this is inspiring. There is so much to look at and think about!

Abigael Flack
Collections Officer

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