The Handwoven History of Palestine and Jordan

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Explore the beautiful fabrics, dyes and embroidery techniques from ten regions in Palestine and Jordan

The handwoven history of Palestine and Jordan
Traditionally women embroidered hand-woven fabrics made of linen, cotton or a blend of both fibers. They also sometimes embroidered on silk, using silk or metal threads. Till the end of the 19th century, textile production flourished in the region which has been called Palestine. The fabrics were woven in the areas of Al Majdal, Gaza, Ramallah, Nazareth, Hebron and Nablus. However, luxurious fabrics, such as silk, satin and brocades, came from Syria. The production facilities in Damascus, Aleppo, Homs and Hama have always been and are still famous.

Overview of the various styles of Palestinian and Jordanian dress

The colors and dyeing techniques

The embroidery thread consisted of naturally dyed silk and was made in Syria. But since the 1930s, threads imported from Europe have been commonly used.

For the coloring, predominantly herbal mixtures, preserved by Fermentation were used. The most important dye was indigo (indigofera argentina) with which one could dye the fabric in different shades of blue. The darker the resulting color was, the greater the effort that had to be made and the more precious became the final material. To dye fabrics a darker shade, the process of dipping the fabric had to be repeated over and over again.

Carmine was used to create an intensely bright red. This dye was obtained from the cochineal insect which breeds on cactus. Red was also obtained from madder, a root of the native common madder plant (rub tinctorum). If mixed indigo and common madder bring forth purple and orange tones. Yellow was produced with saffron (crocus sativus). Any color could be made darker by adding pomegranate rind.

The embroidery styles

Cross-stitch was the most famous technique used everywhere in Palestine, except for the areas of Galilee, Bethlehem and Jerusalem. Cross-stitch is also called fallahy, because this type of embroidery was mainly done by peasant women who are called fallaheen in Arabic. In Bethlehem, Jerusalem and the surrounding areas, couching embroidery was particularly popular. With this technique, cording of silk or silver thread dipped in gold water was stitched to the fabric.

Dresses from Ramallah were often made of natural light-coloured linen or linen that was almost black. The dark colour was achieved by a process of dipping the fabric nine times in indigo dye. The patterns were geometric, but around 1879, floral and other new designs started to appear. Those new cross-stitch designs were copied from the pattern sheets of the Quakers, who established two boarding schools in Ramallah in 1870. 

Summer Dress

Ramallah dresses are well known for their wine-red cross-stitch, embroidered on hand-loomed linen called roumi. The town Ramallah, whose name means ‘the hill of God’ in Arabic, is known as a popular summer resort for Palestine and neighboring Arab countries.

Dresses in Ramallah change color by season; for summer, women use white linen, and in winter, black. The embroidery is based on geometric patterns, and is placed all over, including on the back. One can distinguish the back of a Ramallah dress by the palm tree pattern on the lower section of it.

The fabrics for the garments of the Gaza region were all woven in Al Majdal, which was the largest and most important textile manufacturing center of the region. Up to the mid-19th century, it was still equipped with more than 500 active looms. The typical Gaza fabrics made of linen and cotton were distinguished by colored side borders. This type of material is called Beltaji, named after one of the most famous weaver families. 

Gaza patterns are unique to the area, and are different from the rest of Palestine.

Dress from Gaza

This dress, made of fine linen dyed with indigo, has a semi-round V-shaped neckline, and is embroidered mainly with a pattern called qeladeh, which means necklace.

Because the pattern forms a necklace around the neck of the dress, a woman doesn’t have to wear jewelry. The chest panel (qabbeh) is embroidered with cross stitch. The sleeves are regular and of fabric called biltaji. The side panels (banayek) are very delicately embroidered with cross stitch. One of the special features of this dress is the way the patterns fit together to form large units of embroidery down the sides. When many patterns are squeezed together, they are called wisadeh. On this dress, you can also see a large diamond shape, known as scissors.

Traditionally, the fabric for Gaza-area costumes was woven in Majdal. These costumes had a wide variety of cuts, including the wide cut of Faluja and the slim cut of Isdud, which is worn beltless. It is the only dress in Gaza to be worn without a belt.

A dress from Hebron could be made of different materials, but the basic color was always dark blue and the embroidery was always done in cross-stitch. Festive garments often had tailes patterns, as well as a pattern called the Tents of the Pasha. The dresses are remarkable for their full embroidery, known as Tallis. Tallis means completely covered or filled, and signifies that the decorated part is covered with cross-stitch embroidery, so that the raw material is no longer visible. This type of embroidery is regarded as particularly valuable, due to the effort that is involved in its making. 

Hebron Textile Fragment with Indigo

Likely from a woman's everyday dress. Made of linen and silk thread. It is an example of Tallis embroidery.

Bethlehem became the fashion center of Palestine due to the development of the technique of couching embroidery, which resembled styles found in Turkey, Greece and Persia. Not only the techniques were noteworthy; Bethlehem also had its own distinctive patterns which were applied to specific parts of the dresses, making them clearly recognizable as Bethlehem styles. For example, the sleeves were embroidered with a pattern called “watches” in couching technique, repeated three times. So were the side panels, which in addition had a pattern called “tree of life” in cross-stitch evolving above the “watches”.  Beside each "tree of life" are patterns of two "children", one on each side, all along the sides of the dress, as if life goes through one's children, to the future.  

Malak dress

The malak is a glamorous costume decorated with the couching tahriry stitch, which started in Bethlehem and nearby Beit Jala and spread to Beit Sahour and villages around Jerusalem. It is unlike the embroidery of any other part of Palestine.

The dress is embroidered with geometric patterns, outlined in gold or silver cords on the chest and sides of the dress. One feature that makes the malak dress special is its fabric, which is hand woven silk and linen, made in Bethlehem, and comes in stripes of black, red, green and orange. The different pieces of fabric are connected with the manajel stitch in silk thread of many colors.

It was customary to be married in this dress, not only in Bethlehem, but in many Palestinian villages. Women also saved one of their malak costumes to be buried in. As a result, many of the finest dresses have been lost. In the second half of the 20th century, production of this style declined, to the point that at present, it is hard to find a woman in Bethlehem who wears the malak dress.

Khaddameh dress

This dress, called khaddameh, was made for daily use in Bethlehem. The main differences between this dress and the malak lay in the fabric and embroidery.

Khaddameh vs. Malak dress

While the malak is made of silk and linen striped fabric specific to Bethlehem, the khaddameh uses plain linen without stripes. Similarly, the malak is embroidered on the chest panel and sides with an ornate couching stitch, while the khaddemeh’s chest panel is embroidered with the simpler and less costly cross stitch. The sleeves of this dress are done in the kumm ‘irdan style in which the sleeves are long, pointed, and triangular. The wearer of this dress would tie the two sleeves behind her back while working to make movement easier. Khaddama means service in Arabic, and this dress is for everyday service.

The embroidery work from the Jaffa area is characterised by precision and delicacy. The stitches are petite, the patterns detailed and the overall effect of the dress is elegant. The most famous garments of this area are the dresses from Bait Dajan, which was a large village near Jaffa. Jaffa is home to the unique Jaffa orange; therefore, the motif of the orange blossom was especially popular in the local embroidery.  Trees often come on the border of the dress.  They symbolize the trees that women planted as a natural wall around their farms.  
The clothes in Galilee differed from the other areas of Palestine. In fact they were more similar to the styles in Syria and Lebanon. Keeping this in mind, one wonders the reason for the difference. Garments from Galilee were only sparsely embroidered, if at all. Galilee women worked alongside the men in the fields. In this context, embroidery was considered a waste of time, giving rise to the proverb that says: ”Lack of work teaches embroidery.”

Woman wearing traditional attire from Galilee

In Nablus and Tulkarim, which are part of the lower Galilee, women wore festive dresses with green and red stripes, called "Heaven and Hell." The dress has little embroidery and large pointed sleeves.

There were other Galilee festive costumes, known as Jellaye, which were open in front with delicate and colorful silk patchwork on the front and back of the dress. These were mostly found in upper Galilee.

The dress of the nomadic bedouin of Bir Sabaa, always made of black fabric, was longer and wider than that of the sedentary population. The color of the embroidery thread denoted the marital status of the woman. As a bride, she decorated her costume with embroidery of various shades of red. In case she was widowed, she added embroidery with blue thread, the color of mourning. If she remarried, she embroidered pink or red accents on top of the blue. 

Close-up of wool belt and skirt from Southern Palestine

Worn by Bedouin of Southern Palestine. Cowrie shells on the belt have amuletic properties, as do patterns on dress and belt.

Dress of Naqab Bedouin

Compared to village dresses, those of the Naqab Bedouin are more voluminous with longer, winged sleeves and denser embroidery on the front and back of the skirt, using a repeated geometrical pattern.

The dresses were originally made of hand woven, indigo-dyed fabric, although in the 1920s this changed to machine-woven cotton bought in Bir Saba’ or Gaza. At the bottom of the dress is a 5-centimeter band of running stitch done in blue thread, to protect the hem from wear and tear.

The Bedouin also believed that this band protected the wearer from the evil eye. Each tribe had its own distinctive style. The shape of the qabeh, or chest panel, varied from tribe to tribe, and was sometimes replaced by a narrow piece of red silk, rather than embroidery. In some tribes, widows had blue embroidery on their costume to show their status. If a widow remarried, she added pink embroidery to the blue.

Irbid and Ajloun
Geographically, North Jordan is part of the plain of Houran which extends into southern Syria. Therefore the influence of the Houran style on clothing in North Jordan was tremendous. These clothes were made of a black and blue fabric, with one of the two colors dominating. The dresses in northern Jordan were worn in single length without a belt and had long, narrow sleeves. The neckline, the sleeves, the side panels and the hemline were embroidered. The embroidery stitch was done with different colored silk threads, and was usually limited to decorating seams. Around the hem were often 2cm wide bands embroidered in a stitch called raqma, and different patterns were arranged by contrasting the stitching with the fabric beneath. 

Shirsh Shakhat dress

Shakhat means 'slices' in the Jordanian dialect. In this dress from Irbid, in the north of Jordan, the shakhat were blue strips that ran up the sides of the dress, and gave it its name (from washing and use, these strips now appear almost white).

Needle, daughter of the needle

The shakhat are a distinctive feature, along with the embroidery, raqmeh, which uses the black fabric underneath as part of its design. The dress is often worn for weddings or other festivities, then turned into an everyday dress. It was embroidered using a technique popular in the region, called Ibreh bint Ibreh, meaning ‘needle, daughter of the needle.’

Kerak and Es Salt
The dresses in central and southern Jordan were double length with the excess fabric draped over the belt to form a pocket; they had long, usually pointed sleeves. The materials were not woven in Jordan but imported from Palestine or Syria. The embroidery designs on dresses in Kerak show the influence of Palestinian embroidery. It is said that this was due to Palestinian immigrants who settled in Kerak even before the First World War.  At that time, there were not borders in the region, and migration back and forth between what is now Palestine and Jordan was common.  Migration was especially strong between Kerak and Hebron.  

Salt dress

The Salt dress is distinctive for its size; especially the length of the dress’s skirt and sleeves. The women wear it in what is called a double-drape; that is, a woman belts the dress, so that one layer hangs down over another, sometimes almost to her feet. This creates a useful pocket at the wearer’s waist.

The dress requires sixteen meters of dubeit fabric. Blue bands of indigo-dyed fabric run vertically on the sides and sleeves, and also around the hem. These bands both strengthen and enhance the beauty of the dress. Salt has always been a prominent market center, and has drawn Bedouins and villagers from the surrounding area.

One can see the influence of the Salt dress in the costumes of other regions in Jordan (though, on a reduced scale.)

Only one area in Jordan, Ma’an, preferred colored fabrics. The town was a station on the Hejaz railway from Istanbul, a meeting place for pilgrims headed for Mecca. To cover travel expenses, pilgrims from Syria brought along hand-woven silk fabrics to sell in Ma’an, and this trade left its mark on the local costumes. 

Ma'an, Thawb Heremzy

The bridal dress of Ma'an, called a thawb heremzy, is made from panels of red and green silk fabric, which is hand woven in Syria. It has a large cut with minimal embroidery and uses a running stitch on the seams and neck. One sleeve is larger than the other, to help the woman cover head with it if she needs to. The women of Ma'an used similar fabrics to make embroidered pillows which they used to decorate the house.

All these dresses and styles of Jordan and Palestine speak to a flourishing and unique craft, and the influence of women on fashion and dress in the region.

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