by Estibaliz Sienra Iracheta

The artistry of textile production is one of the most ancient activities performed by humans, appearing since the beginnings of sedentary life and the rise of agriculture, as a mean to cover and protect the body from extreme climate conditions and to transport and preserve goods. The process for textile production involves different techniques, tools and stages, representing one of humankind’s essential technological accomplishments.  

In this context, weaving in Syria is considered an art, an activity that is still practiced by few groups: Bedouins in the deserts, at home by people living in rural areas, and in large cities by weavers organized into family workshops. Historically, different groups have developed different technologies, weaving techniques and types of weaves, using a diversity of tools and looms to create textiles with different characteristics and designs, making fabrics distinguishable by region.

Spinning and weaving

The Art of Syrian Textile Production
A woman spinning with a suspended spindle, © Karin Pütt (CC-BY-NC-ND)

Creating a textile begins with the obtention of fibres or filaments, and their processing into threads and yarns. This is done through a manual process known as spinning, which can be carried out by hand, by rolling fibres into a rope; with the use of a spindle, that drafts and twists fibres into a continuous thread; or with a spinning wheel, a mechanical device.

The stages of weaving are extremely laborious, beginning with a pre-weaving process, known as warping, in which threads are counted and layered to make a crossing between them. This activity is carried out by the al-musaddi, a person that is in charge of laying and making the warp. The mounting of the loom is done by by a leash-threader, the al-mulqi, who threads every single thread into the heddle and shafts. Once the threads were fitted into the loom, the weaver, known as an-nawwal, an-nassaj or al-ha’ik, could begin to work. Completing a fabric can take between a couple of days up to months.

The Art of Syrian Textile Production
A horizontal loom, © Estibaliz Sienra Iracheta (CC-BY-NC-ND)
The Art of Syrian Textile Production

A tablet-loom, © Estibaliz Sienra Iracheta (CC-BY-NC-ND)

The simplest type of loom used in Syria is the tablet-loom or shapar, used to produce narrow textiles, such as bands, belts and straps, by nomad straps, by nomad women and some professional weavers in cities. However, weaving fabrics require the use of bigger and more complex looms, like the horizontal loom, also known as nul. It is assumed that this manual loom first appeared in Syria around the mid-3rd Century (Wild, 1987, p. 22). Being lightweight and portable, the nul is usually used by nomad groups to make kilims or tapestry weaves.

The Art of Syrian Textile Production
A man weaving textiles with a pit-loom in Hama, © Museum für Islamische Kunst, Staatliche Museen zu Berlin, collection Stefan Weber (CC-BY-NC-SA)

Other common looms are those that are operated by shifting mechanical moveable parts, including the pedal looms, which activate the weaving mechanisms by stepping on pedals with the feet; the pit-loom, conveniently positioned inside a trench excavated on the ground to retain the moisture of cotton or wool threads; and the shaft-loom, a device that allows the weaving of more complicated patterns and designs, such as ikats. The draw-loom enables the creation of an extensive variety of weaving combinations, popularly used for weaving complex imageries, motifs and textures, like damasks and brocades. In most workshops, the use of the Jacquard machine loom, powered with electricity and computerised, has replaced manual looms, making the process automated for the production of industrial quantities.

Kilims and tapestry weaving

One of the most popular weaves in Syria and other parts of the Arab world is kilim, a tapestry technique that is used to produces a number of different objects like rugs, carpets, garments and bags – creating a robust and resilient fabric, that is usually made with wool threads. There are many variations of the tapestry techniques:Kilim is a plain weave, in which the weft is dense and tightly beaten downwards to completely hide the warp threads from the fabric. With the use of different colours and techniques, different shapes, designs and textures can be created.

Slitweave: used to create geometric and diagonal patterns on kilim weaves, in which the wefts are separated by blocks of colour and by leaving a slit between them.

The Art of Syrian Textile Production
Tapestry weaves, © Estibaliz Sienra Iracheta (CC-BY-NC-ND)

Shared warp: interlocking of the weft threads instead of leaving open slits. This is commonly done by using different colour weft blocks, giving a slightly blurred effect to the motifs.

Cicim: a procedure in which additional coloured yarns are interlaced to the warp and weft, giving a raised or couched effect to the designs. This is usually used to create small ornamental motifs, that can be scattered over the weave or arranged by series.

Zili: a type of float weave in which extra wefts are wrapped around the warps to form parallel cording.

Sumak:  the wrapping of warps in mathematical arrangements, to create free reliefs on the surface of the designs which give the impression of raised patterns. This is considered the most complicated technique, allowing the creation of a wide variety of motifs.

Weaves and fabrics

Weaving traditions were especially famous in the city of Damascus, from which the commonly renowned damask fabric received its name. Even the Queen of England asked for a silk damask for her coronation as a gift from Syria. Damasks are double-faced patterned fabrics, traditionally woven with silk and metal threads, which provide it with a characteristically shinny effect. Today, most damasks are produced with artificial threads, as cotton and lurex are cheaper and easier to acquire, using Jacquard looms. Damasks represent an important industrial activity, supported by the furniture upholstery markets in Syria and the world.  

The weaving of brocades is also extremely popular in Syria. The type of weave first appeared in China and later spread throughout the Middle East where the technique was perfectioned. Brocades are woven motifs or patterns on relief that are only visible on one side of the fabric. Lancé weaving was particularly famous in the city of Homs, where it was used to weave and decorate traditional silk scarves, with additional weft metal threads on the width of the weave to create short stripes floating on the design or squared geometrical figures.

Felt tapestries, also known as lubbad/lubabib in Arabic, are also produced in the small city of al-Bab. Unlike woven fabrics, the process for making felt consists in matting and pressing wool fibres together using a machine. Motifs of dyed wool are layed out on a mat of natural colour, to develop a woollen felt. The mat is then rolled and placed in a machine that presses the wool fibres together, compacting them into a tapestry. During her visit in Aleppo in 2008, Annegret Hafner documented the production of felt tapestries as part of her diary.

Watch footages from Syrian weavers

Draw-loom weaving in Hama

© Museum für Islamische Kunst, Staatliche Museen zu Berlin, collection Stefan Weber (CC-BY-NC-SA)

Pit-loom weaving in Hama

© Museum für Islamische Kunst, Staatliche Museen zu Berlin, collection Stefan Weber (CC-BY-NC-SA)

Shaft-loom weaving in Aleppo

© Mohamad Fllaha


Estibaliz Sienra Iracheta is a Doctorate candidate in World Heritage Studies at Brandenburgische Technische Universität Cottbus, and is a promoter and expert in traditional textiles. Estibaliz previously worked in the Ruth D. Lechuga Folk Art Collection of the Franz Mayer Museum and as a teacher at the Textile Restoration Workshop of the National School for Conservation, Restoration and Museography of the National Institute of Anthropology and History of Mexico.

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2 Comments

  1. Good afternoon,

    I stumbled onto your website today which I’m so happy to have found. I am a second generation Arab American artist with Syrian/Lebanese roots.

    I have been researching the silk industry in the Mt. Lebanon region pre1900’s. I am most interested in a labor movement lead by women that countered French industry managers trying to use their skills after a blight in the mulberry trees in Lyon, France.

    Do you have any information about this?

    Thank you for your time.

    Mary Ann Peters

    MARY ANN PETERS
    http://www.maryann-peters.com
    206 6242817

    1. Dear Mary Ann,
      thanks for reaching out to us. We don’t currently have specific information on this movement, however some insights on the relationship between the two countries is mentioned in an interview with a researcher also published on our website. If you haven’t already, this is the article article . Some useful information about the lives of women who work with silk production here might also be of interest to you.

      Your research sound very interesting. Don’t hesitate to contact us through the contact form if you have other questions about Syria, or if you would like to contribute a relevant research to our website.

      Content Management Team

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