by Estibaliz Sienra Iracheta
The ornamentation of textiles relates to their outward appearance, while simultaneously symbolizing their inward significance. They cover a wide range of human needs, further conveying meanings related to family and community ties, class and economic status, leisure and play, spirituality and religious faith, among others. The decoration of textiles is frequently used to express meanings, messages and aesthetics, demonstrating a myriad of skills that tangibly communicate the creativity of Syrian textile producers.
Traditional costumes differ in their cut, colour and uses, but more evidently in their ornamentation. The techniques which embellish and adorn fabrics represented an important economic and occupational activity for both women and men in Syria. Embroidery is perhaps the most common and important of the textile crafts still being practiced at home – since the activity is simple, and the yarns and threads can be easily acquired in local markets for a good price. However, further research would be needed to verify if traditional motifs and colours are still used.
Usually practiced by women, the knowledge of adorning clothes with thread and needle has been transmitted from generation to generation, as an activity that is practiced in every type of household. Traditionally, embroidery has represented an important mean to distinguish people from a particular region, as embroidered garments have their own distinctive style. style. “Older women can tell the village and sometimes even the embroiderer of a particular dress” (Gillow, p.104). The patterns, colours and motifs, albeit being restricted to 10 to 15 elements, not only reveal the creativity of the embroiderer, but a variety of stitches and skills which express symbolisms that were closely related to religious or folkloric beliefs.
In as-Sukhna and Saraqib, cross-stitch embroidery adorned dark fabrics with different shades of red, originating from the belief that the colour possessed “magic qualities, increases fertility and provided protection from spirits and the evil eye” (Zernickel, p.172). In these regions, the colour red was also related to joy, wealth and summer.
Choice of colour in embroidery was also representative of religious notions, as it was the case with the Druzes, who favoured a monochromatic use of white and black on their garments. For people from this ethnic background, white symbolizes purity and wisdom, while the colour black represents darkness, death and transformation. Embroidery was usually present in clothing to express cultural beliefs but was also used to decorate functional objects, like the mikhala, a protective mirror, embroidered with zigzag patterns, frequently found in households “to avert the evil eye” (Paine, p.159).
The selection of motifs for embroidery could also be inspired by ancient iconographies, the observation of the environment and by the cultural exchanges between regions. In northern Syria, the most common elements of embroidery were carnations, geometrized into hexagonal shapes. The flowers were stylized into rows to form “railway lines”, a motif that has also been found in Coptic textiles dating back to the Middle Ages (Paine, p.70). The use of “the tree of life” in the southern regions were also popular, as it was reminiscent to the sacred trees, worshipped by the Phoenicians (Paine, p.72).
Anthropomorphic motifs are rare in Islamic embroidery. Most motifs tended to be inspired by the natural environment and other designs found in the immediate surroundings, including decorative elements found in pottery or mosaics. Some pieces of embroider from the region of Qalamoun allude to Islamic minarets. In as-Sukhna, the most common patterns represent palms and cypresses, reflecting the natural surroundings of women living near the oasis. Similar motifs could also be found in the region of the as-Safira, as marital links between the two areas was common (Paine, p.124).
The cities of Damascus and Aleppo were also renowned for aghabani fabrics, which in modern days are produced with the help of embroidery machines. Purportedly, the name of the fabric was inspired by the names of the families who invented this decorative technique: the Al-Agha and Al-Bani families from Aleppo (Uttu Textiles, 2015). The process begins with the printing of the patterns directly onto the fabric, using wooden carved stamping moulds, and hileh, a blue, starchy dye. Once the printing of the fabric is completed, it is sent to the embroidery workshops. In Damascus, most of these workshops where located in the rural area of Douma. In her article, Rania Kataf sheds light on the women of Douma who are working with Aghabani and the effect of the Syrian war on this traditional handcraft. Embroiders fill the stamped designs with chain-stitches. If the entire design is filled, the piece is known as a ‘tals’, whereas delineated patterns are called ‘rush’ (Uttu Textiles, 2015). As the activity is carried by women, embroidery machines were traditionally given to new brides as part of their trousseau. Once embroidered – in a process that takes between 4 to 5 hours to finish one piece – the fabric is returned to the printer and washed in a washing machine to remove the printed blue patterns. The pieces are hanged to dry under the sun, and later ironed with an ironing cylinder, before being send to the markets to sell. The technique is used for decorating scarves, mantel pieces, galabiyya coats and organza wedding dresses.
Appliqué and patchwork
Appliqué and patchwork are also common techniques of needlework decoration. Appliqué consists of stitching pieces of fabric onto a larger one, to form a patterns or designs; while patchwork involves stitching together previously cut-out pieces of fabric together, until a larger fabric is completed. Bot techniques are used to decorate garments and tents, especially among Bedouin communities.
The Levant region is globally recognized for the mastery and beauty of their dyed textiles. Syrian cities like Aleppo, Damascus, Hama and Homs were once famous for their ikats and printed clothes, as well as for the skills of their dyers or as-sabbagh, the craft masters who worked on a variety of resist-dyeing techniques: the diverse processes that use different substances and methods to block the penetration of colour in a selected area of a fabric or threads to create patterns or motifs.
Archaeological evidence from textiles found in Palmyra demonstrated the usage of a variety of animal and vegetal dyes in the territories of Syria, including Tyrian purple, obtained from the mucous secretion of several species of sea snails from the Muricidae family, found on the rocky coasts of the eastern Mediterranean Sea. Also known as Imperial purple, the obtention of the dye involved the usage of tens of thousands of sea snails, making the coloured textiles extremely expensive and the dye being valued higher than gold in the ancient Near East.
The antique textiles also showed that the red to yellow tones came from the use of insects like the Kermes vermilio, a parasite from the kermes oak; and the Kerria lacca. The roots form the Rubia tinctorum plant, usually known as madder, were also present in the vestiges (Böhmer & Recep, 2003).
Historically, the use of indigo plant has been widespread in Asia, being used in Syrian territories since immemorable times. Until very recently, the production of indigo was still present in the memory of old craft dyers from the cities of Aleppo, Damascus, Jisr al-Shughur, Najiyyeh, Idlib, Dana and Mahardi (Balfour-Paul, 1996, p. 99). The process for obtaining the blue dye involved the harvesting of the Indigofera tinctoria plant and its successive fermentation and oxidation in tubs, which produced a muddy residue that was then dried. This resulting product – the indigo dye – was then dried to be traded or stored. Once added into a liquid solution, textiles and threads could be immersed for some minutes, until the desired shades were obtained. Indigo dyeing could achieve a variety of hues, from a light blue to an almost black, depending on the number of immersions in the indigo vat.
However, by the 1980’s the use and production of natural dyes – being a time consuming and more expensive process – had been completely replaced by chemical dyes, which were cheaper and easier to acquire in markets.
In Hama, the process of tie-dye or plangi was done by women and involved the tying and knotting individual sections of a fabric, and traditionally of a dress called thob izzi, to form small pellet-like bunches. The fabric was dyed and unknotted to reveal “geometrical forms (rhombuses, triangles, circles), and sometimes stylized blossoms, lozenges and trees of life” in the areas which had been previously protected by the knots (Zernickel, p. 194).
Lime-resist dyeing on aniline black was also practiced in workshops in Aleppo by male printers, known as tabba. This method consisted of using wooden carved padded stamps with different motifs (qalib) to apply lime on cloth. The piece was then placed in a pot with black aniline to be dyed for a couple of hours, and later rinsed under running water to remove the lime. After drying, the piece was taken back to the workshop, where men printed the undyed areas with different colours using the same carved stamps.
Ikat or tarbit
The methods and processes of traditional resist-dyeing techniques are arduous and complicated, especially for the production of ikat, which involves knotting and dyeing individual groups of threads to create resist-designs on the warp and weft before it being mounted on the loom and woven into a fabric. Originally stemming from the Indonesian word ikat, in Syria the technique is known as tarbit and had been practiced in the city of Aleppo by entire families who learnt the craft from the ikateurs or rabbât. The trade was transmitted and learnt from grandfathers to fathers and later to sons, who worked in family workshops.
The process of creating ikat is extremely complicated and time-consuming, since the threads have to be first carefully arranged in specific lengths and groups, then carefully tied by hand to create the patterns and eventually dyed. If different colours want to be applied, the process has to be repeated over and over again until the desired results are achieved. Even though the designs are mostly linear or geometric seeming simple at first glance, the process of creating and matching the undyed sections and weaving them to form larger shapes is extremely complicated and laborious. Unlike the other methods, tarbit requires the effort and knowledge of different specialists who perform diverse activities throughout the entire process.
A Syrian tarbit workshop was usually constituted by a thread twister who was in charge of unravelling the yarns for the warp; a warp-layer, who dispossessed and arranged the threads in vertical position; an ikateur, who tied and created the designs on the threads; a dyer, in charge of colouring; a leash-threader, who untied the knots; and finally, the weavers, who prepared the loom and weaved the threads into a fabric. This technique was used to ornament and create bath cloths (mi´zar) as well as “bolsters for chairs, cushion covers, for coats and clothing materials” (Zernickel, p. 200). As in most regions of the world, the use of natural dyes was relegated by the use of chemical dyes or anilines which were cheaper and easier to obtain.
Block-printed cloths have a history of use in Syria dating back to the 3rd Century as suggested by material evidence retrieved from excavations in the ancient city of Palmyra (Robinson, 1969, p. 34).
This technique consists of using wooden carved stamps with different motifs, which are printed onto a fabric with colored inks to create a larger pattern. Multi-colored fabrics can be created by using several carved blocks, that are individually inked and applied one color at the time. Block-printing was particularly popular for decorating habari, a silk shawl used by women to cover their hair during festivities.
According to Rania Kataf, block-printing was produced in two areas in the old city of Damascus: in Khan al-Dikkeh near the suq Midhat Basha and in the Jewish Quarter. Some of the most well-known wood block printers in Khan al-Dikkeh were the males from a family known as al-Tabbaa, meaning ‘the ink printers’, and the Sassoons in the Jewish quarter. It is believed that these delicate crafts could only be produced by sensitive hands, as the technique requires extreme precision to perfectly fit the motifs into repetitive patterns without making any mistakes.
Serigraphy, a method of creating an image on fabric by pressing ink through a screen with areas blocked off by a stencil, took over the printing with wooden blocks. One of the most famous screen-printing workshops in Aleppo was owned by the Roumiyyeh brothers, who produced mantel pieces and foulards. Serigraphy consists in transferring an inked dye through a mesh tensed onto a frame, where the designs are created with an emulsion, blocking the penetration of dyes on to a fabric. This printing system is repetitive and once the first frame is created, it can be used many times. Different frames with the same designs are used to add different colors to a fabric. Serigraphy was used to print shawls of silk, nylon or polyester, in red, black and white, and were usually bought by Bedouin women to cover their hair.
Balfour-Paul, Jenny (1996) Indigo in the Arab World. London: Routledge.
Böhmer, H. & Recep K. (2003) New dye research on Palmyra textiles. Dyes in History and Archaeology, Vol. 19. London: Archetype.
Damascus (2019) Al-Aghabani Videos. Available at: http://www.lovedamascus.com/en/syrian-handicrafts/al-aghabani (Accessed 20/12/2019)
Gillow, John. (2015) Textiles of the Islamic World. Thames and Hudson. London, UK.
Kataf, Rania. What remains of the Silk Road? (article of the Interactive Heritage Map not yet published)
Mabelé, Claude (2012) Les artisans du textile. Magellane & Cia.
Paine, Sheila. (1995) Embroidered Textiles: Traditional Patterns from Five Continents. Thames and Hudson. London, UK.
Robinson, S. (1969). A History of Printed Textiles. London: W & J Mackay & Co lt.
Uttu Textiles (2015) Aghabani Fabrics. Available at: http://www.uttu-textiles.com/aghabani-fabrics/ (Accessed 20/12/2019).
Zernickel, Maria (1992) Making Arab Clothes. In: The arts and crafts of Syria. Ed. Johannes Kalter. UK: Thames and Hudson.
Zernickel, Maria (1992) Textile Techniques. Embroidery, Application, Patchwork. In: The arts and crafts of Syria. Ed. Johannes Kalter. UK: Thames and Hudson.
Feature Image: © Rania Kataf (CC-BY-NC-ND).
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.