Palestinian Embroidery

Palestinian Embroidery
A Rich and Diverse National Heritage

View Chronology

Embroidery Produced by Women at Association for the Development of Palestinian Camps (INAASH) in Lebanon

The organization was founded by Huguette el-Khoury, daughter of President Bechara el-Khoury, and a group of Lebanese women in 1968 to break the isolation of Palestinian camps and empower refugee women after Lebanese law forbade their husbands from working. Sireen al-Husseini and other Palestinian women also contributed to the association.

The Palestinian Museum Digital Archive, INAASH Collection

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 Egypt , Syria , and England . (Some locally sourced cotton and woolen textiles were also produced in al-Majdal , Gaza , Nazareth , Bethlehem , and Beit Jala .) Most fabrics and threads were colored using natural dyes. Indigo, a commonly found plant in the Jordan Valley , was used to produce the deep blue color of many nineteenth and early twentieth century dresses. The hallmark red color of Palestinian embroidery came from the dye produced using native plants like madder and insects like kermes and cochineal. Embroidery patterns of the nineteenth century tended more toward abstract geometric shapes, such as chevron, eight-pointed stars, and squares, and stylized forms usually inspired by local flora and fauna, like the cypress tree (sarū), the palm tree (nakhleh), and the S-shaped leech (ullayq).

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 Hebron areas are renown for their couching work (taḥriri), a technique that allows for the creation of winding cord-like floral and other figurative motifs. Other stitches and techniques include applique and patchwork (often using silk taffeta, associated strongly with the Galilee , Hebron, and Nablus regions), needle weaving (strongly associated with the Hebron area), passementerie (Galilee), pulled and drawn thread work (while uncommon, examples have been found from early twentieth century Galilee and Hebron). Surviving dresses from the early twentieth century also provide evidence for the use of chain, satin, blanket, herringbone, buttonhole and other stitches.

Some dresses and coats from the al-Tira region (Galilee, in northern Palestine) display beautiful floral and foliage designs done in red and blue thread over white cotton garments. Dresses worn by village women in the Nablus and Tulkarm areas (straddling the divide between northern and central Palestine) were also exceptional in that their dresses were generally devoid of any embroidery work; usually made of white cotton or linen, the only form of embellishment were often colored stripes along the length of the gowns. The reasons for this deviation from the norm are unclear.

The most intricate and complex embroidery patterns could be found in central Palestine, particularly in and around Bethlehem, Hebron, and Ramallah . Dresses, head veils, hats, and jackets were often covered in beautiful and rich embroidery in a variety of stitches, the most common being the cross-stitch. Bethlehem was renowned for couching that was often done with gold or silver thread and which adorned dresses and velvet jackets with rich, floral motifs or medallion-like designs.

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

The Nakba of 1948 disrupted every facet of Palestinian life—political, economic, social, and cultural. Most historical surveys of Palestinian embroidery note the radical shifts that took place in traditional embroidery practice following the catastrophic events leading up to the Nakba and during its aftermath. Economic hardship and lack of access to the old, traditional market sources for cloth and threads meant that few new dresses were made in the late 1940s and 1950s; some women were so cash-strapped that they sold their dresses to appreciative buyers.  By the late 1950s and 1960s, remittances from Palestinian men and women working in the newly independent Arab Gulf states like Kuwait and Saudi Arabia eased the financial distress of many Palestinian families, and women were able to start buying materials for making new dresses again. For those living in the Jordanian camps, synthetic fabric was an available and inexpensive alternative to the traditional cotton or linen of their pre-Nakba lives. While some women embroidered by hand, machine embroidery became an acceptable alternative. A broader spectrum of embroidery thread colors, including variegated floss (muwannas), made their way into refugee women’s sewing baskets.

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 “PLO ,” the word “Palestine” in English and Arabic, and even flags using thread in the four colors—red, green, white, and black—of the Palestinian flag.  

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 Beirut —and the Palestinian revolutionary leadership to preserve Palestinian heritage against the double threat of disappearance (a consequence of displacement and modernization) and Israeli cultural appropriation also further politicized embroidery and cemented its status as a prominent symbol of national identity. Women from the refugee camps were hired by these organizations to embroider a myriad of products--dresses, jackets, scarves, bags, cushions, placements, table runners, other household items—in cross-stitch patterns that displayed the traditional Palestinian geometric or figurative patterns of yesteryear but in arrangements and color schemes that replicated the pastiche effect of the New Dresses.  While providing these embroiderers much needed income, these initiatives enabled the commodification of Palestinian embroidery work, as such pieces—whether high- or low-end—were now bought by (wealthier) Palestinians and others mostly as an act of solidarity and/or national self-fashioning. Today, mass-produced fabrics and ready-made dresses, both machine-embroidered in the ever-popular cross-stitch, have flooded the retail establishments of cities like Amman and Ramallah and are priced within the reach of a new generation of Palestinian women.

Selected Bibliography: 

Dedeman, Rachel. At the Seams: A Political History of Palestinian Embroidery. Ramallah: The Palestinian Museum, 2016.

Kawar, Widad Kamel. Threads of Identity: Preserving Palestinian Costume and Heritage. Nicosia: Rimal Publications, 2011.

Kawar, Widad Kamel, and Tania Tamari Nasir. Palestinian Embroidery: Traditional “Fallahi” cross-stitch. Beirut: al-Muʾassasa al-ʿarabiyyah li-l-dirāsāt wa-l-nashir, 2003.

Kawar, Widad and Vogelsang-Eastwood, Gillian. “An Introduction to Palestinian Embroidery.” In Gillian Vogelsang-Eastwood, ed., Encyclopedia of Embroidery from the Arab World, 341-353.  London: Bloomsbury Academic, 2016.

Kawar, Widad and Vogelsang-Eastwood, Gillian. “Palestinian Embroidery and Costume.” In Gillian Vogelsang-Eastwood, ed., Encyclopedia of Embroidery from the Arab World, 354-396. London: Bloomsbury Academic, 2016.

Munayyer, Hanan Karaman. Traditional Palestinian Costume: Origins and Evolution. Northampton, MA: Olive Branch Press, 2011.

Nasir, Tania Tamari. “The Traditional Palestinian Costume” (interview with Widad Kamel Kawar). Journal of Palestine Studies 10, no.1 (Autumn 1980): 118-129.

Nasir, Tania Tamari, OmarJoseph Nasser-Khoury and Shirabe Yamada, with Widad Kamel Kawar. Seventeen Embroidery Techniques from Palestine: an Instruction Manual. Jerusalem: Sunbula, 2019.

Sherwell, Tina. “Palestinian Costume, the Intifada and the Gendering of National Discourse.” Journal of Gender Studies 5, no.3 (1996): 293-303.

Skinner, Margarita. Palestinian Embroidery Motifs: A Treasure of Stitches 1850-1950. London: Melisende, 2007.

Stillman, Yedida Kalfon. Palestinian Costume and Jewelry. Albuquerque: University of New Mexico Press, 1979.

Weir, Shelagh. Palestinian Costume. Northampton, MA: Interlink Books, 2009.