This article is the second in a series based on Dr Reem el Mutwalli’s book Sultani: Traditions Renewed. Changes in women’s traditional dress in the United Arab Emirates during the reign of the late Shaykh Zayid Bin Sultan Al Nahyan, 1966-2004, which, in turn, is based on her PhD thesis in Islamic Art and Archaeology obtained from SOAS, University of London, UK, in 2007. Inspired by The Zay Initiative’s exhibition called Bū Tīlah wa Bū Glaym: Spots & Stripes at Zaman Awal in The Mall of the Emirates which focuses on examples of two forms of fabrics traditionally favoured in articles of UAE traditional dress. Here we give an overview of a wide range of fabrics and textiles traditionally used for women’s clothing in the UAE.
In this article, we focus on cotton and silk fabrics and the variety of terminology used to refer to these fabrics.
A fine delicately woven cotton muslin, either plain, sadah, or with a woven plaid pattern, bū ‘l-m’ayridh, meaning ‘the one with crossed lines’. Nil is named after nilah, the blue dye indigo used on this fabric. Nil was, and still is, mainly used for making the facemask, burgu, the bridal headscarf, shaylah, and the over garment, thawb.
The name comes from the Indian term meaning ‘the softest of the soft’ and is also known as melmel Hindi. It is a fine muslin that is extremely light, transparent, and delicate. It is inexpensive and mainly used for making the undergarments such as the sirwal. Both the plain coloured, sadah, and the printed, mishayâr or imshayâr, are used to make everyday housedresses, kanadir. This fabric is also known by other names in the local dialect such as chaf al-sâbi’, meaning lion’s palm, or khuf al-jamal, meaning camel’s foot. Both terms refer to the motifs printed onto the fabrics.
Kaymari, kimri, kamri
Similar in texture to melmel but slightly denser and heavier, it is mainly used for everyday wear and is available in various colours, and in both plain, sadah, or printed, mishayâr or imshayâr, with flowery motifs.
Another light and transparent Indian cotton is mainly used for daywear. It is slightly heavier than kaymarī. It is known to have a cooling effect on the body as it reflects the sun. It is available in sadah, mishayâr, and bu_tilah forms.
Another Indian cotton is used for daywear. Similar to kaymarī but more colourful and available in vibrant prints.
Bu_tilah, bu_Taylah, bu_rbu’, bu_l-rubīyât
This is Indian cotton evenly printed with dots or specks. The name means ‘the one with specks’. The most used version has larger white dots on a red, green, or yellow background. It is mostly used to make housedresses. The name bū l-rubīyât refers to the Indian rupee, as the dots resemble the size and shape of these coins.
Another Indian cotton that resembles the bu_tilah in look but not in texture. This version is adorned with protruding embroidered thread dots or specks in the same or contrasting colour. The black version of this fabric is reserved for making the headscarf or shaylah.
These terms are derived from the Persian word for silk, barisham. In the local dialect Ibrisam is used to refer to any type of silk, but most commonly refers to silk fabric that is soft, smooth, and shiny, and mostly used for making kandurah.
Silk fabric with a glossier surface on one side, otherwise known as satin. It is used for making kandurah, and the visible part, or cuff, badlah, of the sirwal. Other terms are often used for atlas, but these mostly indicate differences in the weight or designs of the satin fabric. Terms often overlap or are used interchangeably by women in the UAE and can be confusing. Here are a few examples:
Sayah – the name of a type of dress worn by both men and women in parts of the Arab world, especially Syria and Iraq. It is also known as zubun. This garment is almost always made of satin silk, hence the name. The fabric is always plain and devoid of patterns but available in many colours. It may also be striped.
Safwah – a term derived from the verb yastafī or istafa meaning to select the best out of a group. This sheer, light, transparent silk is the finest of fabrics.
Hassan yīsuf – seems to refer to a man’s name. Although no one knows for sure, it might be the name of a merchant who first sold this fabric locally. The name may also refer to the Arab phrase ‘hussin yīsuf’ meaning the beauty of Joseph, referring to the prophet’s beauty. This term is often used to refer to all things of exceptional beauty and may have acquired a different colloquial pronunciation. This fabric is used for women’s kandurah.
Bu_tayrah – a term used for highly transparent, lustrous, and delicate Chinese silk often embroidered with brilliantly coloured flowery designs against a vivid contrasting background. It was used for making two types of over-garment: the thawb myaza‘ and the thawb bu_nafah.
Bu_glaym, bu_nis’ah, sultani – also known as al-sadd al-âlī, or the high dam. It is used to make kandūrah and sirwal and is a dense, opaque fabric in brilliant colours with pencil stripes. It is soft and smooth in texture and quite lustrous. Sometimes some ornamentations were either printed or embroidered alongside the stripes. The term sultani means that which belongs to the Sultan, or ‘fit for a king’. It is also possible that this term evolved from the Sindhi term for undergarments – suthân.
In the next article in this series, we will look at embellished and synthetic fabrics used in traditional UAE dress.
*all images from the @sultanibookuae Instagram page. This page is managed by Dr Reem el Mutwalli and features images and stories of traditional UAE dress.