Throughout our series on Cultural Dress in the UAE, we’ve mentioned embellishment in passing. In this article, we will look at the various types of embellishments in more detail, including the materials used to create it.

UAE National dress, The Zay Initiative


Cotton and Silk

Both cotton and silk threads were traditionally used to sew garments and to attach embellishments. These threads were pulled from the edge of the fabric used to make the garments. Two or three strands were twirled together to create a strong enough thread for durable hand stitching.

Pre 1950s, cotton threads extracted from cloth, were used to stitch cotton garments as well as more delicate, slippery fabric. These threads were also used for embroidery and to both plait and attach teli ribbons to garments. Later, manufactured cotton thread became available in black and white, imported from India. Today, threads of all colours are available and imported from across Asia, mostly from Indonesia.

Silk threads, known in the UAE as braylsam or ibraylsam (the same term used for silk fabric), are available in a multitude of colours and are used for both hand and machine embroidery. Originally imported from China but now, like cotton, from all across Asia.

Teli, UAE national Dress, The Zay Initiative

Metallic Threads

Two types of metallic threads are used in the UAE – zari and teli.

  • Zari is available in thin, flat, braided, or twisted forms and can be shiny, dull or lustrous. It is available in gold, silver or rainbow metallic lustres, and are imported from Japan, Indonesia or India.

“To make the zari thread, silver ingots are melted and beaten into flat, finger-sized bars. These silver bars are then wrapped three times in gold leaf, (the heavier the gold, the more yellow the thread will be). The wrapped bar is then heated until the gold diffuses with the silver. The metal is then pulled through perforated steel plates into thin wires, which are again beaten flat. The flat gold wire can be either used as such or wound around a core of lightly twisted silk or cotton threads.”  

Leela Cherian – textile artist. Extract from the Sultani Book by Dr Reem El Mutwalli
  • Teli is a Turkish word meaning silver or gold wire and is the name given to thin strips of silver or gold foil, about 4mm wide, that are plaited together with cotton threads to form bands of different widths. These bands are made in a similar manner as bobbin lace by manipulating and twisting the bobbin-wound threads while pinning it down on a small cylindrical pillow mounted on a kajujah – a support made of two metal funnels welded together. A special type of teli using real silver khus was used to decorate the badilah on the sirwal and had an inherent monetary value on top of its decorative qualities.
badilah, sirwal, The Zay Initiative
Close-up detail of the embellishment on the badilah

Decoration styles

Embellishments are for more than just decoration. It supports the edges and openings of garments, strengthens the fabric for attachments of fasteners and closers, and it hides unsightly seams and sewing lines.

Teli work on the neckline and cuffs of a kandurah

Teli work

Embroidery using teli strips are also called teli. As these strips are quite ridged it is usually applied in linear or geometric motifs in these areas:

  • The neckline and sleeve cuffs of the kandurah: Teli is applied in a single line following the edge of the garment. Up to four lines can be applied side by side. The line furthest from the edge might include circles or other motifs facing away from the edge.
  • The neckline and central portion of the bidinah on the thawb: The teli band follows the contours of the neckline forming a large outer square shape sometimes extending off the shoulders on the side, down to the breast line. From the bottom central point in the front of the garment the teli work might extend downwards in a rectangular shape to groin level.
  • The ankle line of the sirwal: The teli bands are placed next to each other in a linear pattern following the contours of the ankle line creating a bracelet effect near the bottom edge.
Tarchibah in pure silver machine embroidery. From the Sultani Collection. circa 1960


A prefabricated embroidered form that fits the neckline of the thawb. These ready-made machine-embroidered items were first imported from India but were soon locally made in both machine embroidery and teli. It follows the contours of the neckline in the front, ending on the shoulder line with a square outer edge. It consists of three portions:

  • A band of about 5cm wide, following the neckline, consisting of two lines of machine embroidery or teli on the edges filled with floral, Flora and fauna, or geometric patterns in-between.
  • Two triangular shapes to the left and right of the middle creating corners and a square outline. The colour and pattern match that of the band.
  • A long rectangular front panel extending from the neckline down to about the groin area. This vertical piece usually ends in a triangle, arrow or other distinct motif creating a medallion effect. The patterns and motif match those on the rest of the tarchibah.

The outer edge of the tarchibah is decorated with a row of embroidered motifs to hide the stitching line and to create a soft transition between the different elements of the garment.

UAE national dress
Stunning examples of minaqad decorated fabric used in everyday life. Khor Fakkan, 1975. Image from ‘A beginning of a nation’ and exhibition at the Empty Quarter featuring images by Anita van der Krol of Dubai in the late 1970s. 2014


Means decorated with silver coins and is derived from the word naqid or naqud meaning money. Minaqad is achieved by interlacing fabric with silver ribbons to form small, coin-shaped dots. It is only applied to open weave fabric as it has to be perforated and can thus only be used for a shaylah or a thawb. It is sometimes called ghindah and is mostly produced in Bahrain and the al-Ahsa region of Saudi Arabia.

A strip of silver is passed through two adjacent eyelets of the fabric with the ends bent back like a staple to secure it to the fabric. More pieces are then applied on top, first at a 90-degree angle and then at 45 degrees to form a star-shaped dot. These dots are placed in different linear formations to create patterns and motifs along the edge of a shaylah or on the neckline or sleeves of a thawb.

Imkhawar or machine embroidered embellishment on a thawb. From the Sultani Collection. 1980s

Imkhawar or Imzaray

Refers to machine embroidery and is also sometimes referred to as Khwar (origin unknown) or Zari, a reference to the Indian term for metal embroidery thread. As metallic threads are usually used in machine embroidery the term has become interchangeable and may refer to both the technique and the thread.

As a lining is used to support the heavy machine embroidery on the delicate fabric, this style of embellishment is often more rigid than the surrounding more delicate fabric. The linings are cut in the same shape as the embroidery, only wider, creating a ‘shadow’ underneath. Previously only white calico was used for the lining but today coloured satin that matches the colour of the garment are used.

Shak or beaded embroidery from the Sultani Book by Dr Reem El Mutwalli


Embroidery used to affix ribbons, beads, sequins and stones to fabric. The term is derived from the word shaka or yashuku meaning to prick with a needle.  These designs often originate from India and Pakistan via the tailors and embroiderers from these countries based in the Gulf. Different names are given to different types and styles of embroidery based on the type of beads and stones used.

Gemstone embellishments on a thawb. Sultani Collection


This is a more modern style of decoration and refers to gemstones. During the 1980s coloured crystal gemstones in all shapes and sizes became popular. These stones have a glue backing and can be ironed onto fabric. It is available as individual stones to create your own designs or as readymade designs and clusters to be attached to cuffs, necklines and hems of thawbs and abayas or as border decorations on a shaylah.

Maghribi or Moroccan embellishment on a waistcoat. From the Sultani Collection


Refers to a Moroccan style of embellishment introduced in the UAE in the late 1980s. It consists of various thicknesses of rope-like threads or ribbons that are attached to fabric through a combination of knots and needlework with lace or crochet appearance. These garments are made in Morocco and imported to the UAE.

Moroccan kaftan with Kroshay embellishment. Sultani Collection


The Arabian version of crochet introduced to the UAE in the 2000s. Sometimes crystal beads are added in the trim or on the end of fringes.

Teli bands waiting to be worked onto garments

As with fashion in other parts of the world, the women of the UAE were constantly being influenced by new inventions and global trends. The combination of rapid economic growth and a proud adherence to tradition and culture in the UAE allowed women to incorporate modern trends and new inventions in fashion and embellishments from both the East and the West into their way of dressing, creating a unique heritage that we here at the Zay Foundation is privileged to promote and protect.