Palestinian embroidery is mostly associated with cross-stitch patterns. Dresses, or thobs, colourfully decorated and richly embroidered in cross-stitch motifs and patterns are what most people, rightly so, associate with Palestinian traditional embroidery. But there is one area in Palestine famous for a different style of embroidery. In the early 20th century women from Bethlehem and the surrounding villages were well-known and admired for their malak, or royal costumes, decorated with couching or tahriry embroidery.
Bethlehem society in the early 1900s
Before the occupation, Bethlehem was a prosperous town with a thriving weaving and embroidery industry. It was home to several religious orders, some of whom introduced different skills and crafts into the community. It is thought that the ecclesiastical embroidery used by the church might have influenced this style of couching embroidery. As Bethlehem was a popular tourist and pilgrimage destination, as well as a commercial hub, the craft industry blossomed along with the economy of the town.
The Bethlehem costume is called royal because it is so rich that it is described as ‘the queen of dresses’ in Palestine. Indeed, it is made of a blend of silk and linen, woven in bright multi-coloured stripes. Over the dress comes a short-sleeved jacket that glistens with embroidery. With this costume, women wear high, fez-like headdresses bearing the glinting coins of their dowry, crowned by a sheer shawl. Religious harmony was demonstrated by the fact that both Christians and Muslims wore the same style, with Christian women adding a small cross on the chest panel of their costumes.
(p.136-137 Threads of Identity – Preserving Palestinian Costume and Heritage by Widad Kamel Kawar)
Wedding dresses and trousseau
This ‘royal’ fashion trend set by the women of the Bethlehem elite, was followed by the women from the surrounding villages who chose to wear the malak costume as their wedding dress. While the townswomen tend to wear more classical styles with a limited amount of embroidery on the sides and sleeves, the village women preferred heavily embroidered dresses.
The malak was the most important item for a trousseau and was always donated by the groom. The provision of the headdress, or shatweh, with coins and the jewellery for the marriage, was the responsibility of the bride’s father and was looked upon as the rightful share of the bride-price. The shatweh was essential for the wedding dress. A festive veil was worn over it.
(p.15 Palestinian embroidery motifs 1850-1950. A Treasury of Stitches by Margarita Skinner in association with Widad Kamel Kawar)
Just as it became fashionable to be married wearing a malak, so it also became a custom to be buried in one, and some of the best examples of malak dresses were lost that way.
As the market for these dresses grew after 1920, many women in Bethlehem became professional seamstresses and embroiderers, working on orders from other parts of Palestine. Having trousseau from Bethlehem became a status symbol, and Bethlehem sleeves or chest panels began to appear on dresses in Ramallah and Jaffa.
Stories from the women embroiderers of Bethlehem
In her book Threads of Identity, Widad Kawar tells the stories of four women she knew personally who played a significant role in not only creating beautiful tahriry embroidery and malak outfits but in spreading its legacy across the rest of Palestine and beyond. Women from Beit Dajan and villages in the Jaffa area were very fond of a style introduced by Manneh Hazboun, who added Bethlehem couching to pieces already decorated with the local cross-stitch designs. Her designs became so popular that she started her own business.
She would take the Beit Dajan embroidery pieces to Bethlehem to be embellished by Jamila Hazboun Mahyub, or at the workshops run by the Hazbouns. At first, the work added in Bethlehem consisted only of rose branches on the skirt, but then some wanted it on the chest panel too. Later on, Manneh’s mother and brother help her start a workshop where she taught Beit Dajan girls Bethlehem style embroidery, including new connecting stitches, couching, and applique.
(p.158 Threads of Identity – Preserving Palestinian Costume and Heritage by Widad Kamel Kawar)
Jamila Hazboun Mahyub, a full-time embroiderer with a career spanning 40 years (1915-1945), had an embroidery workshop in Bethlehem employing 40 women and girls. She specialised in creating bridal trousseau. Her work was so famous that women came from as far away as Ramallah to obtain Bethlehem-embroidered sleeves to add to their dresses. She often created new designs, and many of the now popular designs with names such as raisins, sugar cubes, nuts, and apple blossoms were invented by her.
After the war in 1948 Jamila’s business steadily declined as people disappeared into refugee camps, and she closed her shop in 1956. Jamila gave her last remaining embroidery samples showing the steps for making a pattern, her wooden spool with silk threads and a photo of herself to Widad Kawar on one of her last visits. “They are for your museum.”
The malak dresses were in high demand but were only meant for special occasions and weddings. Women in Bethlehem wore similar but more utilitarian dresses for daily use known as khaddameh, meaning ‘service’ in Arabic.
While the malak is made of striped silk and linen fabric specific to Bethlehem, the khaddameh uses plain linen without stripes. Similarly, the malak is embroidered on the chest panel and sides with an ornate couching stitch, while the khaddemeh’s chest panel is embroidered with the simpler and less costly cross stitch. The sleeves of this dress are done in the kumm ‘irdan style in which the sleeves are long, pointed, and triangular. The wearer of this dress would tie the two sleeves behind her back while working to make movement easier.
(Excerpt from The handwoven History of Palestine and Jordan, published by the Tiraz Centre
The dress or thob were made of the local fabric, hand-woven in Bethlehem. The fabric had a distinct striped pattern in black, red, green, and orange. The different pieces of fabric are connected with the manajel stitch in silk thread of many colours. Each part of the dress was made and decorated separately and only assembled once all the pieces are finished or the wedding is imminent. In this way, more than one person can work on the same outfit, and some pieces can be ordered from embroidery workshops while others can be made by the wearer or her family. The style of dress differs from region to region.
The fabric from which the thob was made were usually narrow, no more than 16 to 20 centimetres, so the style of the dress was determined by the width of the fabric. A length of fabric was taken to match the height of the woman and then doubled to form the front and back of the dress. To give the dress the desired width, banayek (two long triangles were cut and inserted in the sides. The sleeves were set in a straight cut: for winged sleeves, a triangle was added. Sometimes, a square was cut separately, embroidered and sewn on as a qabeh (breast piece).
(p.60-61 Threads of Identity – Preserving Palestinian Costume and Heritage by Widad Kamel Kawar)
Couching or tahriry embroidery
Couching refers to an embroidery technique where a thread or cord is laid flat on the surface of the fabric and then sewn into place with small, almost invisible stitches across. The cord can be laid to create different patterns, designs, and motifs. Cords or laid threads can vary from cotton and silk to silver or gold ribbons. In the Bethlehem or tahriry style, couching is used as an outline and to define a pattern, which is then filled in with satin stitch.
The distinctive patterns were applied to specific parts of the dresses, making them recognisable as Bethlehem styles. For example, the sleeves were embroidered with a pattern called “watches” in the couching technique, repeated three times. So were the side panels, which also had a pattern called ‘tree of life’ in cross-stitch evolving above ‘watches.’
(Extract from The Queen of Dresses: The Malak, produced by The Tiraz Centre)
Tiraz Centre, Amman, Jordan
Threads of Identity by Widad Kamel Kawar:
Featured image: malak thob from the Tiraz Centre collection