The diversity of the Arab world- stretching from Mauritania to Syria to Oman and Somalia – means Metal Thread Embroidery is described in a variety of names and terminology, depending on the region and style. As these distinct regions function within the cultural meta-system of the ‘Arab World’, techniques, materials and designs blend and influence each other. In this second article in our series, we look at all the various ways metal threads are used and applied in surface embroidery around the Arab world, with a focus on Goldwork embroidery.
Goldwork is always surface embroidery. The metal wire or ribbon can be wound around a silken or cotton filament core to make it into a thread. The vast majority of goldwork is done in the form of laid work or couching, that is, the gold threads are held onto the surface of the fabric by a second thread usually of fine silk. The ends of the thread, depending on the type, are simply cut off, or are pulled through to the back of the embroidery and carefully secured with the couching.
Gold and silver embroidery or the use of metal wires for stitch work is thought to have originally developed in Asia and has been around for about 2000 years. This kind of embroidery reached the peak of success around the Middle Ages when a popular kind of work known as “Opus Anglicanum” developed in England and was used to create church hangings. Each culture used its own technique as seen in this example of metal embroidery by the Mao people of China.
The Ka’aba or ‘The Cube’, is the building at the centre of the Masjid al-Haram Mosque in Makkah, one of the most recognisable and significant structures of worship and pilgrimage in the world. The black cloth with handmade gold metallic embroidery known as Sarma was used as the main decoration on the Kiswah of the Ka’aba for centuries. According to the earliest accounts of the Kiswah, there are mentions of swathes of fabric made of wool and silk and decorated with leather that was used as a covering on the holy structure. Kiswah, the art of embroidery evolved with time, and masters of weaving and embroidery were hired from distant countries to provide the Ka’aba with a suitable coat.
Centuries ago, the Ka’aba was draped in textiles mostly bought from Yemen, an important centre of textile production. Yemeni ikat was the favoured textile in those days. Sometime later, a single covering was ordained for the holy structure. for centuries, Qabati, a type of expensive fabric made in Egypt became the standard material for making the Kiswah. By the 13th century, Sarama was a prestigious craft looked after by a crafts guild in Cairo. In those days, the craft was known as kasabji, a reference to the embroidery that protrudes on the surface of the textile.
The art of embroidering in the Sarma technique depends on the skill of the craftsmen, who raise the surface of the desired area at least a centimetre high to create a visible impression using reflective gold and silver threads that attract visitors to read and admire it.
The tradition of sending the Kiswha to Makkah started during the Ayyubid dynasty (1171 – 1341). This tradition later continued during the time of the Mamluks and the Ottomans. Until the 1920s, the Kiswha was produced in Cairo by the Sarma makers. Every year, an elaborate procession would accompany the Kiswah on its annual journey to Makkah. The Kiswah was placed on a wooden structure called the Mahmal, which was traditionally carried on one or more camels. This procession would travel for days through different countries until it reached its destination. Sometimes, the procession would be followed by people for miles.
During this time, the Kiswah needed to be very sturdy: the embroidery had to be very close and tight so that it could hold out for a year minus one day because, on that last day, the Ka’aba would be undressed, washed, and redressed again with a new covering. Craftsmen in Cairo worked for six months to produce the Kiswah. Once it was removed, it would be cut into pieces and distributed among the devout as a haloed prestigious fabric segment, good luck charm or protective amulet.
For any craft to survive, it must evolve with time. With Sarma, the challenge is the limited number of people who practice the craft. Centred around the Al Azhar Mosque, the technique was known to only five families who intermarried and formed a community. In 1962 the manufacturing of the Kiswah moved to Makkah in Saudi Arabia.
Originally, the main theme of Sarma was calligraphy that recalled the Ayah and verses selected for the Kiswah of the Ka’aba. Short verses from the Quran and the ninety-nine names of Allah were among the most popular designs. As its popularity increased, Sarma also incorporated themes such as flower bouquets and vegetal scrolls. With time, Sarma came to be used by the military on their uniforms and by the Coptic Church to decorate their outfits and furnishings. In Turkey and Egypt, this tradition is also used to embroider bridal gowns. Nowadays, Sarma can be seen on cushions, purses, and bedding.
Modern Turkey was preceded by seven centuries of rule by a succession of Ottoman Sultans. At the height of its power, this dynasty ruled over an Empire that spanned the Balkans from Greece to the Austrian frontier, most of the Middle East, parts of North Africa, much of the Caucasus and the Crimea and at times parts of Italy, Poland, and Ukraine.
The cities of Athens, Budapest, Belgrade, Sarajevo, Bucharest, Sofia, Beirut, Damascus, Baghdad, Jerusalem, Mecca, Cairo, Alexandria, and Tunis were all, at some point, part of its territories. Therefore, throughout the late 18th and early 19th centuries, the use of metallic threads was so prevalent that certain textiles were embellished almost exclusively with them.
Read the first article in this series here. In the third and final article of this series, we are exploring Woven Embroidery and Embellishments.