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 third article in our series, we look at all the various ways metal threads are used as embellishments on textiles around the Arab world.
Metal thread Embellishments
Metal thread in its flat straw form is used in adornment such as tur_bi_talli, mnaghad, or badlah where the straw is used as a ‘sewing thread’ rather than applied or couched on top of the fabric. It is then pressed and flattened into a variety of patterns and motifs. Alternatively, the straw can be braided into cords that are applied to adorn articles of dress and is known in the UAE as talli.
The name translates roughly as ‘net with metal’ and is a cotton or linen mesh adorned with small strips of metal. This is widely known as Asuti in reference to Asyut the city associated with its manufacture. The story goes that in the 1920s, with the discovery of the tomb of Tutankhamun tourism to the area increased and merchants in the town of Asyut began making shawls by using Turkish metal embroidery on leftover mosquito nets. With the World Expo in Chicago, this trade grew further. As it became more popular, bobbinet material was used, but it continued -to this day – to be hand embroidered. This version of history is disputed by Shahira Mehrez who attests it was not only made in Asyut, in Upper Egypt but across Egypt. Shahira’s book on Egyptian dress heritage will be published by end of 2022 where she will be sharing more details.
Tulle-bi-talli consists of a mesh fabric of cotton or linen, with thin metal strips, woven through this mesh to form a pattern. Although the work is done with a long strip or straw of metal, each ‘stitch’ of metal is knotted or pressed separately. The designs vary, ranging from simple to elaborate. Some people believe designs have been passed down through families, some even references pharaonic symbols. Some designs appear to be intentionally left incomplete. Coptic Christian designs often have animal and human figures, whereas Muslim shawls rely on geometric designs. A combination of Muslim and Christian symbolism has been found too.
Folkloric belly dancers often make costumes from this fabric, and it was used extensively for dresses in old Egyptian musicals. Farida Fahmy’s Reda Troupe mentioned that by the 1960s the production of tur bi talli had greatly declined, but when the troupe came under government control, President Nasser ordered that some of the cloth be made especially for their costumes. Certainly, tulle bi telli, was still being made during the ‘golden era’ of Egyptian film, as worn by Tahiya Karioka, possibly around 1930.
Tulle bi talli designs are entirely geometric, in keeping with Muslim beliefs on human representation in art. However, there are many depicting a Coptic Christian influence in design where some pieces do include figures, and even camels.
Mnaghad or nighdah
This is a technique where metal straw is threaded, pressed and flattened into a variety of dotted patterns and motifs. It is applied in geometric and vegetative patterns to the neckline on outer cloaks ‘Abi, the neckline and overall on overgarments athwab, or veils shīyal (sng. shaylah).
Metal thread embroidery known as Zardozi (Persian: zar: gold, dozi: embellishment) is widely practised in Iran, Azerbaijan, Iraq, Kuwait, Syria, Turkey, Central Asia, and India, Pakistan and Bangladesh. Zardozi is a type of heavy and elaborate metal embroidery on a silk, satin, or velvet fabric base and can incorporate pearls, beads, and precious stones. It is used as decoration for clothes, household textiles, and animal trappings. Historically, it was used to adorn the walls of royal tents, scabbards, wall hangings and the paraphernalia of regal elephants and horses.
Initially, the embroidery was done with pure silver wires and real gold leaves. However, today, craftsmen make use of a combination of copper wire, with a golden or silver polish, and silk thread.
In India, zardozi prospered during the reign of the Mughal emperor Akbar, but later a loss of royal patronage and industrialisation led to its decline. The craft began to experience a resurgence in popularity following India’s independence in 1947. Today, zardozi is popular in the Indian cities of Lucknow, Farrukhabad, Chennai and Bhopal.
Zardozi is an important handicraft in Persian culture. It is known around the country by names such as zar-douzi, kam-douzi, gol-douzi, and kaman-douzi.
Hollywood and The West
Tulle bi talli in geometric designs were popular during the Art Deco era, beginning around 1925, closely associated with the flapper dress. Tur bi talli has been used in Hollywood productions such as the 1934 movie Cleopatra with Liz Taylor in the title role and was draped on Hedy Lamar in Samson and Delilah. It was also worn as wraps, draped over the head, and as wedding gowns. These tulle bi talli fabrics were also used for decoration – piano shawls were extremely popular, and specimens can still occasionally be found in antique shops.
Many designers and designer brands, from Chanel, Tory Burch, and John Galiano for Dior, have been influenced by and used talli technique in their fashions.
Mnaghad and talli are very popular in most of the Arabian Peninsula. It is used in different formats as you see here from Najid in Saudi Arabia, to Bahrain, Kuwait, and Yemen.
Talli Embellishments in the UAE
The talli craft version associated mostly with the UAE, Oman, Yemen, and areas of southern Iran with a large population of Arab ethnicity, is a kind of braid woven by hand, using a technique similar to bobbin lace. The women use pins to manipulate the threads on a cylindrical pillow positioned on a metal stand known as kājūjah. Earlier white or black coloured cotton threads were woven together with silver or gold straw, known as khūsah. Today vibrant coloured cotton, as well as synthetic thread, is woven with tinsel straw in a rainbow of colours to create intricate designs. Some complicated designs can use up to forty bobbins.
Tallī patterns are based on elements in the natural environment, such as flora, fauna, or common household items each with a corresponding descriptive name. The resulting cords are applied in geometric patterns onto the neckline of overgarments athwab and tunic dresses kanadir, or the cuffs on sleeves or the ankles on underpants sarāwīl.
Creating these cords is a lengthy and complex procedure. To make a one-meter cord of talli, can take anything from a few hours to a few weeks or even months, depending on the complexity of the design. Once the cords are created, several cords of talli are couched next to each other on necklines, cuffs, hems, or other borders to create striking designs.
In the past, this craft was practised by Emirati women in their homes, where they would create the braids and decorate their clothing. Since this craft was limited to the Emirati households, modernisation caused it to become almost extinct but today the craft is kept alive through the hard efforts of government-backed institutions.
This is the last in our three-part series on metal thread embroidery. The previous two articles can be found here and here.