This item was purchased at an auction by the Zay Initiative in 2019.
This distinctive blue cloak (abayah) is made from two pieces of silk connected horizontally down the middle; the fine workmanship ensures that the seam is hardly visible. This rectangular garment is open down the front with wide sleeves. These types of garments were worn in Syria by men and women of high status since the end of the nineteenth century. The corresponding garment (mlayah) or (izar) for women was sewn from the same fabric, consisting of two pieces draped and wrapped to form an overgarment, the silk and gold fabric are famously woven in beautiful, bright colours on handlooms by the weavers of Damascus and Aleppo.
This particular garment in the Zay’s Collection is hand-woven from light blue silk and the decorative work is loom weaved with gold threads (mgassab) of varying thickness and metallic tones. The resulting geometric shapes and straight lines featured across the breadth of the shoulders are typical of the region and era. The horizontal seam at the mid-line of the cloak is surrounded with large diamond shapes made up of fine vertical lines in gold. Two of the three heavily woven triangular shapes on the back of the garment end in a stylized building-like shape that resembles a minaret.
Syria’s long history and geographical location as a hub along the trade routes, led to prominent international textile industry. Since ancient times, the Syrians have excelled in weaving, using raw materials to sew the best and finest fabrics.
Starting during the Ottoman rule and continuing until recent history, both men and women, specifically those of wealthy families in the cities of Aleppo and Damascus, were keen to acquire locally produced fabric to sew their clothes and their outer garments. Bright colours such as red, blue, and purple, were the trend at the time. The men would select their desired colours and request an (aba) or abayah from one of the tailors, and the woman would request a two-piece outfit known as a mlayah and izar, or (sharshaf) in the colours she wants from one of the seamstresses.
The rectangular Syrian abayah combines the aesthetics of Bedouin design and the skills of urban industry and is an uncommon shape in the Arab and Western world. When not worn, the garment may look like a carpet or upholstery fabric, but when the body is expertly wrapped in the abayah or mlayah the fabric turns into a masterpiece that may resemble a Japanese kimono. The geometric design patterns are both intricate and simple simultaneously, with flashes of gold or silver threads that overlap the weaving. Additionally, the type of silk threads used, and the way in which they are weaved, contribute to creating artistic shading in the folds and drapes of the garment.