This article is the second in a series based on Dr Reem el Mutwalli’s book Sultani: Traditions Renewed. Changes in women’s traditional dress in the United Arab Emirates during the reign of the late Shaykh Zayid Bin Sultan Al Nahyan, 1966-2004, which, in turn, is based on her PhD thesis in Islamic Art and Archaeology obtained from SOAS, University of London, UK, in 2007. Inspired by The Zay Initiative’s exhibition called Bū Tīlah wa Bū Glaym: Spots & Stripes at Zaman Awal in The Mall of the Emirates which focuses on examples of two forms of fabrics traditionally favoured in articles of UAE traditional dress. Here we give an overview of a wide range of fabrics and textiles traditionally used for women’s clothing in the UAE.
In this article, we focus on embellished and synthetic fabrics and the variety of terminology used to refer to these fabrics.
Mzaray or Imzaray
This is a form of glittering brocade that has zari applied during manufacturing. The term means ‘embellished with zari’. Zari has two possible origins: The first is Persian and is believed to originate from the Farsi term zar, meaning gold. The second is Indian and refers to the metallic thread that is twisted over a cotton or silk base and then applied to the fabric at different stages. Read our series on metal thread to learn more.
Imazaray fabric is also known as zari imkhalbash, meaning disseminated and refers to the scattered design of zari applied to the fabric. This fabric is known by several different terms referring to the design of the print or embroidery applied to the fabric. A few examples:
- Bū nârsī – originating from Pakistan and mainly used for wedding dresses
- Bū shâhid – probably referring to the word for the index finger, shâhid
- Bū simkah – meaning fish and refers to various fish-shaped motifs
- Bū kâzū – meaning cashew and refers to a paisley motif
Meaning ‘from palm straw’ and is used interchangeably with an older Arab term, imqasab, meaning to embellish with wide bands of gold or silver. This term is used locally to refer to any form of silk or chiffon fabric brocaded with silver or gold threads. It is distinguished from zari by the wider (2.5mm) bands resembling straw. Even if the zari is added to the fabric at a later stage by embroidery it would still be referred to by this term.
An Indian, thin crêpe-like silk resembling georgette, and light in texture like voile. Black sârī is reserved for headscarves, shaylah, and the coloured versions are used for more formal outer garments, thawb.
Terminology used for both Silk and Cotton
Imhazaz or mhazaz
Referring to a kind of ornamentation found on fabrics used to make kanâdir and sarâwīl. The name can be used for any fabric, both silk and cotton, with coloured inlaid and closely embroidered longitudinal designs, giving the fabric a striped appearance.
Shirbâk al-ghurfah, shirbâk al-saghuf
Shirbâk meaning window, ghurfah meaning room, saghuf or saqf meaning ceiling, are all the same fabric and is also sometimes known as ghfusnī meaning entrap me, or bu ghafas meaning that which resembles a cage. It is a transparent and extremely delicate gauze, loosely woven to create a pattern of intersecting lines creating a grid-like appearance. Hence the names. The silk version is used for the thawb and the black cotton version is reserved for the shaylah.
Sâdah and mishayâr
This is a Persian term used in the Arabian Peninsula and Iraq meaning plain, simple, ordinary, or without embellishment. It refers to all monochrome fabrics devoid of patterns or motifs and can be used for cotton, silk, or any other type of fabric. It does not refer to a specific type of fabric.
This is the Arabised form of the French word Tulle. It is a transparent, soft net fabric and can also be referred to as makhrūz or mukharam meaning perforated. Silk is the preferred fabric, but cotton and even cheaper nylon varieties are also used. The finer version is often adorned with small silver or crystal specks and reserved for thawb or shaylah. The fabric comes in different size perforations. The most popular versions in the region were:
- Tūr al-Shâm – referring to the city of Damascus where it was first imported
- Tūr al-Landani – the more expensive version imported from London
European fabrics were first imported to the UAE in the 1970s. Swiss voiles and cotton, Italian silks, gilded brocades, and chiffon of higher quality and superior designs began to replace Indian, Pakistani, and Chinese fabrics. By the 1980s European fabrics replaced earlier ‘folkloric fabrics’ even in traditional UAE dress. New local terminology appeared; some are listed below:
Referring to French chiffon. Light, diaphanous fabric in silk or nylon is available in plain or printed. Used to make thawb.
Referring to the French voile. A thin, semi-transparent dress material made from cotton, wool, or silk. High-quality silk wayl and wayl mkhawar, a silk machine embroidered with golden or silver threads, were used to make garments for special occasions. The simpler cotton wayl were used to make headcovers for prayer and other daily wear. Cotton wayl were ideal for headcovers as it is less slippery than silk.
This term means ‘spilt yoghurt’ and refers to fine transparent silk chiffon with designs resembling liquid splashes. These designs have a thick short pile on one side of the fabric resembling velvet, contrasting with the smooth silky background fabric. It was used mainly for thawb.
The term refers to fus or crystal and denotes any fabric – silk, chiffon, or tulle – that was decorated with iron-on or glued crystals in different designs.
The Arabised version of the French term dentelle means lace. Different varieties of lace made from synthetic fabrics, cotton, and finer silks entered the market in the 1980s and became very popular in the 1990s. It was first used to trim headscarves but was eventually incorporated into different garments.
In the next article in this series, we will look at the use of colour in traditional UAE dress.
*all images from the @sultanibookuae Instagram page. This page is managed by Dr Reem el Mutwalli and features images and stories of traditional UAE dress.