Tulle bi telli, translated as ‘net with wire,’ is a traditional metal thread embroidery technique associated with the Upper Egyptian city of Asyut. The word Tulle, Arabised to Tur (Tur_bi_Telli), is a French word meaning ‘net’ referencing the net-like textile that is embellished with Telli.
Tulle_bi_telli vs Telli
The word Telli has two meanings.
- Originating from the Turkish word tel meaning ‘shining thread’ or ‘wire’, it refers to the flat metal straw or ribbon known as khus in Khaleeji Arabic, the dialect used in the Gulf countries including the UAE.
- The word telli refers to the craft of weaving a braid and applying it to fabric using a couching stitch. This unique style of embroidery uses the metallic straw (khus)twisted, twined, or braided with silk (brisam), cotton (gutun) or synthetic (nāīlon) threads to create cords, braids, bands, or ribbons (fatlat or ftul) of varying patterns.
In this post, we will be looking at the first definition – a flat metal straw or ribbon used to embellish tulle. More information about the second definition can be found in this Telli Embroidery post, and in this post on Embellishment.
Tulle-bi-Telli is also referred to as Assuit, referencing its city of origin. Various spellings exist, including Assuit, Assuite, Asyut, Assyut, and Azure. Similar techniques can be found in India, Pakistan and China, where it is known as badla meaning ‘silverwork’, and in Iran where it is known as khus-duzi.
Although the textile is not directly documented before the 19th century, traces of the metal threadwork can be linked to Ancient Egypt, with references made in the Bible, and the wider Middle East region in earlier times. The use of beaten metal, particularly strands of gold, threaded into fabric has been found in Ancient Egypt in the tombs of Pharaohs. Textiles of handmade nets embroidered in intricate designs with threads of precious metals, including gold, have been found dating from before 1500 BC. To create the threads, the metal would be hammered into thin plates then divided into small strips and filed down to form wires.
Expeditions and conquests by European powers into the East during the 19th century and the rise of Orientalism increased the exoticism and resulting tourism to the Middle East, particularly Egypt. Taking advantage of this new influx of Western tourists enthralled by the exotic East, the merchants of Asyut began producing Tulle-bi Telli by hand-embroidering onto leftover mosquito nets. As the fabric became more popular, bobbinet, a Victorian invention, were used instead.
The net-like textile that marries cotton or linen mesh with small strips of metal is still produced in Egypt today but has moved from its namesake of Asyut to the city of Suhag. The textile is mainly exported to tourist shops in popular cities such as Cairo and Alexandria and is used for popular items such as belly-dancing costumes.
The base net-like material used for tulle-bi-telli is the bobbinet tulle, a machine-made fabric introduced to Assuit in the 19th century. The bobbinet machine, the lacemaking machine, was invented by John Heathcoat in 1808. It loops thread, originally weft yarn, diagonally around the second thread, originally warp yarn, to form a hexagonal mesh. The resulting fabric is sheer, durable, and diagonally stable.
In Egypt, silk, cotton, flax, or linen were originally used to create the net-like fabric. In the 20th century, the fabric changed to a diamond-shaped net, the starching making it harder to the touch. Although tulle-bi-telli was originally black or white, with the change in material and consequential starching, new colours emerged. Although often spun by hand and dyed at home by the locals, some of the fabric was imported from European cities, particularly from the UK from where the lacemaking machine originated. As the old handspun technique was much more costly and time-consuming and the softer tulle had smaller holes, the coarser machine-made tulle emerged victoriously and became much more commonplace.
Coming back to the name, we move to the bi-telli portion, more specifically, the embroidering of the tulle. The beaten metal, cut into thin strips, were usually cheaper alloy metal, as it wouldn’t blacken with age and was easier to clean. Before the 20th century, brass, copper, gold, and silver metal thread were also used but due to the costs and blackening over time, this century saw the emergence of commercially produced coloured steel and metallic-looking plastic.
The thin strips are threaded into a flat wide needle which is then threaded and crisscrossed through the holes in the net. The metal is flattened with the fingernails, cut, and stamped down. After the design is completed the textile is rolled to ultimately flatten the metal. The open meshwork provides elasticity, retains heat, and although heavy, is loved for its draping, conforming to the body and shimmering as it catches the light.
The inevitable crisscrossing due to the holes of the net almost always results in geometric designs. The textile features images of floral motifs, trees, women with children, amuletic designs, etc. The late 20th century featured clearer geometric shapes, sun and stars, animals, women and children. Some designs have been passed down in families and by different groups in Egypt. Coptic Christian designs often featured living figures like animals and humans whereas Muslim designs focused on foliage and geometric shapes.
As the tourism industry boomed, particularly in Cairo, demand for Tulle-bi-telli increased heavily and befell on the cheapness and availability of female labour in upper Egypt. The women, hailing from poorer cities and villages with a lack of employment opportunities became easy targets for exploitation and worked for small wages. Fabric merchants in Asyut would distribute tulle and tulle threads to the women in the poorer villages around the city. After embroidering the tulle with telli, the women would return the textile to the merchant to collect their wages.
As demand continued to rise, tailors, clothiers, and costumers multiplied as upper-class European fashion followed the craze of Orientalism. Clients wanted the draping flowy robes and turbans made from tulle-bi-telli. The Art Deco art movement was also influential in the popularity of tulle-bi-telli as clothing made from heavy draping textiles were popular.
The textile was often used as a shawl or it was made into costumes, traditional dresses, and even wedding gowns. The textile was popular in Egyptian culture too, not only in belly-dancing costumes but in wedding ceremonies. For example, in the Saidi region, brides often received a tulle-bi-telli shawl as a gift from either her own or the groom’s family to be fashioned into a veil or a traditional dress known as the galabeya/jalabeya.
In Popular Culture
With the Art Deco movement and the continued exoticism of the Middle East, demand for the tulle-bi-telli textile peaked. The textile can be seen in Cecil B. Demille’s Hollywood production of Cleopatra, on Hedy Lamar in Samson and Delilah, and in designs by Rudolf Valentino. The Bellydancing scene and Hollywood converged with famous Egyptian belly-dancers Tahia Carioca and Samia Gamal. The fabric has been found in the wardrobes of international performing artists including Cuban music star Rita Montaner as well as in fashion houses like Dior and Jean-Paul Gaultier, as well as the famous Delphos dress by Mariano Fortuny.
Tulle-bi-Telli was commonly found in the wardrobes of singers and musicians around urban Egypt and moved to the houses of Egyptian elites and further on to the West, not only in the form of clothing but as furniture decoration.
*This post was researched and written by our intern Rifal Imam.
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