Sunday, 7 April 2013


For this fortnight’s Historical Sew Fortnightly challenge, Accessorize, I have made a bag decorated with Palestinian embroidery designs from the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. Actually, I completed the embroidery a while ago, but the challenge gave me the impetus to make the bag up.

The completed bag

Embroidery in Palestine was always used to adorn clothing rather than for purely decorative items. As a result, very little has survived from before the mid nineteenth century; the clothes were used until they wore out, and were then thrown away. Much of the embroidery is done in cross stitch, and red is the predominant colour.

Embroidery examples

Woman from Ramallah, early C20th, Wikimedia Commons

The fabric used for clothing was originally hand-woven, which gave it a loose, open weave, and made it ideally suited for doing counted thread embroidery. Later when fabric was machine-made and therefore more tightly-woven, the women adopted the technique of sewing over waste canvas, and this was the method that I employed as well.

The embroidery completed on the waste canvas

Originally the embroidery was done with silk floss, but in the early 1930s DMC began to market their perlé thread in Palestine, and this was used instead.

Most of the motifs which I used were taken from photographs in Embroidery From Palestine by Shelagh Weir, which features a number of garments from the collection of the British Museum such as these (both images © The Trustees of the British Museum).

Dress 'thob', Masmiyyeh or el-Na'ani area, south of Ramleh, c.1920

Dress 'thob', South-west costal plain, late 19th or early 20th Century

The end result would doubtless make an expert in Palestinian embroidery wince, as I used motifs from coats and dresses from Galilee, Ramallah, Jaffa and the south-west coastal plain, whereas in the early part of the twentieth century each area, and even village, had its own particular motifs and colours. Weir mentions a conversation she had in the late 1980s with a shopkeeper, who still knew which number of red DMC thread was correct for each village!

For more information on Palestinian costume, click here.

I did the back of the bag first, with two rows of simple motifs. Once I was happy with it, I moved on to the front. Then I stitched the cord which forms the strap up the sides of the bag, and then wrapped it in embroidery silk. This was actually trickier than the cross stitch, and the back is definitely not as neat as the front.To finish the bag off, I added some tassels, and Roman period glass beads from Tillermans.

An example of beaded tassels

The back of the bag

Much clothing in the Middle East incorporates elements to protect against the evil eye, and in the case of Palestinian embroidery it was common to include a deliberate mistake, to distract anyone or anything which was tempted to harm the wearer. I included this idea in the bag, by slightly changing the order of the colours in the cord wrapping.

The light blue thread is in a different place on each side

Although I’m pleased with the end result, there’s a certain sadness associated with this project. Originally the bag was intended to hold my sewing kit when at events with Ya Raqs; over the years I’ve had to do various running repairs on costumes, and even on the tent! However a combination of other demands on my time and a knee injury has meant that reluctantly I’ve had to give up dancing with the troupe. I’ll keep dancing (and making costumes), but there is a world of difference between dancing for myself, and avoiding the moves which I know will cause me problems, and performing in group dances. So at present, I have an accessory, and nothing to accessorize. However I’m sure I’ll find a use for it, as it’s too pretty to just put away.

The small print:

The Challenge: Accessorize

Fabric: black cotton from stash

Pattern: made up myself from various examples

Year: 1930s (when DMC threads first became available)

Notions: embroidery silks mostly from stash, black cord for strap
How historically accurate is it? the motifs and decoration are based on actual garments, the combination of the motifs is almost certainly wrong
Hours to complete: quite a lot!

First worn: not yet

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