Sunday, 2 June 2013

Squares, Rectangles & Triangles

This fortnight’s Historical Sew Fortnightly challenge is Squares, Rectangles & Triangles.

To quote The Dreamstress in the introduction to this challenge, “Many historical garments, and the costumes of many people around the world, use basic geometric shapes as their basis. In this challenge make a garment made entirely of squares, rectangles and triangles (with one curve allowed).”

Having originally said that my contribution to the Historical Sew Fortnightly would be limited to admiring the things which participants made, I’m really enjoying getting more involved. It has given me the impetus to get things off my PHD* pile (my Bedouin bag and an upcoming challenge). It has taken me off in entirely new directions (the Glastonbury bonnet and the ongoing mega-project that is the beaded dress). And it has provided me with a reason to tackle a project on my 'I want to make this some day' list; a traditional Tunisian costume.

I’ve already made a number of Tunisian costumes, in turquoise satin. They looked lovely, and the basic shapes were correct, but they were hardly traditional. However they were for a stage show, and turquoise satin was what the director wanted, so turquoise satin it was.

My first Tunisian costumes

A Tunisian costume consists of a number of items, several of which are rectangles or triangles, which made it ideal for this challenge. The basic costume has changed little over the years.

Tunisian woman, c1900

The main item is the overgarment, called a melia. (Pronounced ‘meh-lee-ah’, I assume this comes from the same root as melaya, pronounced ‘meh-lay-ah’.) Underneath the melia are calf-length pantaloons, a blouse, which is called a qamisa, and a tightly fitting waistcoat called a yellek or boustou.

The melia is just a large rectangle of fabric. It is often made from striped fabric, with the stripes running vertically when the melia is worn. It is very hard to get dress-weight cotton with stripes running crossways, presumably very few people want to wear clothes with horizontal stripes! In the end I found some suitable fabric with a lengthways stripe, and sewed several widths together to make the melia.

The pantaloons, called qalsoun or mizoo, were going to involve too many curves to qualify for this challenge, so I’ll make them at a later date. The waistcoat falls into the same category.

I decided to make a blouse however, as I could do this with rectangles of fabric, plus small squares for the gussets. I have never attempted to do anything this before, so guessed the dimensions. After checking in various books I decided to sew one side of the gusset to the sleeve, sew the sleeve and gusset to the side of the main piece, and then fold it in half to do the remaining seams. Simple.

The qamisa folded in half. Bother! Or words to that effect.

I’ve no idea how I managed to do that. After unpicking and reattaching the sleeve/gusset pieces I ended up with something which I could fold in half and sew together. Finally I cut a hole for the head (my one curve for the garment), and turned under a narrow hem.

The completed qamisa

The melia is held together with pins at the shoulders, called khlal (North African) or fibulae (Latin). There is usually a chain attached between the fibulae for decoration. The belt, called a hizem, is made from yarn.

Qamisa, melia, hizem and fibulae

The headdress consists of a large shawl called a ma'harama. As this is just a triangle of fabric, it qualified for the challenge. Mine is held in place with a rectangle of fabric (as yet unhemmed).

I wasn’t happy with the chain decoration, so removed it for the photograph of the complete costume, and wore some of my jewellery instead. I kept the jewellery fairly restrained, as I didn’t want to obscure too much of the costume, but it did give me the opportunity to wear my recently-bought kholkhal; a large hollow anklet. These contain small items which rattle when dancing.

The completed costume

There has been a lot of hemming in this project, all of it by hand. So my learning to sew with a thimble is coming on nicely. However, of the challenges I’ve completed so far, this is the one I’m least happy with. I’m struggling to find the right way to wear the melia. This isn’t helped by it being a printed, rather than a woven, stripe; it’s impossible to avoid the wrong side of the fabric showing.

I’m not entirely happy with the qamisa, either. I deliberately kept it a simple shape, but I don't know enough about the development of costume, certainly non-European costume, to know what would be correct for a specific date. As a result I feel I've made something vaguely 'historical', but not entirely accurate for any period. The neckline is wider than I would like, although this doesn’t show under the melia. It is also far too tight at the hips, so I will need to redo the side seams and insert an extra piece. At least it will be a triangular piece!

The Small Print
The Challenge: Squares, Rectangles & Triangles
Fabric: Remnant of green cotton and ½ metre muslin for the headdress, 4 metres striped cotton for the melia, 2 metres white cotton for the qamisa, yarn from my stash
Pattern: Mostly my own. Dimensions for the melia and other information on Tunisian costume taken from Aisha Ali’s DVD Tunisian Rhythms and Raqs Shaabi

Year: Vague - this is a traditional costume, so was worn in some form over a long period

Notions: Thread

How historically accurate is it? Hmm. See above for my concerns about historical accuracy.

Hours to complete: I’m hopeless at this bit, I always forget to count!

First worn: Just now, to take photos

Total cost: £24 for the various fabrics

* Projects Half Done. Sounds much more impressive than a UFO pile.


  1. I have been trying to find some instruction for this costume for weeks for a school event, I am so happy to find this and so detailed too! Thank you so much!!

    1. You're welcome Amber, I'm glad you found it useful!

    2. I just have one question about the Hizem. How did you make it, or did you find it somewhere?

    3. Hi Amber, sorry to take so long to reply. I made the Hizem as follows:

      Belt should be 1½ times hip measurement, plus 70 cm for tassels. It is made from ‘Aran’ weight wool, wound into a hank the length of the finished belt. I used 150 lengths of wool, i.e. 75 loops.
      Tie off wool 35 cm from the end of the hank to form the tassel. Do this at both ends.
      Tie again 6 cm down from first tie to form the tassel head.
      At one end, tie the strands together 17 cm from the top of the tassel to form the loop. Both ends of this tie should be long.
      Split the hank into two and bind each half at regular intervals. This is best done with a bodkin. Should end up with 5 or 6 pieces on each side, like small tassel heads.
      At the other end, tie all the strands together at approximately where the belt will go through the loop.
      Finally, tie all the strands together halfway between this point and the ends of the loop.
      Cut the ends to form the tassels.

      Hope this helps. Let me know if there's anything you don't follow, and I'll post some pictures at the weekend.