Threads Through Time: A History of Palestinian Embroidery
Palestinian cross stitch embroidery is a symbol of national identity and rich culture, given the delicate social and political struggles that have faced this region. Embroidery was a powerful tool used to stitch history over a hundred years old. Palestinian cross stitch embroidery, referred to as tatreez in Arabic, is the art of creating decorative motifs using needle and thread on fabric. The earliest examples date back to the 1840s.
This art form was mostly worn by Bedouin and rural women from the countryside until the year 1948. In the early 1900s, you could easily tell what region a woman was from based on her embroidered attire. Things like color, fabric, thread, arrangement of motif on the dress, and motif subject matter indicated what village you were from. For example, women from Galilee wore floral or foliage designs in blue and red over white garments. Bethlehem and Hebron were known for their winding figurative motifs, and embroidery of Bedouin women reflected their marital status. Prior to marriage women would wear blue and black, after marriage they would wear motifs with red thread. Widowed Bedouin women would stitch blue thread over their red threading to indicate they were no longer married. The most intricate designs came from Ramallah, Bethlehem and Hebron. Dresses, head veils, hats, and jackets were often covered in beautiful and rich embroidery in a variety of stitches.
Much of this changed in 1948. This was the most important year in Palestinian history, called the Nakba (the catastrophe), when the Palestinian exodus took place. During this time more than 700,000 Palestinians became refugees after they were expelled from their homes by Israeli forces. As expected, there was a shift in attire at this time. Economic hardship and lack of access to markets with traditional thread and fabric meant that new styles formed. Some women resorted to selling their tatreez dresses for cash due to their difficult situation. In the 1960s distinct motifs were forming, referred to as ‘new dress’. These motifs were almost entirely in cross stitch, with the use of different combinations of colors, and different arrangements of European and Palestinian motifs. Much of the European influence was due to foreign aid workers and fashion magazines provided in the camps. Since most of the embroidery was being done in refugee camps at this time, design was no longer indicative of your village or region due to this fragmentation.
In the 1980s and 1990s the Intifada (the Uprising) occurred in the West Bank and we saw another shift in Palestinian cross stitch. During the Israeli occupation at this time it was illegal to be in possession of a Palestinian flag. Women began to stitch Palestinian flags on their dresses in defiance of this law as a form of Palestinian solidarity. They would also stitch the word ‘Palestine’ in English and Arabic, and use thread in the four colors of the Palestinian flag (green, red, white and black).
Although in present day women are holding on to the folk art of Palestinian embroidery and cross-stitch, the traditional dresses are worn for weddings and other special occasions. However, we are seeing new trends emerging where only small sections of cross-stitch are being added to modern shirts, jackets, pants, and dresses, giving cross-stitch a hip and stylish flare to everyday attire. There are many organizations that assist Palestinian women in selling their cross-stitch crafts. These handcrafted items include wallets, purses and sunglass cases, etc. The organizations are a great way for women to make additional income while still preserving an important part of Palestinian heritage. Check out https://www.shopwithoutborders.com/collections/all/cross-stitch
to purchase Palestinian cross-stitch handmade by local women and to support this wonderful art form!
Nasir, Tania Tamari. “The Traditional Palestinian Costume” (interview with Widad Kamel Kawar). Journ
al of Palestine Studies 10, no.1 (Autumn 1980): 118-129.
Palestinian Journeys, an online archive produced in collaboration with the Institute of Palestinian Studies. https://www.paljourneys.org/
Labor of Love exhibition, The Palestinian Museum.