Palestinian Embroidery? It's in Vogue

On catwalks in Paris and flashy fashion magazines, an age-old handicraft is making a comeback. For the creators, it's a way of preserving Bedouin culture and female craft for future generations

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Embroidery work on display in Zenab Abu Garabia art gallery in the Bedouin town of Segev Shalom.
Embroidery work on display in Zenab Abu Garabia art gallery in the Bedouin town of Segev Shalom.Credit: Zenab Abu Garabia

The 50th edition of Vogue Arabia, published in the summer, featured a comprehensive article about Palestinian fashion designers who create contemporary collections inspired by traditional embroidery. In recent years images of apparel with handicraft themes have adorned many glossy magazine covers, but for the designers who are showcasing Palestinian embroidery, it is no passing fashion. It is a national symbol that tells the Palestinian story and it is a means of preserving a people's roots for future generations through art.

Noora Abdeen Khalifeh, who was born in Jerusalem's Old City and created the Dar Noora fashion brand, was chosen by Vogue Arabia as one of the most influential designers in the Middle East. Palestinian cultural symbols, traditional fabrics and embroidery inform the apparel and accessories created by Khalifeh's company. In an interview for the Union for the Mediterranean organization, she said she's been excited by seeing Palestinian embroidery – "modernity and tradition" – that she and others created at fashion shows in Paris and elsewhere, adding that she is inspired by Palestinian women and their stories. Her exposure to “the Palestinian heritage makes me want to continuously observe and touch it. And the more I look at it and examine the colors, the embroidery, the details and brocades, the more it makes me want to study, explore and see more.” Inclusion of those elements, said Khalifeh, is part of her mission of telling the narrative of and empowering the Palestinian people and its symbols. In the past Palestinian fashions, sewing techniques and textiles have been neglected, which is why she makes a point of including traditional embroidery techniques, such as one called Tatreez, in her designs. “I have learned to connect the worlds and to preserve the Palestinian heritage,” she said. "We are talking about a cultural design which must always have a story ... and we now need to retell our story as a people."

Zenab Abu Garabia.Credit: Seham Omari

Zenab Abu Garabia, who lives in the Bedouin town of Segev Shalom in southern Israel, owns an art gallery that features Palestinian embroidery and ceramics. In a conversation with Haaretz, she spoke of the literal and cultural significance of Tatreez, whose name comes from the Arabic word describing the act of cross-stitching. “The act of embroidering has a cultural significance that has been handed down through the generations and embodies the Palestinian Arab tradition, the memories of the villages and women’s stories,” she said.

“Bedouin embroidery worn by married women is based on the color red, and blue is for unmarried women and girls,” Abu Garabia explained, noting that flowers and animals are usually depicted in a variety of colors. “Bedouin embroidery is based on geometric shapes like triangles and squares, combined with stars. The style of embroidery is derived from the region where the craftswomen live and work. There are differences even between Palestinian cities.”

Ceramic work on display in Zenab Abu Garabia art gallery in the Bedouin town of Segev Shalom.Credit: Zenab Abu Garabia

Connecting worlds

"My aspiration is to preserve the cultural symbols, including Palestinian embroidery, and to recreate it in new works of art,” Maya Daoud, a graduate of Bezalel – Academy of Arts and Design, told Haaretz. In her final project in the Department of Jewelry and Fashion, she added, she was inspired by 47Soul (a Palestinian-Jordanian electronic music group). “Being a Palestinian student in the fashion world enables me to connect all the worlds that I know and to create something authentic and unique."

Like Daoud, Mohammed Zughayer of Kafr Aqab also used Palestinian embroidery in works he created at Bezalel. “As a young Palestinian man, I feel a need to express my identity in my creative work as a fashion designer,” he said. “Embroidery is an important component that attests to this identity. All my life I’ve been surrounded by design and clothing, and therefore it was very natural for me to become part of this field and to express myself in fashion.”

Embroidery work on display in Zenab Abu Garabia art gallery in the Bedouin town of Segev Shalom.Credit: Zenab Abu Garabia
Embroidery work on display in Zenab Abu Garabia art gallery in the Bedouin town of Segev Shalom.Credit: Zenab Abu Garabia

Zughayer added that he welcomes Jewish Israelis' increasing interest in Palestinian embroidery. “This is also a way of recognizing Palestinian culture and artistic creation. Ostensibly it’s only fabric, but the more you deepen your understanding by reading the embroidery and its symbols – the more you can identify additional elements, such as the social status of the woman [who created the work] and the geographical location from which she came.”

In the interview with the Union for the Mediterranean, Khalifeh, whose company employs dozens of local Palestinian craftswomen, believes her efforts both strengthen the status of Palestinian women as well as providing them with an income. “Over 80 Palestinian women work in my fashion house and that has a strong social and economic influence on their lives. Part of what I’m proud of as a designer is to contribute to the empowerment of women, who are passing down local culture to the coming generations as well.”

Abu Garabia agrees, noting the role of embroidery in reflecting the presence and augmenting the power of Bedouin woman in the eyes of Israel's Arab and Jewish communities. “When Bedouin embroidery exists in the public domain, outside the walls of the home – then we exist too. That’s why it’s also personally important to me to preserve the history of the women who preceded me, and to hand it down to future generations. It’s a precious cultural asset on which I was raised and according to which I was educated,” she said.

She noted that social changes and modernization in Arab society are leading to a decline in the number of women doing embroidery. “Today in Ramallah and in Bethlehem you can buy everything ready-made,” she admitted. “So hand-made embroidery has been replaced by special machines, and young women don’t learn the techniques.” They must be taught the craft and the narrative behind it, Abu Garabia stressed, which will help them develop ties to their local roots and their culture.

Raneen Hanna, from Peki’in, also believes it's important to teach hand-made embroidery techniques to the younger generation, and has created her own initiative, to that end. “When I opened my embroidery studio I wanted to express the creative work of embroidery and thought of an original name. I called it Studio Gharze, after the act of inserting the needle into fabric, on which embroidery is based. It's important to me for others to learn firsthand how it's done.”

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