George Al Ama Collection
Chest Panel Kabeh, Majdal dress - first quarter of the twentieth century
Side skirt-panels, Beit Dajan dress - first quarter of the twentieth century
By George Al Ama and Nada Atrash, with contributions from Maha Saca
The traditional Palestinian costume: a composition of colours that not only expresses the harmonious taste of an owner and the skills of an experienced embroideress but is also an authentic mixture of cultural heritage and identity. The colour of both the textile and the embroidery play a defining role in distinguishing a woman; they indicate her native region and reflect her social and marital status.
Until the beginning of the twentieth century, the choice of colours that were used to dye the threads was dictated by the availability of natural dyes. Various plants, insects, and seashells were used in the process of dying. This profession - a major business in some Palestinian towns - was carried on by certain families who kept the secret formulas to themselves. Although chemical dyes started to appear in the early twentieth century, some of the dyers continued to use natural dyes, magical blends that still hold their vivid effects compared to the chemical dyes that tend to fade quickly.
Wide selections of dyestuffs were at the dyers’ disposal. Red, a predominant colour in Palestinian embroidery, was worn by married women and was a reflection of a mature sexuality. Given that it was a symbol of menstrual blood, it was socially unacceptable for unmarried girls and widowed women to wear it. The red was made from crushed insects and pomegranate or the roots of the madder plant.
Blue, a discrete colour in Palestinian culture, was commonly worn by unmarried girls, as well as women in the transitional period that follows wearing black after a time of mourning. Indigo plant, from the Jordan Valley, was used to produce all shades of blue; a widowed woman, after the mourning period, would dye her dresses with indigo plant and wear them for the rest of her life, expressing her sadness over the loss of her husband and marking a return of pre-marital virginity. If a widowed woman had the will to remarry, she would add red-coloured embroidery to her indigo-blue dress, and if she desired to have children, she would also add patterns of embroidered dolls.
Murex is a type of shellfish that was first used by the Phoenicians (which means purple in Greek) to produce the colour purple in the land of Canaan (which also means purple). It continued to be used by the Palestinians for the same purpose, a practice that links them back to their Canaanite roots. The royal or imperial purple made from murex shells reflected luxury and was most common on the coast of northern Palestine. This dye was greatly prized because it does not fade; rather it becomes brighter and more intense with weathering and sunlight.
Saffron flowers and vine leaves were used to produce various shades of yellow; brown oak bark produced shades of brown; and sumac - a bush whose berries are used in food - produced a yellow-green colour. Other wild flowers, leaves, and tree barks were used to produce various shades of dyestuffs popular in the area, and were sometimes mixed with alum, salt, or vinegar to set the dye.
Using colours to identify the region where a dress was embroidered is a very easy task for a connoisseur of Palestinian costumes; in fact, it is one of the main indicators of the dress’s origin. In addition to the patterns, individual colours symbolise different meanings, and various combinations reflect originality and local traditions. The intensity of the embroidery, the colour schemes, the shape, and the type of textile used in a dress can help to identify its area of origin.
Villages around Jerusalem adopted muted to bright pastel colours, which were embroidered on various colours of Damascus textile. The Ramallah area tended to concentrate on using various shades of red: the dark to bright reds were combined with black on a natural background; a deep-pink colour in Ramallah dresses is believed to be an influence from Bethlehem and Jerusalem where a similar colour was fashionable in the early-twentieth century.
Gold and silver cords embossed on black, navy blue, or wine backgrounds were the main characteristics of a Bethlehemite dress. Its appearance is rendered more striking by the nature of the material itself, which is striped in various colours, and by the traditional sleeve pieces which are composed mostly of red and yellow silk. The saying from the early 1900s, “She shall be married with the red and yellow” (bil ahmar w bil asfar), refers to the red and yellow silk of the bridal dress and means, “She shall be married with all the best” or “all that she should have.”
A scheme of reds embroidered on a natural or black linen background distinguished the area of Jaffa, where many colours were also integrated in the embroidery; bright shades of scarlet and crimson red were preferred along the central coastline as well as in the southern plains and Hebron hills. A deep maroon-red was dominant in the early thirties in the dresses of Beit Dajan and was mixed with touches of green, mauve, and orange.
An outstanding mixture of pale pastel silks characterised the dresses of northern Palestine, and contrasting bright colours on a plain or muted, shadowy, wide-striped, hand-woven majdal or gauze cloth were the major characteristics that distinguished the costumes of the southern areas. Bedouin women tended to wear a simple all-black dress and decorate it with jewellery rather than embroidery, although the edging or traditional piping was integrated into the costumes.
Despite the different cultures, beliefs, and backgrounds that have influenced the colours of Palestinian embroidery, such as the Canaanite, Byzantine, and Ottoman cultures, personal experience and traditions stamped every single piece. A dress is a document that tells the story and the identity of the woman who made it. Some scholars believe that colours have magical effects: the white was associated with increasing the production of the mother’s milk and the blue with protecting against evil.
An enormous amount of information related to the various colours used in Palestinian embroidery was lost or never recorded, but still the richness of colours and patterns, and the absence or presence of uniformity in shades of one dress were evidence of its owner’s wealth and creativity and a model of pleasant harmony.
Maha Saca is the founder and director of the Palestinian Heritage Center in Bethlehem (www.palestinianheritagecenter.com).
Photography and documentation by Rami Rabea Rishmawi. All garments documented in the article are part of the Maha Saca collection. (firstname.lastname@example.org)