While I was in Nablus recently, one of my great hopes was to meet some embroiderers and see some examples of their work. Luckily I was able to do this at least in part. As we had a very tight schedule and we were only there for a very short time, I didn’t alas get the opportunity to have a good chat with any of the embroiderers. However I did manage to see lots of embroidery. It was pleasing to see that embroidery could be found adorning the walls and rooms of many of the places we visited. Embroidery in Palestine is not simply a decorative art, the finished pieces are nearly always used for a practical purpose- in dishes, trays, cushions, belts, hats, purses, bags, even clocks and of course in dresses.
Though this post is primarily about Nablus, we first encountered traditional embroidery in our hotel in Jerusalem, and the first photo below is an example of a little dish. This is followed by two embroidery pieces from the office of the Mayor of Nablus. First a clock and then one of the very few decorative pieces we came across.
My first and only chance to meet embroiderers was when we visited the Women’s Centre in the Balata Refugee Camp. There we met a group of women of all ages stitching away at a variety of pieces. From what we could gather there were no charts or books of designs to follow. Each woman seemed to stitch from memory, or if working on a new pattern, Allah provided the guidance. As you can see from one of the photos, nobody used any kind of frame. Quite amazing to see.
Our next chance to meet an embroiderer came when Shaden our guide and leader for our stay, invited us for lunch at her grandmother’s home. This lovely lady, not only provided us with a delicious meal, but showed us some of her collection of embroidery pieces. Again, most served a practical purpose, lots of cushions and dishes and trays. We also had the good fortune to see some of the beautifully embroidered dresses that she had made, and you can see the bodice of one of them in the third photo.
Dresses are the high point of Palestinian embroidery, and in the past mothers would lovingly create dresses and other items for their daughters and to a lesser extent jackets or headwear for their sons. The damage to Palestinian society caused by the expulsions and occupations since 1948 has meant that this tradition has to a large extent disappeared. Much effort has now gone into reviving traditional embroidery, especially in the refugee camps and in some schools. Let us hope that more and more Palestinians of today continue with this art. We had the chance to see some of the embroidery work of earlier times when we visited An-Najah university. The Art Department there has a small collection of all kinds of items from the past, including dresses and other embroidered pieces. Three of them are shown below.
It is a shame that there does not seem to be a place in Nablus where some of these wonderful embroidery pieces can be put on public display. The university collection is probably only for students and guests. Most embroidery is to found in people’s homes or in some offices. I end with three more examples which we saw while visiting homes or private centres. The first seems to be a very old cushion of some kind which was just lying around in the treasure trove of the backroom in the wonderful spice shop in the Old City. Then a more recent hanging which is, if I am correct, in the Al Hayat Centre. The last piece we found while visiting the home of one of the Samaritan’s in their hilltop village. It is a bag and is most unusual in that it was the only piece I came across which is not stitched in the traditional Palestinian style, which only uses the cross stitch. This bag was stitched using simple horizontal or vertical stitches, much as in Bargello designs. The pattern too seems to come from Pakistan or India, rather than Palestine. My thanks to all the people of Nablus who let us see their beautiful embroidery work.