A white dress, delicately adorned with tiny red cross stitches making floral patterns hangs from the door of an antique gallery in the historic Old City of Jerusalem. The owner of the gallery, Yasser Barakat, explains that it is most probably a wedding dress.
He points out decorative details on this costume and then on other fine embroidery kept in an open chest in his treasure trove of a shop.
He explains that each piece of Palestinian needlework is a carefully created story in thread, and a part of Palestinian heritage to be safeguarded.
This traditional Palestinian craft of intricate cross stitch is known as tatreez. It is an ancient art form, passed down through generations of Palestinian women, which not only adorns garments and accessories but also narrates a rich history of a people steadfast in preserving their cultural heritage despite adversities. In these stitches stories are built from threads of culture, heritage and resilience. This craft has become a symbol of Palestinian identity and can be found in homes of most Palestinian families, in the West Bank, Gaza strip, Israel and far afield in the diaspora.
Cross stitch embroidery is an ancient craft, practised by communities across the globe. It’s difficult to say when and where this technique first started but it has been an integral part of the region's textile tradition and has deep roots in Palestinian history, dating back centuries, perhaps even longer. Archaeological digs in Jericho have found representations of women wearing embroidered thoub ( a traditional Palestinian dress) and there is evidence to suggest that the “current embroidery styles are part of a cultural tradition that dates back thousands of years”. It is so deeply ingrained in the culture that in 2021 “The art of embroidery in Palestine, practices, skills, knowledge and rituals” were inscribed in UNESCO’s list of “Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity”.
Tatreez embellishes women’s clothing and served as a means of personal expression, with women incorporating symbols and motifs into their designs, each carrying a unique story or representing a particular village or family.
Imagery was inspired by a traditional rural life: colours, cloth and motifs could tell you much about a person’s social standing and where they were from. Common motifs include geometric patterns, floral designs, depictions of olive trees, cypress trees, and village scenes.
The tradition of Palestinian embroidery “Is extremely rich” explains art historian Rachel Dedman “it has a language, a vocabulary, dialects of its own, because despite being not a huge territory, Palestine had extraordinarily multi faceted modes of making embroidery; so the work from Ramallah is different from the work from Bethlehem and is different from the kinds of motifs that were practised in Jerusalem. You can understand this via the kinds of motifs that are used… in Jaffa for instance which is by the sea you may notice motifs related to water or to oranges where they grow a lot of oranges. In Hebron you have a lot of the vine motifs because this was a grape growing region.”
Attributing stitch styles to regions is not always clear cut, researchers have accounts “ of a gradual waxing and waning of embroidery fashions influenced by new ideas moving through the countryside ….” one style being pushed aside because at a particular moment it was seen as insufficiently modest, or another style drifting to coast from the country after a family outing from Bethlehem impressed the style on another community of women. Patterns were “adopted from European copy books” … and “Syrian silk threads gave way to cheaper, more plentiful DMC cotton threads from France.
Historically, tatreez patterns varied from village to village, but after the creation of the state of Israel in 1948 Palestinians were displaced and as people from different areas started living together in refugee camps, the distinctions began to fade. “Now people are wearing whatever they like from any village,” says master embroiderer Feryal Abbasi-Ghnaim.
The Palestinian cultural landscape has also changed so dramatically in the past 100 years.
Much of the traditional way of life was lost after 1948. Old ways of being were no longer so relevant, and as time went on “fewer young women wore the thoub, for it was more costly and time consuming than ready made Western clothing”. Older women did continue to embroider, and some younger women started to practise cross stitching for a number of cooperatives set up to help preserve craft traditions. The craft evolved, and where the style of embroidery was once defined by village or region - a new type of tatreez was born of a mix of old symbols and patterns - “pragmatically mixed together to present a unified cultural whole. Embroidery survived, but it was transformed from a village handicraft into an artistic expression of nationalism”.
Today, more than ever “It’s important for us to preserve our story,” says Bshara Nassar, founder and director of the Museum of the Palestinian People, “to claim that as Palestinian, to show a rich history going back centuries.” As Palestine has undergone various political and social transformations over the years, Tatreez has emerged as a symbol of resilience and resistance. Where once women may have embroidered flowers, today they might stitch a watermelon ( a popular modern symbol of Palestinian resistance), a flag or a story of war. Through times of occupation and displacement, many Palestinian women have preserved their cultural identity by meticulously continuing the art of tatreez, with the intention to pass down their skills to younger generations. The craft has become a powerful tool for preserving and asserting Palestinian heritage in the face of external pressures.
Interest in the craft has spiked as it is seen as a way to re-connect with Palestinian culture: Tatreez “is unwritten language, transferred stories between woman and woman in silence,” says Feryal Abbasi-Ghnaim, who today lives in the United States. She was one of the hundreds of thousands forced to leave their homes in Palestine in 1948. Her mother and her grandmother taught her this craft in exile, as she has taught her daughters. Palestinian women learned to tell their stories through embroidery. “We want to keep the stories alive….. to make them connected to their tradition, to their culture,” Her daughter, Wafa Ghnaim has become a leading voice in the research and in preservation of Tatreez and Palestinian heritage, setting up the Tatreez Institute and “Tatreez and Tea” giving Palestinians in the diaspora opportunities to learn and connect with their cultural heritage.
Today tatreez is justly honoured and appreciated. Unlike many craft traditions, this ancient skill is still being practised; and whether it is in the diaspora or the Palestinian Territories, the act of making it continues to be a symbol of the steadfastness of the Palestinian people, a way of honouring their cultural heritage and a commitment to their creative future.
A huge thank you to Annie O. Waterman for allowing us to use her images and to the Palestinian UNDP for their warm welcome.
- Conversation with Yasser Barakat https://www.yasserbarakatgallery.com/
- Embroidering a Life. Palestinian Women and Embroidery” by Elizabeth Price, published by Sunbala
- Tatreez Institute
- Wafa Ghnaim https://www.tatreezandtea.com/wafa
- Interview in Vogue June 2021 https://www.vogue.com/article/tatreez
- Museum of the Palestinian People https://mpp-dc.org/