Vibrant Tunisian Textiles

A mix of social and cultural diversity

History has left recognizable reminders across the whole of the Maghreb in the shape of the wide variety of textiles used and dresses worn. In Tunisia, textiles—their significance and methods of production—remain a firm part of the country's identity. Tunisians knot and weave rugs, weave cloths of rural, urban, sub-Saharan traditions that were influenced throughout their history by the Greek, Andalusian, Ottoman, and Arabic civilizations; they dye their fibres and fabrics with the essence of henna, madder, and pomegranate bark, resulting in a rich gamut of earthy yellows, browns, greens and reds; and they embroider intricate decorations that one day will be part of a wedding dress, exquisite curtains, or decorative bed throws. The country's textile heritage vibrates with the diversity that arises from the gender segregation between men and women; the differences between rural areas and the cities, the islands and the desert, the hinterlands and the central market towns. And, while some silk weaving survives, when it comes to textiles, it is all about wool in Tunisia. To the extent that over the centuries a type of sheep with a soft long fleece has been bred and proudly carries by name the country's capital—Tunis—into the world.

The historic influence of civilizations past is also visible in the variety of weaving technologies predominant in different regions. Upright, single-heddle looms are used by women in rural areas of the country, and date back to antiquity. The horizontal ground looms used in the same regions were introduced following the Arab invasions of the seventh century A.D. Treadle-loom weaving was introduced during the eighth century, although the varieties of treadle loom used in Tunisian towns such as Mahdia probably did not become widespread until the period of Ottoman influence from the sixteenth century onwards. Finally, draw-looms—invented in Spain or Portugal—and named after the set of supplementary heddles that would be "drawn up" by one or more assistants to the weaver, are still used in Mahdia to weave a rare type of narrow silk strips in complex patterns.  And on the island of Djerba, the weaving trade was considered so important for the local economy that dedicated weaving huts, called harout, were built next to a weaver's home. Whitewashed, with its two triangular pediments, front and back, and its sunken external buttresses down each side, a harout is easily recognizable. Yet, the finest Djerban textiles—in particular the intricately patterned Biskriare —are not always woven in the harout, but rather in a back room of the weaver's own home.

On Kerkennah, a group of islands further south from Djerba, the men weave plain colored cloth that is decorated by the women with counted thread embroideries that date as far back as the Carthaginians. But like in many places removed from the city centers, Kerkennah suffers from an exodus of young people to the larger cities, a lack of opportunities for income generation, and an aging local population. As a result, the typical Kerkennian weaving and embroidery is close to extinction. With this in mind, Farma Samet, a native from the island and herself a skilled weaver and passionate weaving student and teacher, founded Kerkenatiss. Under the company's wings, a network of weavers and embroiderers transforms natural fibres—in addition to wool, fibres such as camel hair are used for texture—into a wide range of fabrics suitable for interiors or clothing. The network approach has changed lives. Not only do the sales generate much needed income for the communities, but even the national crafts organisation has become aware of the wealth of textile knowledge that exists across the country and which is in desperate need of recording and preservation.

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ITC's EnACT program partners with the Tunisian National Craft Office to foster the export of Tunisian artisan and craft products and to create new jobs in the country. For details, please visit:  http://www.intracen.org/enact/about/about.htm

Pamela Ravasio is an ethical fashion journalist and consultant, and the publisher of the research based eco fashion Blog 'Shirahime 白姫' http://shirahime.ch.

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