Islamic Embroidery


A Dubai exhibit about a deep cultural history

“The Arab civilization is the inheritor and producer of astounding cultural treasures, the majority of which are still unknown to many. This is why I have always worked towards using embroidery as a way to reveal the wealth of the heritage of Islamic art and give the world an opportunity to access them.” explains Isabelle Denamur, ethnologist of embroidered textiles and curator of a never-before-seen exhibition now on in Abu Dhabi, capital of United Arab Emirates. “What better place than the Middle East to host A Story of Islamic Embroidery in Nomadic and Urban Traditions, an exquisite display of some of the treasures of the Islamic world?”

The Islamic world of our Story dates back to the previous three centuries. It stretches from Morocco in the west, across North Africa, through the Middle East and Persian Gulf region, to Central Asia as far as Pakistan in the East. All through history these regions were home to nomadic tribes, roaming the deserts, mountains and steppe. They earned their livelihood from breeding livestock and from trading wool, silk, cotton and other textiles.

This narrative plays out on two levels. It starts with the public story which tells about textile as a commodity and an essential part of commercial life. Textiles in all its forms were the mainstay of the Central Asian economy and the primary commodity traded along the Silk Road. Commercial embroidery in Iran and Pakistan was mainly done by men, guild workers who produced large scale items for export to Russia and other foreign markets. Political life was closely connected to the textile world. Social status was defined by what one wore – from the Emperor’s gold-embroidered velvet to the labourer’s striped cotton to the nomad’s felted wool. Diplomacy and negotiations required gifts of richly embroidered and embellished clothes, hangings and saddle-cloths.

From the bazaars and urban courts our Story moves closer to home and becomes more intimate. It tells of countless and ‘nameless’ women who offered us a glimpse into their private world through their needlecraft and embroidered art.

In a world where a woman’s voice was seldom heard in public, where her life was lived behind a veil of privacy, she learned to talk with her hands. With needle and thread she spoke fluently about life, love, motherhood, tradition and religion. The fine silk threads, the delicate stitches and the intricate designs revealed a vocabulary rich in drama and expression, telling stories that would otherwise have stayed untold.

Most of the items in the exhibition were made by women specifically for their homes and families. The crafting of these textiles represents the personal commitment of these women to sustain and reinforce their communities, family ties and cultural identities.

For a young girl her journey with embroidery started when she was about seven years old. At first she would be taught by her mother and later join the other women in communal sewing sessions. It was as if the best part of her childhood was spent preparing her dowry with the last two or three years before her wedding devoted entirely to this task. Helped by friends and women of the family, she would make new clothes for the family to wear at the wedding, gifts for the guests, cloths and presents for her new groom and his family and textiles for her new home. All this work was a testimony of her skill and suitability as a future wife.

In urban communities like the cities of Morocco and Algeria and the trading centres of Central Asia and Iran young girls were introduced to the art by an embroidery mistress who taught the girls in small workshops or sewing groups. It was a means for the girls to escape the confines of their homes and meet with friends. The women usually worked together in groups made up of several generations, each embroidering a narrow strip of textile which would then be sewn together to form a single big item. The suzani’s in the exhibition are wonderful examples of these communal sewing projects.

Unlike most fairytales our Story does not end with ‘…and they lived happily ever after’. Most of the traditions which supported and sustained the creation of embroideries had fallen victim to outside influences like the education of girls, improved transportation and exposure to modern media.

Young girls now spend their formative years with pen and paper instead of needle and thread. This is wonderful progress and should, of course, be encouraged, but it does mean the end of a rich, colourful and intricate tradition. Roads like the Karakoram Highway in Northern Pakistan exposed formerly remote tribes to modern influences. Previously isolated villagers who used to live by the work of their own hands now have access to commercial products from the outside world. Satellite television and access to the internet exposes people to different styles of dress and home decoration. These days a bridegroom prefers a cheap western suit to traditionally embroidered wedding attire and prefers his bride to bring a radio and cash as a dowry instead of embroidered textiles. The newly wedded couple also prefer a car or scooter above a horse dressed up in intricately handmade wedding regalia.

This sad ending accentuate the importance of not only protecting and restoring the existing treasures of the past, but also to encourage and support the people who work hard to keep these traditions alive. The fragile future of traditional embroidery depends on the women themselves. They have to find a way to make their handiwork economically viable in the open market. And they have to continue passing the skill along to their daughters.

Isabelle continues: “This unprecedented assemblage of 215 unique embroideries serves as a poetic journey in time, where every stitch is the hint that will bring the audience closer to the intimate world of the embroiderers. We hope this exhibition will be used as a window to a different culture in a different period of one’s own traditions. These exceptional textiles will be displayed to allow each person to admire and question them, and wonder about the life hidden behind each piece. There is more than one way of looking at these textiles, because each piece is simultaneously a story in itself and part of the bigger more complex picture. This exhibition has accordingly been arranged so as to reflect the concept of the embroideries with many complex links, intersections and divisions.”