Palestinian costume before 1948 - by region 

Northern Palestine

Northern Palestine was one of the richest regions in costume, as traditional styles varied among the differing social classes and religious sects that inhabited upper and lower Galilee.

pc403x.JPG (28630 bytes)
Costumes from the Galilee region, displayed at the Museum of Mankind Exhibition Palestinian Costume 1989, London

The basic wardrobe of the fellahin woman in Galilee appears to have consisted of the thob, and trousers libas with a long coat jillayeh, and for headgear, the bonnet like hat with coins smadeh. Originally embroidered costume was worn throughout both upper and lower Galilee. In the 1860's, H B Tristram described garments in the villages of El Bussah and Isfia as being either "plain, patched [appliqued] or embroidered in the most fantastic and grotesque shapes". A wider selection of stitches appears to have been used in Galilee than anywhere else in Palestine. Satin stitch, diagonal satin stitch, cross stitch, stem stitch and joining stitch were popular, and appear on many examples of Galilee costume still preserved today.

Examples of coats from the 19th century show stunning mixtures of technique. The garments were often made of handwoven cotton with front sections decorated in a rich patchwork of silk or taffeta applique (a technique known as heremezy) and ikat-dyed silk weaves, and with back panels embroidered with silk thread in carpet-like designs of geometric motifs. The clothing of the Druze sect of northern Galilee remained more traditional due to the sect's strict religious laws on modesty and on the overdecoration of garments. Basic garment construction and the items worn were the same. In the late 19th century, women's coats were sewn from handwoven materials and were occasionally decorated with heremezy silk patch applique or brocade.

port2.jpg (11752 bytes)
Qabbeh from a Nablus dress, 1920's. (on loan from the Tareq Rajab Museum, Kuwait)

The region of Palestine that contains the principal towns of Nablus, Tulkarm and Jenin, was a more barren region than either Galilee or central Palestine. Because agricultural conditions were more difficult women helped more in the fields and had less time to develop indigenous embroidery styles. There is a proverb in the district that "embroidery signifies a lack of work".

Nablus costume achieved its distinctive style by means of colourful combinations of fabric and colour. Nablus was an important trade centre, with a flourishing souk. Items available in 1882 included Sheffield cutlery, Bohemian glasses, and Turkish clothing and pipes. There was a large choice of fabrics available, from Damascus and Aleppo silk to Manchester cottons and calicos.

Garments were similar in construction to those in Galilee, with the wearing of long and short Turkish style jackets over the more common thob. Thobs for daily wear were often made of white cotton or linen, with a preference for winged sleeves. Summer costumes often incorporated interwoven striped bands of red, green and yellow on both front and back, with applique and braidwork popular for decoration on the chest panel.

Central Palestine

port12.jpg (39187 bytes)
Detail from a shinyar panel from a Ramallah thob 1920's-1930's (on loan from the Tareq Rajab Museum, Kuwait)

The hill country of Judaea formed the eastern half of central Palestine. It was a prosperous region, encompassing four important towns: Jerusalem, Hebron, Ramallah and Bethlehem. From this region came three distinct styles of Palestinian costume, all using the medium of embroidery as their major feature. With the exception of the Bethlehem short jacket, used for special occasions, Turkish influence is less apparent in Central and Southern Palestine.

The most unusual feature of Ramallah costume was the white linen fabric roumi which was used for festive dresses and scarves. In winter an indigo dyed linen was used. Ramallah embroidery was predominantly red cross stitch using silk thread and this use of red on white linen made Ramallah garments stylistically distinctive. The embroidery was patterned less densely than in some regions, such as Hebron. The qabbeh panel was often executed on a separate piece of cloth then stitched to the dress and in some garments the qabbeh continued to form a yoke on the back and shoulders. Embroidery also appeared on the sleeves, and in two vertical bands on the front and back of the skirt covering the seams. An embroidered shinyar panel fitted between the vertical bands on the back hem.

Popular embroidery patterns in Ramallah included the tall date palm makhl 'ali arranged in horizontal rows across the back of the dress or along the scarf. A rainbow design qos embroidered on the chest panel determined the composition, as in the dresses from the Judean Hills. Other common traditional motifs were the leech lalaq , the star nujum and "moon feathers" qamar-ish. Motifs such as the popular flowering plants, irises and birds have European origins via the missionaries, and also show Turkish and Greek influence.

The headress smadeh was of a type once worn throughout northern Palestine, and was a small roundish cap, padded and stiffened, which looked rather like a halo with gold and silver coins set in a fringe. The long veil which was pinned to the bonnet at the back was sometimes a silk scarf and sometime embroidered.

The costumes and embroideries of Bethlehem were esteemed by villages throughout the Judaean Hills and the Coastal Plain. So esteemed, in fact, that the women embroiderers of Bethlehem and the neighbouring villages of Beit Jala and Beit Sahur were able to operate on a professional basis for the production of wedding costumes.

port4.jpg (73326 bytes)
Bethlehem wedding jacket taqsireh 1930's-1940's  (on loan from the Tareq Rajab Museum, Kuwait)

Everyday dresses in Bethlehem were generally of indigo fabric, worn with a sleeveless coat bisht made from locally woven wool. Special occasion dresses were made of striped silk, on top of which was worn a short jacket taqsireh, known throughout Palestinian as the Bethlehem jacket. This was made of velvet or broadcloth and was usually heavily embroidered. The winged sleeves of the dress would hang down below the short jacket sleeves.

The unique feature of Bethlehem work was the couching of gold or silver cord, or silk cord onto the silk, wool, felt or velvet of the garment which enabled the creation of stylized floral patterns with free or rounded lines. Some have traced this technique to Byzantium, others to the more formal costumes of the ruling class during the Ottoman empire. Its appearance in Bethlehem may perhaps be credited to the fact that Bethlehem was a Christian village, and the local women were much exposed to the ornate embellishments of church vestments with their heavy embroidery and silver brocade.

port5.jpg (25001 bytes) port6.jpg (49552 bytes)
Top: Bethlehem headdress shatweh, c1920's (Tareq Rajab Museum, Kuwait) Top: Qabbeh from Bethlehem thob malak abu wardeh 1940's (Tareq Rajab Museum, Kuwait - Lady Gloria Dale Collection, 1994)
port8.jpg (16528 bytes) port7.jpg (18127 bytes)
Bottom: Hebron thob 1920's - 1940's (private collection, Sydney) Bottom: Hebron thob 1890's - 1920's (private collection, Sydney)

This technique was used for the so called "royal" wedding dress thob malak, jacket taksireh and hat shatweh. The royal fabric, which appeared in the last part of the 19th century, was an indigo cotton weft and silk warp stripes of red, green and orange. On the dress, the qabbeh was the most decorated, with the base fabric often completely covered by the embroidery. Couching was also practiced on the lower sleeves and lower sides of the dress. The Bethlehem hat shatweh was worn by married women and made of quilted linen embroidered across the top and down the sides.

Hebron is traditionally one of the oldest towns in Palestine, and from its surrounding villages - including Beit 'Ummar, Bani-Na'im, Beit Jibrin, Dhahriyyeh, Dura and Samula - came some of the richest and most beautiful forms of Palestinian embroidery.

Village costume fabrics were handwoven linens, cottons, silks dyed indigo and cut in a similar manner to Ramallah dresses, often with long sleeves. They were covered, however, with much larger areas of embroidery. Not only the front of the dress but the sides and back were embroidered in vertical patterns. 

The usual embroidery stitch was cross stitch with fishbone as the joining stitch. Special costumes such as wedding dresses were also decorated with heremezy technique, with triangular and diamond silk applique patches bearing amuletic significance.

The yoke tended to be larger than other regions, extending over the shoulders down to the qabbeh, and was thought to have been traditionally embroidered; since the mid 20th century it has been made of atlas silk. The qabbeh was also similar to the Ramallah style, with the rainbow qos and the chain pattern glayed determining the composition. Often motifs on the qabbeh would be repeated   on the shinyar of the skirt. There were a vast variety of motifs, including stars, triangles, grapes, cypress trees, birds and other quadrilatural forms.

Jerusalem, although a major administrative and cultural capital, never developed any indigenous style of costume. Writing in 1898 on the problem of establishing a local style of Jewish costume, Israel Abrahams noted "people bring all the costumes of the world here, then borrow from each other, and thus I doubt that a Jerusalem type of costume will evolve itself". This is equally applicable to Palestinian traditions.

port1.jpg (62776 bytes)
Jerusalem thob ghabani, 1920's (on loan from Tareq Rajab Museum, Kuwait)
pc118.JPG (29014 bytes)
Detail of a sleeve from a Beit Dajan thob abeyed 1920's - 30's (on loan from Tareq Rajab Museum, Kuwait)

The major influences on surviving Palestinian garments from Jerusalem are from the surrounding areas, particularly Bethlehem and Ramallah. A Jerusalem dress may imitate the basic Ramallah style, and even have decorative panels embroidered in Ramallah, but may be made of completely different fabrics from those traditionally used in the Ramallah district. One example of this type was the popular thob abu qutbeh, the dress of pieces, made from long patches of Aleppo or Damascus silk or velvet, with a Bethlehem qabbeh sewn on. Others were made of Syrian embroidered fabrics, again with decorative panels commissioned from Bethlehem.

The area west of Judaea, extending from the base of the Judaean Hills to the Mediterranean coast, the central Coastal Plain, is an area rich in agriculture and contained the towns of Jaffa and Majdel. The emphasis for costume embellishment in Majdel rested on the actual fabric: strong stripes of purple, magenta or green, with a little embroidery judiciously placed.

In contrast was the village of Beit Dajan, some six kilometres southeast of Jaffa, which until 1948 was an influential centre of weaving and embroidery. Costumes from Beit Dajan were outstanding for their varied techniques, many of which were adopted from other regional styles. Some examples of costume embroidery are as rich and dense as Hebron, while others use couching in a style similar to that of Bethlehem. This imitation work, called rashek in Beit Dajan, was apparently brought to the village by a Bethlehem woman who visited in the 1930s. White linen garments copied from Ramallah examples also appear to have been popular, but in Beit Dajan were not only embroidered but covered with patchwork and appliqued sequins.

One of the most popular motifs was the al-nafnuf design, a floral pattern quite different to most geometric motifs and thought to be inspired by the locally grown orange trees. The format of the nafnuf design - embroidery running in long panels known as ‘branches’ ‘erq - was an innovation after WW1 and was to be the forerunner of the ‘6 branch’ style dresses found throughout the Palestine region today.

port15.jpg (20439 bytes) port14.jpg (33873 bytes)
Qabbeh from a Gaza thob 1915 - 1920's (on loan from Tareq Rajab Museum, Kuwait) Detail of a shinyar panel from a Gaza thob (on loan from the Tareq Rajab Museum, Kuwait)

Southern Palestine

The Gaza region, at the southern end of the Coastal Plain, is also thought to have been a very old weaving and dyeing centre. Gauze (gazzatum in Medieval Latin) - the very thin transparent material woven of silk or cotton - is reputed to have originated there and been transported back to Europe via the Crusaders.

The cloth for the Gaza thob was traditionally woven at nearby Majdel, either of black or blue cotton, or striped. The pink and green striped fabrics of Majdel continued to be woven in the Gaza strip up to the late 1960s by refugees from the Coastal Plain villages.

The thob was cut narrow with tight straight sleeves. Embroidery was not as heavy as in Hebron, although the same motifs were common. Most popular were scissors muqass, combs mushut and triangles hijab often arranged in clusters of fives, sevens and threes, the use of odd numbers being considered effective against the evil eye.

port13.jpg (44911 bytes)` port16.jpg (117927 bytes)
Child's thob from Gaza 1910's - 20's, made from many old pieces of embroidery (Tareq Rajab Museum, Kuwait- Lady Gloria Dale Collection, 1994) Detail of the back panel shinyar of a Sinai bedouin thob 1940s. (Palestine Costume Archive, Canberra)

The emphasis on triangular motifs, and the use of designs with amuletic significance found in Gaza are a very strong link between the styles and traditions of the southern fellahin and the local nomadic bedouin tribes.

Sinai bedouin costume, modified for a desert environment, consisted of the same type of dress, pants and headveil as worn by the fellahin. These were worn with a faceveil, known as a burqa. The basic dress was fuller than the fellahin thob with either narrow sleeves with no cuffs or sleeves of a long winged style called abu erdan. It was usually made of heavy black cotton, poplin or sateen material. Black was the preferred colour and was practical for the desert environment. Sinai and Negev bedouin women embroidered their dresses with the same brightly coloured cross stitch that was found throughout Palestinian villages. Unlike the Palestinian garments - where the chest panel was of significance - the most important area for the embroidery was the back panel at the back of the dress which was decorated with heavily embroidered block-like forms, usually variations of geometric patterns worked in heavy cross stitch. El Arish provided an area of transition between the heavier, fanciful bedouin styles and the sophistication of Palestinian village costume.

port17.JPG (18237 bytes)
Sinai Bedouin face veil burqa 1920's - 1940's (Palestine Costume Archive, Canberra)

The burqa was of great importance to the Sinai woman as it was a means to display wealth and status. It hung from a narrow band at the forehead, and covered the nose, mouth and neck areas, sometimes extending to the chest. It was less of a mask-like structure than the veils of Saudi Arabia, and could be easily removed in privacy (although women were known to sleep in them).

For special occasions an embroidered shawl of black cotton or silk was worn which matched the embroidery of the best dresses. The embroidery was centred down the shawl in such a manner that the design extends from the top of the head to the embroidered back panel of the dress. When viewed from the back, the entire form appeared wrapped in embroidery. The bedouin justification for this tradition was that to reveal the decoration on the front of the garments would be to attract the attention of men to the face of the wearer. This would be immodest. To attract attention after one has walked passed is not so!

For further information for illustrations of Northern and Southern Sinai Bedouin costume see under Egypt in Costumes from other areas of the Middle East

Back To Index