Palestinian embroidery is one of the many traditional handicrafts found in Bethlehem . It is a special trade mark in Bethlehem . This rich and exclusively female artistic tradition flourished in Palestine up to the middle of this century. Although much of its characteristics have changed over the years, you can find this truly remarkable artistic example of culture up to the present day. Designs vary from village to village, as they are passed down from mother to daughter. The main techniques used in Palestine were, and still, are, cross-stitch and couching with silk and metallic cords. Embroidery has always been mainly for the adornment of costume, although in some areas home articles such as cushion covers were also embroidered. Many women produce stylish dresses, as well as intricately worked jackets, cushions, tablecloths and pillows.
Palestinian embroidery patterns were a combination of geometric and abstract motifs, and floral designs. It is very difficult to track down the origin of these patterns; Palestine has always been exposed to and influenced by other cultures, lying at the crossroads of international travel and trade and being a pilgrimage center for Islam, Judaism and Christianity. Nevertheless, Palestinian embroidery has its own distinctive character.
Tourists frequently buy such costumes, or such items as embroidered handkerchiefs, bed covers, runners, table cloth and the like. High prices are normally paid because of the skill and time involved. In the streets and the crowded market, it is possible to see women with high heels, a belted waist with a large bodice embroidered with gaily-colored flowers, and a white veil flowing down to the shoulders.
The main garment is a flowing dress, and a special head-cover. The Qabbeh (chest-panel) was embroidered with golden and silk threads, in various geometrical designs. On the sleeves and on both sides of the dress are triangular pieces embroidered in bright red or green.
The Shatweh (head dress) was another important element of a married woman's dress. It was made of several layers of embroidered material, to which was added coral beads, golden and silver coins. Over the Shatweh a tarbi'a (veil) was placed to cover the shoulders and a part of the back. This form of head dress echoes those worn by medieval western women. The style arrived in Palestine at the time of the Crusaders.
Around the waist, a Cashmere or woolen shawl was generally tied as a belt, and a short jacket, taksireh was worn over the dress. This was embroidered with silk for everyday use, but with golden or silver threads for feasts or special occasions. In winter, women put on a short woven woolen overcoat striped in red and black.
The beauty of such clothes is enhanced by red leather shoes. For everyday life, women turn the pointed sleeves and tie them in the back, enabling them to carry on with their everyday work. These simple garments were embroidered with various colored threads in cross stitch.
Religious ornaments, handmade from olive-wood and mother-of-pearl with a painstaking attention to detail, are especially attractive to tourists. Palestine 's world-renowned olive wood artifacts are made from the blessed olive trees of Palestine . Olive trees in Palestine are not only found in abundance, but some date back to the times of Jesus Christ. Exquisite olive wood statues, crosses, and other artifacts can be found at the numerous souvenir shops in Bethlehem . The manufacture of religious items and souvenirs from olive wood is traditional in the district of Bethlehem.
It is believed that the craft was begun in Bethlehem in the fourth century following the construction of the Church of the Nativity at which time the monks taught the craft to the local residents. The origins of this craft are obscure, but one of the earliest products were rosary beads carved from olive pits.
Because of religious associations with the olive tree and because of the availability of supplies of wood, wood carving has been very popular. This craft is one of the few professions to be passed down through generations. It later spread to surrounding towns, mainly Beit Jala and Beit Sahour which are part of the Bethlehem area.
Olive wood carving is the most important tourist craft in Bethlehem . A number of superb artists continue this tradition.
Wood carving is the process of shaping wood into decorative and sculptural forms. Olive wood is used because it can be worked readily and accurately with simple hand tools. Also, it has a nice variety of natural color and tonal depth, due to the annual structure. It is also resistant to decay and receptive to a number of surfacing treatments. Rough cutting is done on machines programmed with the master design model. The finest work incorporating facial expressions and intricate details, must be chiseled by hand. After sanding, the items are machine buffed with homemade clothes permeated with beeswax. This is the only finish they require. Varnish is avoided because it will eventually cause the olive wood to crack.
Over one thousand different gift items are made from olive wood like boxes, picture frames, covers for historical and old books, candle holders, rosaries, urns, vases and Christmas ornaments. Olive wood is crafted into crèche scenes with individual figures of Jesus, Mary, Joseph, the three Magi, the shepherds and even cows and sheep. Often these are enclosed in an open-sided stable surrounded by palm trees. Above them hovers a shooting star.
Franciscan Friars from Damascus are credited with establishing the craft in Bethlehem between the 14th and the 16th centuries. To teach local residents, they brought in craftsmen from Genova. Initially artisans used Mother-of-Pearl coming from the Red Sea . Today, abalone shells come to Bethlehem from Australia , Cali-fornia , Mexico , Brazil and New Zealand . Because of its thickness, it is possible to carve relief in the shells. The mother-of-pearl is taken from the rest of the shell and pieces are used for mosaics. Experienced workers use the mother-of- pearl to create delicate filigrees. Most popular items are crosses, ear-rings and brooches. In cheaper items, plastic is interwoven with mother-of-pearl. However, plastic lacks the multi-hues of so called white mother-of-pearl.
The Bethlehem area includes 63 olive wood and 56 mother-of-pearl workshops. Nevertheless, local predictions are that mother-of-pearl carving will soon belong to Bethlehem 's history because the work requires intense concentration and highly skilled craftsmanship. Shimmering colors and lace-like carvings may end up only in museums