Monday, September 2, 2013

Jean's Palestinian/Bedouin thobe

Hello all,

This is a photo of my friend Jean modelling a dress which had been given her in 1985. The woman who gave it to her said that she had bought it in Jordan about 15 years previously. It is my belief that it was embroidered and sewn by Palestinian refugees in Jordan, as it is very typical of the embroidered dresses worn by women in the southern half of Israel/Palestine. I wish to state very strongly that I have no political agenda in this article, I am interested in the handiwork and traditional costume of all people. [If anyone has any information on the folk costume of Jordan, I would be very glad to know of good sources.]

I believe this piece to have been made in the 1950's-1960's. The arrangement of the embroidery follows exactly the tradition of the Arabic women who live in this area, the embroidery itself is done in a newer style of Bedouin [Bedu] garments from the Negev. The cross stitch was done on waste-canvas, but the dress itself was sewn by hand. The sleeves are narrow, with a short slit in the cuffs, but there is no slit in the bottom hem. All of these details point to an origin in the mid 20th cent.

There are records of embroidered dresses, called Thobes, being worn by the Arab women in the southern half of Israel/Palestine already in the British Mandate period. There were various local traditions, noteably in the villages around Ramallah, Hebron, Jaffa, Gaza, and Be'ersheba. Bethlehem was and is famous for a different type of embroidery. Some areas did not do embroidery on their dresses. It would seem that originally the cross stitch embroidery was done on white linen garments, as in this example from Ramallah.

Although around Ramallah and some other regions white thobes continued to be worn, in most of southern Israel/Palestine indigo dyed linen was more highly regarded, the darker the better. Counted cross stitch continued to be done directly on the dyed linen for a while. Later on commercially woven black cloth of any kind was used, and the cross-stitch was executed by means of waste canvas. [I admit to not being a fan of waste canvas, I find the finished result to often be less than optimal, since it is easy to place it on a slant, and it tends to distort while working. It does allow cross stitch to be worked on cloth which has too fine a weave to be counted directly, however.]

Some of the examples  from the late 19th cent. were quite simple. You will notice that the arrangement of the embroidery was already the same.

In many villages more elaborate versions were developed, each village having its preferred colors and motifs [although some shade of red was almost always the dominant color], although European copybook motifs were readily adopted and added to the repetoire. Here is one example from the Ramallah region which is in the British Museum.

Here is a closeup of the bib from another piece.

Here is the general cut of the thobe. This basic cut was used by Arabs for both men's and women's robes over quite a large area, including Saudi Arabia and Egypt.

 More side panels were added when extra fullness was desired. One word of warning, the bottom edge of the side panels did not end on the same line as shown here, but rather each long side was of the same length, the hem curving up if laid flat. Otherwise the sides would end up being longer and dragging on the ground. Another variant of the cut was used if the cloth was narrow, as would have been the case for home woven materials.

The four most important locations for embroidery are shown above:
1. Qabba - bib or breastpiece, 
     usually embroidered as a separate piece for convenience.
2. Dhayal - bottom back of the central field. 
    Note that there is no shoulder seam, as is the case for many traditional garments. 
3. Banayiq - side panels. 
    The embroidery was done vertically, following the seams.
4. Irdan - sleeves. 
    The sleeves were originally very wide, but became narrow around the mid 20th cent. as this    style of embroidery spread from the villages.

Note that these are the exact areas which are embroidered on Jean's thobe, along with the cuffs and hem.

This photo was taken in Ramallah in 1987.

Some more contemporary examples of this costume as worn today.

Closeups of Jean's dress. Front bib, Qabba. As is so often the case in cross stitch, a few motifs are repeated for ornamental effect. This piece is unusual in that the front opening is made quite wide and then backed with an extra piece for modesty's sake. Most commonly the opening is a narrow slit.

The back rear panel, Dhayal. Note a separate ornament worked along the back seam of the side panel. The seam is clearly visible.

The side panels, Banayiq, two on each side, front and back. The ornament embroidered on the side and front seams is different from that embroidered along the back seam. There is also embroidery all along the bottom hem.

The sleeves, Irdan. On this piece, there is also embroidery above the shoulder seam up to the neckline. In older pieces this was often sewn of some different ornamental cloth. The cuffs and neck opening are finished off with a beautiful overcast stitch.

 This type of embroidery continues to be made and worn, as well as being transferred to cushions and other decorative items.
Thank you for reading, I hope that you have found this interesting and perhaps inspiring. This type of embroidery is obviously well suited to many types of projects. I will close with a few more random images of this type of embroidery.

The following pieces are all Bedouin. These are the closest in motif and color to Jean's thobe.

Blue embroidery is used by girls and menopausal women. Upon marriage a woman is allowed to embroider her clothes in red. This dress was partly embroidered before marriage.

for the six photos from the blog post "New acquisition - Sinai Desert thob c1960s" 28 Dec 2012:

Bedu thob - Sinai Desert, Egypt
c. late 1960s-1970s
Palestine Costume Archive collection

 Bedu thob - diyal panel, Sinai Desert, Egypt
Palestine Costume Archive collection
Full Bedouin Costume

Early 20th century Sinai Desert bedu costumes
in the Palestine Costume Archive's collection
from the Archive's traveling exhibition
"Portraits without names: Palestinian costume"

Feel free to contact me with requests for research. I hope to eventually cover all of Europe and the Former Russian Empire/Soviet Union. I also gratefully accept tips on source materials which i may not have. I also accept commissions to research/design, sew, and/or embroider costumes or other items for groups or individuals. I also choreograph and teach folk dance.
Roman K.

Feel free to contact me at this email address.

Source Material:

I would like to sincerely thank the good people at the website and blog 'Palestinian costume archive' for their gracious permission to use their images and material to enrich this article, and, I hope, for more articles on this subject to come. Please visit their website:

Widad Kamel Kawar and Tania Tamari Nasir, 'Stickerei aus Palaestina', Munich, 1989
Shelagh Weir, 'Palestinian Costume', Austin, 1989
Jehan Rajab, 'Palestinian Costume', London, 1989
Abed Al-Samih Abu Omar, 'Traditional Palestinian Embroidery and Jewelry', Jerusalem, 1986


  1. Thank you Roman, another style of embroidery I had not seen before. The vivid colours on black remind me of stained glass.

    1. I am glad that you appreciate it, nays

    2. While we understand your desire not to write a political post, the problem is, you can't write about Palestinian traditional costume in any depth unless you draw a firm line before and after 1948.

      All of the sources you are quoting discuss Palestinian costume before 1948. The lavishly embroidered and decorated costumes you see in Shelagh, Widad and Jehan's books are long gone. Plus the "bedu" images in Abed Al-Samih Abu Omar's book are completely posed.

      Jean's dress is, as you've worked out, c.1960s- 70s. Our museum is one of the very very few that acquires and researches post 1948 Palestinian costume and embroidery. Which is why you've drawn so heavily from our museum's website and blogs in the illustrations you've used to try to work out why her dress doesn't seem to match anything. There's a reason for that which we can share if you're interested. If it's become too political for you, then please pass on to Jean we'd be happy to do a report on her dress if she'd like to drop us a line via Facebook. The only extra info we need is the base fabric of the garment + photos of any fabrics used to line the garment / reinforce cuffs etc - both these things will confirm dating.

      We commend you on your Source Material list, that's rare. We may not have made the list but are happy to grant permission to use our images. We hope you won't mind adding the following credit lines to our photos:

      1) for the installation photo of three Sinai Desert bedu costumes:
      Early 20th century Sinai Desert bedu costumes
      in the Palestine Costume Archive's collection
      from the Archive's traveling exhibition
      "Portraits without names: Palestinian costume"

      2) Bedu thob - diyal panel, Sinai Desert, Egypt
      Palestine Costume Archive collection

      3) for the six photos from on our staff blog post "New acquisition - Sinai Desert thob c1960s" 28 Dec 2012:

      Bedu thob - Sinai Desert, Egypt
      c. late 1960s-1970s
      Palestine Costume Archive collection

      Many thanks :)

    3. Thank you very much.
      I will admit that i gather much information online, and as I have been engaging in this research for many years, i sometimes forget where i obtained particular information. [not to mention that images tend to get reposted by sites such as pinterest, often with mistaken attribution.] Now that I am publishing I need to be more careful.
      As far as Jean's thob is concerned, It was made for a very tall woman, as it fits her well, and she is over 6 ft. She has passed it on to me since she has recently moved, and needs to downsize her personal collection.
      I will dig it out and write you directly with more information about it.
      Thank you again
      I am very thankful for your kind permission to use your material, as well as to be able to point readers in your direction where you have such valuable and rich information. [please let me know if i have placed the references incorrectly]. Feel free to write me directly at my email:
      As far as politics, my desire is to avoid being embroiled in some of the vicious conflict which that sometimes engenders. I recognise that Folk Dress is intrinsically tied to self-identity, which inevitably is tied to the political history of any ethnic group. There is a fine line to walk between presenting history accurately without being inflammatory.
      I would be interested in information as to how this art has developed since 1948. Unfortunately the 20th cent. has been seen the decline of many of the traditions which I write about.