Syrian textiles

Threads of influence between east and west

January 2018

Lama and Amal in conversation with Alice on the role of textiles in Syrian culture and why some traditions have been lost.

Lama: Syria was the silk road centre – it was a connection between the east and the west. The people were merchants and producers; they loved making things. But since the 19th century, some of these traditions have been lost. You don’t see traditional styles on dresses, clothes, scarves anymore. For example, at a wedding, the dress is white, with a suit for the groom. But sometimes at the party, they have a band performing a traditional dance, who wear traditional clothes.

Alice: What would they wear?

Lama: A vest, with embroidery. It has stripes [on the chest] and within each stripe, you will see fine patterns, like zig-zags, leaves, things like that. I would say it’s the same in Syria, Jordan, Lebanon…it’s mostly in black and then the embroidery is in different colours, like red and golden thread.

Alice: What about damask? Can you tell us what it is?

Lama: We were famous for damask – the word comes from ‘Damascus’. It’s a woven textile, very thick with a kind of sheen. It was exported to many different destinations as the Arabic world traded with many countries. If you look at Arabic art, you will see they express themselves well in words, in poetry. I remember one story about an Arabic princess in Andalus, Spain [in the 11th century]. She was a poet and she and her suitor would write poetry to each other, finishing each other’s lines. She wrote some lines and embroidered them on her gown, about how she was irresistible!

Alice: It’s interesting how Islamic textiles influenced those produced and designed in Europe, and how they were traded from Asia to Europe through the trade routes. These designs were thought of as exotic and expert. You can see that in the textiles we can represent a global view– we want them in our homes, to be surrounded by them even if we do not appreciate their origin. But you said the production of many traditional textiles stopped about a hundred years ago. Why was that?

Lama: I think when the Ottoman Empire was coming to an end, people wanted to be free from old-fashioned things.

Alice: Here in England, my mother and grandmother used to make clothes and knew about knitting and stitching. Would your mother and grandmother have done stitching in the home?

Lama: Yes, each bride had to do something for her home. Like stitching, crocheting table mats, making baby clothes…Lots of canvas work. My mother made these two birds on a canvas with a black background. But my Mum was a full-time teacher; she didn’t make clothes.

Alice: You were telling me before about a cloth, embroidered around the edge, that you fold all your clothes in to store when the seasons change?

Lama: It is called bukja. You embroider something, like a big flower, on one of the edges and when you close it, you keep this on the top. Everyone has one.

Amal joins the conversation.

Lama: I was saying, there are not so many traditional textiles in Syria now. So, in India and Morocco, you see people wearing traditional gowns but not in Syria.

Amal: True, although I’m not sure if this applies to all the different regions in Syria. I had the same idea before and then I realised that it is in Damascus that people do not really wear the classical damascene silk. If you’re a city person, you’re very Europeanised. But if you go to the mountains, where the Druze are, they still wear traditional costumes during their weddings.

Lama: You don’t see women wearing traditional dresses in the cities. You might see it among the Bedouin, in some isolated areas in the east. Their tents would have been made of woven camel hair, with black background and patterns of gold threads, red, white and green.

Amal: In Syria, on Fridays, some men would have worn black gowns embroidered with gold threads. In Damascus we’ve lost the traditional touch, although you do still see the abaya, the long gown.

Lama: My father-in-law had this gown, and he would wear it when guests came to the house for Eid. But my father never had one.

Amal: I think the older generation, like my grandmother, did a lot of embroidery, which was influenced by the Turks because of the Ottomans. In Damascus, there are a lot of families with an Ottoman background, and I think that’s where embroidery, as a woman’s craft, comes from. They also used to do crochet, which was the classical thing that we learned as children.

Lama: If you asked me to imagine a traditional Syrian design, it would be damask with golden threads on the side. It’s simple, classic and modest.

Amal: The Damascene rose is the thing that comes to my mind. It’s used for tablecloths and is the classical thing you would buy if you were going to visit someone abroad. But Aleppo is important in the Syrian textile industry – it is the commercial capital; it was on the silk road.

Alice: What you’ve described about these trading routes, shows that boundaries are artificial. Our cultures do borrow from each other and textiles epitomise that.

Amal: You read a lot about how women cook and, as they’re preparing food together, they do a lot of singing, talking and sharing experiences. I would imagine it’s the same with sewing. Like the time I would sit and talk to my grandmother was when she was teaching me how to do embroidery. I think it’s an amazing forum for a very human thing. There is a common background. I don’t think there’s a culture that doesn’t have embroidery as part of it.

Lama: Looking at a piece of art, you can say this is of Western origin, this is Eastern origin, or Indian, or Chinese. But as you can see, people move things around over time, from here to there and it develops. I was so touched to see Alice’s artwork on the refugees. Even though you didn’t live with them, you have been able to show their suffering and emotions.

Alice: I feel there are common patterns and rhythms. I was trying to represent movement – and both the horror and the beauty of humanity – through this textile narrative. But textiles are also part of the everyday.

Lama: Yes! You can live without looking at a statue, but you can’t live without clothes. And textiles are easy to transport from place to place.

Alice: We all have a close relationship with textiles. They have an emotional but also practical quality. It is about finding a common language.