Hammad’s idea has set her work apart in Palestine’s fashion scene, designing up to date trends that incorporate the embroidery traditional to the region: high-waisted embroidered skirts, fringe kimonos with embroidered sleeves, capes with detachable embroidered belts and fitted dresses with embroidered waists and necklines.
Yet, along with her casualwear, Hammad also receives requests from young Palestinian brides to design their bridal henna dresses, worn the day before the wedding.
‘Initially, I take their thoughts and my ideas and sketch out a design for each bride. Then, I pick out the colour of the thread and fabric, usually velvet and satin, and pick out the design of the pattern,’ she says, describing her design process. ‘Afterwards I cut the fabric, usually into a mermaid or princess cut, and take it to a group of women in the villages of Sinjel and Khirbet Abu Falah to embroider, which takes up to six months to complete.’
The labour-intensive time dedicated to embroidering Hammad’s designs signifies embroidery’s importance in Palestinian culture, rooted in the lifestyle of women from rural villages, both historical and contemporary.
‘Embroidered garments for women were often a part of the social structure, as was the wearing of jewellery,’ writes Jehan Rajab in her study of Palestinian costume, ‘…much importance was attached to the embroidery.’
Society in Palestine was, traditionally, split into three groups: the townspeople, the villagers or fellahin, and the Bedouins, referred to as Bedu. Most of Palestine’s population was fellahin, inhabiting as many as 700 villages. Historically, it was the fellahin women who created some of the finest embroidery.
It was, and is, considered a pastime. After a day’s work spent helping men in the fields or doing domestic work, fellahin women would gather outside their doorways – providing that the light outside was still good – and socialise as they worked on their embroidery.
Girls were taught how to stitch between the ages of six and ten and, in addition to cushion covers for their new homes and tobacco bags for their husbands, were expected to have finished working on their bridal dress in time for their wedding.
Bridal dresses such as the melaka and the janna wa nar were popular, standing out for their colours and design. The melaka, or royal thobe, was emblematic of the Bethlehem area.
Margo Zeidan, who has been embroidering for over 40 years in the Bethlehem town of Beit Jala, describes the melaka as made of black fabric with light green and purple stripes. ‘Embroidery is made on the chest, sleeves and the two sides of the dress,’ she says of its subdued palette. ‘It has also a short sleeve jacket called the “taqseereh”.’
The janna wa nar, or ‘heaven and hell’ thobe, in contrast, was made of green and red fabric that blazed down the sides of the dress in vertical strips and across the hips horizontally, signifying the garden of paradise and the fires of hell. It had red and orange silk sleeves. This janna wa nar originates from the south-western plain, including Hebron and its surrounding villages Fallujah and Thahiriyeh.
These days, there are more options for a bride. ‘I embroider whatever the customer chooses,’ says Hammad. ‘Sometimes they request the traditional and other times they ask for the modern fashion dresses, like the one-sleeve long dress and the strapless.’
Weddings in Palestinian villages and towns, however, have not changed in terms of customs and traditions. The groom and his family still make their way to the bride’s house in a lively zaffeh, from where the bride is then taken either in a horse or camel-driven carriage to the wedding hall.
The hands of the bride and groom are still decorated the day before with henna, with a wedding feast of mansaf on the same day or day after. And, of course, women still turn out in their finest embroidered dresses, or thobes.
Embroidered dresses are also a way to distinguish the status of a woman in Palestinian society, whether she is a bride, a mother or a pregnant wife. The patterns and motifs used in the embroidery were not just geometric shapes but were taken from the familiar surroundings of the womens’ daily lives, for example the saru (cypress tree), kaus (the v-arch), nakhleh ‘ali (tall palms), the narrow vertical lines of little squares that refer to a baker’s wife and the ’irq el tuffah (apple branch).
It is possible, therefore, to differentiate between different embroideries according to their specific region, based on the pattern of the embroidery, along with the design and colour combinations of the cloth. Thus, embroidery in Palestine is not just a marker of culture, but also one of geography.
Zeidan, who hand-stitches every embroidered piece, uses six geometric patterns representing, mainly, the Bethlehem area, including Beit Jala and Beit Sahour. Her designs incorporate the sabaleh (fishbone) or the stars, and patterns similar to the quwwar motifs found on vases.
She also provides monthly workshops so that younger women can learn what she calls Palestine’s ‘beautiful heritage,’ and recently opened up her own store in Beit Jala. ‘I do believe that there is a revival of Palestinian embroidery,’ she states. ‘In fact I’m devoting my work for this cause in order to preserve it from extinction.’