A FORM OF RESISTANCE
Textile Design Research Paper
The Palestinian thobe is similar to a coded computer; once you decode each number and letter, you gain valuable information about its users. The relevance of studying the history of Palestinian textiles allows us to unravel the threads behind a wide diversity of lost or ethnically-cleansed information. Historic textiles are codes and through the process of studying every weave, thread, colour, loop and geometry, we gain a better understanding of the indigenous specific misrepresented culture. We can learn where certain groups of people were located, how many people existed, what resources they had access to and how wealthy or royal they were.
“A Palestinian thobe is a love letter to the gardens we played in as children and picked fruit from as adults. It’s a poem of cross stitch magic breathing in the air of a seven-spice scented home and exhaling the aroma of bitter dark coffee.” (Bellqees)
In this paper we will unravel the stitching and looming techniques behind the Palestinian thobe and how the various embroideries, colours and geometries, provide the world with information on a nationality that has been under a threatening ethnic cleansing occupation. Textiles give Palestinians refugees, who were forced to flee their homes, and future generations of diaspora Palestinians, a chance to learn more about which Palestinian city they came from, which family household they belonged to and discover more about their family tree. Textiles are incredibly important to Palestinians because they are portable during times of war. With their cultural function, the architectural destruction and lack of locational security are replaced in part by textile heritage. As a result of this mobility and the quality and creativity of Palestinian textiles, the preservation of the vibrant Palestinian identity becomes more evident, prominent and meaningful.
The Palestinian thobe is a garment specific to Palestinians embellished in cross-stitched embroidery. The "Tatreez" has become a symbol of women's resistance, identity and heritage. This can be seen when, Palestinian-American NASA engineer Nujoud Merancy's, celebrated her Palestinian heritage by wearing the Palestinian tatreez in her official NASA headshot. As the article states,
“Merancy said she had the blazer specially tailored after Congresswoman Rashida Tlaib, the first Palestinian-American woman in Congress, wore her own Palestinian thobe - a gown embroidered with traditional Palestinian stitching - to her swearing-in ceremony in January.” (Khelel)
A timeline of the Palestinian costume scholarly blooms over dozens of centuries prior to the First World War. In the early nineteenth century, Palestine was ruled by the Ottoman Empire. Following the fall of the Ottomans in the early 1900s, the mandate for Palestine was awarded to Britain. Jeni Allenby discusses the influences and individualistic traits of Palestinians in the following passage (2005),
"While costume in the urban regions historically reflected the current occupiers of the country (for example, Turkish styles during the Ottoman period, and European fashions under the British Mandate) Palestine's many villages were economically and socially independent, and difficulties in communication and environment produced strong individualistic traits within the communities: different dialects, different crops and food, and different clothing.” (Allenby, Pg. 1)
During the 1920s and early 1930s, the British control furthered the economic boost within the country, and this was reflected in their costumes. (Palestinian Costume, Weir, Pg. 14) Greens and pinks became newly introduced using chemically dyed silks. Woven machine-made cottons followed by man-made fibres, were imported from Europe, and dominantly replaced the local materials. The influx of mass-produced, machine made textiles caused the Palestinian inner weaving industry to decline, as hand-woven fabrics were being replaced (Heir, Pg 27). As the 1940s approached, Palestinian culture became severely impacted by the establishment of Israel in northern, western and southern Palestine. During the tragic events of the occupation of Palestine between 1948 and 1967, hundreds of thousands were displaced and forced to flee their villages, becoming refugees, scattered all over neighboring Arab countries. The Palestinian people recognized their culture was threatened and thus the survival of their intricately rich culture and colourful textiles, patterns and embroidery traditions became even more valuable and sacred. (5000 years of Textiles: Palestinian Embroidery, Harris, Pg. 96)
Embroidery Motifs and Techniques
Embroidery became an important expression for the Palestinian identity. "Tatreez" is an Arabic word for a unique style of Palestinian cross-stitch embroidery. Distinguished by rich colors and textures, it originated in the Middle East 3,000 years ago. Each region and village had its own distinctive style and patterns. There are 13 dominant regions that had 9 main identities encompassing its own distinctive techniques, motifs and approaches to the costume of thobes, and the distinct chest panel embroidery. A few distinct regions include the following; Ramallah was known for handwoven fabric in either undyed linen or indigo-dyed navy linen. Their Embroidery was done with mainly maroon silk thread stitched into ancient rich repertoire Arab patterns. The majority Christian region of Bethlehem was known for their majestic traditional dress, referred to as Malak, and its fine couching-stitch embroidery, in which a thick cord of silk or metallic thread is stitched to the fabric using thinner thread to use free curvilinear and floral designs and colourful vertical stripes along the sides of the garments. Within these regions, traditional village girls begin embroidering at the age of 6, learning all the techniques from their mothers, mastering the language of motifs, the combinations of colours, and the design of the unique patterns all accustomed to their specific villages. According to the author of ‘Palestinian Costume’ Jeni Allenby,
“Embroidery played an important part in village life and was thought to reveal a woman's character and personality as well as reflecting her economic status. Embroidery colour preference was primarily linked to regional identity, with Palestinian embroidery possessing a complex colour language. The main embroidery stitches used were cross stitch and couching, worked with floss silk. Each embroidery pattern was named, with geometric and abstract designs…” (Alleby, Pg.2)
Palestinian textiles reveal language of individual motifs expressed by women during the embroidery process and sustained throughout generations. It was incredibly important for embroidery to keep up with the latest fashion and garments, where detailed embroidered work was greatly admired and worn only during special ceremonial or social events. The origins of the decorative and embroidered panels were derived from functional stitching and protective patchwork. Red is the most used colour and patterns were mainly geometric with a variety of rectangles, chevrons, diamonds and triangles organized in rows. According to the book ‘5000 years of Textiles: Palestinian Embroidery’,
"The oldest cross-stitch embroidery motifs are simple geometric shapes used alone or in rows or combined with others to make more complex patterns. Most are abstract, but some are clearly representing trees, plants and flowers. In the late nineteenth century curvilinear and naturalistic motifs depicting subjects like birds were introduced…” (5000 years of Textiles: Palestinian Embroidery, Harris, Pg. 98)
There were 2 distinctive embroidery types between the north and south of Palestine. The most desirable level of embroidery was executed with small, detailed and neat stitches, with an organized, logical pattern. Silk was the main material used for embroidery and it was in either satin stitch, cross stitch, hem stitch and/or drawn-thread work. The patterns were embroidered directly on to the open weave of the hand-woven fabrics allowing the embroiders to count the wrap and weft threads and plan the overall motifs. One embroidery technique was couching in either silk, gilt cord or silver which was twisted into elaborate floral and curvilinear patterns and were filled and framed with herringbone and satin stitches in vibrantly coloured floss silk. Thus, the stitching, known as tatreez, found on elaborate thobe garments can take months, resultantly producing the most intricate embroidery techniques.
The scope of Palestinian textiles, and their wide variety of components in the practice of embroidery and garments, have provided a form of expression and identity for this threatened nation. To this day, the art of hand weaving and embroidering is still prevalent and practiced by through workshops and by Palestinian elders in Gaza, the West Bank and assimilated Palestinians in the Middle East. As analyzed, Palestinian embroidery deserves great recognition and appreciation for the meaning and creativity behind the intricate thobes and to do justice towards the hardships and diversity in both Palestine and the diaspora. There is still so much more to be unravelled about the production, creative meaning and cultural conditions behind the textiles of Palestinian thobes. Overall, while there are a variety of geometric, organic and nature inspired motifs depending on the region, or a diverse range of fabrics used for the garments like wool, linen and cotton, the overall final thobes preserve and unify the oppressed Palestinian indigenous people and create a nationalistic creative identity that proves the strength and long history of the country and culture and that in itself symbolically frees Palestine.
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