Embellishing Tradition

A Craft and Folk Art Museum embroidery show displays ancient Palestinian designs — and a couple’s devotion to preserving them.

By Scarlet Cheng

Special to The Los Angeles Times

September 25, 2006

Hanan Karaman Munayyer fell under the spell of Palestinian embroidery in 1987, when she saw a collection of dresses and accessories brought to New York by an antiques dealer. She and her husband are of Palestinian descent, but she says, “The beauty of the embroidery on these early 20th century dresses — we saw it for the first time in that collection.”

The dealer intended to sell off the 65 dresses piecemeal. But Munayyer, along with her husband Farah Joseph Munayyer, thought the collection was too important to be split apart. Embroidery, says Hanan Munayyer, is “one of the strongest expressions of Palestinian culture, and we were interested in promoting the Palestinian cultural image in a positive way.”

Display at CAFAM (courtesy of Mr. Terence Patrick)

So the couple took out a home equity loan and bought the entire lot. Once in possession of it, Munayyer says, “I knew there was so much we didn’t know.”

Munayyer, a molecular biologist, put her research skills to use to dig into the history of their new possessions — through books (only a handful were available then), textile experts and trips back to the Middle East.

Today the couple have collected more than 400 dresses, some dating to the 19th century, along with 1,100 other objects, including jewelry, headdresses, jackets and shawls, many embellished with the unique embroidery of the region. Highlights of the collection, including 35 dresses dating from the mid-19th century to mid-20th century, are on display at the Craft and Folk Art Museum in “Sovereign Threads: A History of Palestinian Embroidery,” curated by Munayyer, along with the Assn. for the Development of Palestinian Camps, or INAASH.

” ‘Sovereign Threads’ is an exhibition about both art and cultural identity,” writes Maryna Hrushetska, the museum director, in the introduction to the exhibition brochure. “As these threads of tradition are passed through generations, they weave a fabric of cultural cohesiveness that testifies to the fact that neither war, conflict nor displacement can erase national identity.”

Munayyer, speaking by telephone from her home in West Caldwell, N.J., describes embroidery as “very much a woman’s art and a woman’s history.” For Palestinian women, she says, embroidery is a tradition handed down from mother to daughter, a means of displaying skill and status, and a reminder of both ancient and near history.

It has also become a source of income. One section of the exhibition includes contemporary embroidery gathered by INAASH, an organization that, among other efforts, works to improve conditions in the camps by helping women there to sell their embroidery.

To promote Palestinian culture, the Munayyers have set up their own nonprofit, the Palestinian Heritage Foundation (

Bethlehem Shatweh At CAFAM (Munayyer Collection)

For centuries the basic female garb in the region has been the thob, a long dress with long sleeves and embroidered segments on the chest, sleeves and skirt. These embroidered panels were made separately, generally by the women in a family, then stitched onto the dress, although occasionally, more elaborate pieces were purchased from professionals. Simple embroidered dresses were worn day to day, even when working in the fields. The more elaborately decorated garments, which could take a year to make, were kept for special occasions, as they are today.

Motifs have been passed down, some for 3,000 years. Typically, the designs are created with colored threads using both cross-stitching and couching, in which a strand of thread is put down and then stitched in place by a thinner thread worked over it.

“Every region has its own distinctive style,” Munayyer points out. “In the past, people didn’t travel so much, so villages were relatively isolated.”

She divided the exhibition into six main regions — Jerusalem, El Khalil, Ramallah, Bethlehem, Jaffa / Lydda and Majdal / Gaza — reflecting variations in motifs, fabrics and even the cut of the dresses. Fabrics were purchased from commercial weavers — varying from basic cotton and linen to silk and velvet — and sometimes were pieced together in a striking manner. One outstanding example is a 1930s “heaven and hell” (janeh wenar) dress from Jerusalem, which alternates vivid strips of green and red silk.

“Traditionally, in the Muslim religion, green represents heaven,” says Munayyer, “and red represents hell.”

Of course, there are also shared attributes among works from different areas. The chest panel of the “heaven and hell” dress is made up of an arrangement of five circles, one in the center and four around it, a motif found also in thob from Bethlehem. This pattern evokes a vase with five flowers in it, and also refers to the Tree of Life.

Some motifs have readily recognizable references, such as birds, flowers, and trees. Others are highly stylized and hardly recognizable, such as “Pasha’s tent,” which might be a bird’s-eye view of a square tent, or “tall palms,” which looks like stacked arrowheads. The latter, says Munayyer, refers to the scales on the sides of palm trees after older fronds have fallen off.

Another ancient motif is the acanthus leaf and cup, running on vertical panels on the lower half of a 1930s dress from El Khalil, on the West Bank. Here, a stemmed cup, referring to the cup of plenty, emerges between two leaves with baroquely curved edges. “It’s a very old pattern and has been found in decorations in tombs and architecture from as early as the 6th century in such places as Jericho, Palestine and Syria,” Munayyer says.

Over two decades of dedicated research and collecting, what has struck her most? “The diversity and richness, even now it’s astounding,” Munayyer says. “We never thought there would be so much in such a small area.”