“Threads of Tradition”:

An Exhibition of Palestinian Folk Dress at Antiochian Village

By Denise O’Neal

Washington Report on Middle East Affairs
September/October 2005

Springtime, Antiochian Heritage Museum      

One of the most beautiful elements of the Palestinian culture and heritage can be discovered at a new temporary exhibition, “Threads of Tradition” at the Antiochian Heritage Museum at Antiochian Village near Ligonier, PA. The exhibition showcases regional ethnic folk costumes that represent the textiles and embroidery of eight regions of historic Palestine, from the Naqab Desert in the south and the Dead Sea in the east to Galilee in northern Palestine. On display are hand-loomed, hand-embroidered ceremonial dresses actually worn by Middle Eastern brides at their weddings, then throughout their married lives for ceremonial occasions.   

Bride from Bani Naim, El Khalil region

“The exhibition illustrates more than exquisite threads of silk, silver and gold. The intricate designs reflect the bride’s identity through regional symbolism in design, stitches and color,” explained the exhibition’s guest curator Hanan Karaman Munayyer. “As people would gather in marketplaces or for local festivals, their regional dress would show pride for their region and loyalty to their region, also referred to as their clan,” Munayyer is president and co-founder of the Palestinian Heritage Foundation (PHF) and since 1987 has personally developed the extensive 1,500-piece costume and textiles collection, the largest in the United States.

 The costumes and accessories displayed span approximately four decades, reflecting dress from the 1860’s to 1940’s. The origin of styles and form, however, dates back to antiquity and Canaanite times of 1500 to 1200 BC. From then until 1940, all dresses were cut from natural fabrics on a similar A-line shape with triangular sleeves, referred to by modern archeologists as “Syrian Tunics.” These “Tunics” were adorned with intricate cross stitching in colorful silk threads, with heavy embroidery on the chest, the sleeves, and the skirt’s center front, back and sides. They were accessorized with a girdle (belt), which gathered the tunic to shape; a unique headdress (hat or cap), which was decorated with a woman’s personal wealth in coins received from family, friends and her husband as wedding gifts; and finally, an elaborately embroidered and fringed veil (scarf or shawl).          
Many of the geometric pattern designs are dated from the fourth to second centuries BC. These patterns symbolically represent hope, prosperity, good health and protection, regardless of faith as Middle Eastern people lived in harmony within their region in earlier times. Nature was a common design element, as shown in stitches of the moon, cypress tree, the tree of life, and the bird of paradise. The costumes on display also demonstrate the use of natural dyes. In some examples, brilliant threads appear luminous against indigo, black and natural linen backgrounds. Other stitches embellish garments as an artistic compliment to luxurious colorful silks and rich velvets. Age-old recipes for dyes used spices, oak bark, cochineal insects, madder, indigo and other plants and fruits.  
                                                            Dresses from Deir Tarif and Beit Daj.

These collected and preserved masterpieces of Middle Eastern ethnic folk dress are a tribute to the countless unknown women who labored with devotion to make them. Little did they realize that each piece would become a script unto itself of ancient symbols and regional heritage. Their toil and craft would eventually introduce part of the rich Palestinian and Arab culture and history to the Western world, beginning with early Roman times, through the Crusades and Ottoman Rule, to the present day, and preserved for the future in this extensive collection that was assembled for educating and sharing.

The “Threads of Tradition” exhibition is on temporary loan from the combined collections of the Palestinian Heritage Foundation and Hanan and Farah Munayyer, both Palestinian-born American citizens. The exhibition is available for self-guided viewing until November at the Antiochian Heritage Museum, located within the Antiochian Village Conference and Retreat Center in western Pennsylvania, just a three-hour drive from Washington, DC. Viewing hours are Thursdays through Saturdays from 11:00 a.m. until 5:00 p.m. The suggested donation is $2 per person, with a free exhibition guide available to assist the visitor. Exhibition tours are also available, with advance reservations, for a donation of $3 per person.                                                                                                                        
                                                  Parents looking at their children through mashrabiyyeh window.

For further information, including museum tours, lodging, or group meeting reservations, call (724)238-3677,
e-mail avsales@antiochianvillage.org. To learn more about the Palestinian Heritage Foundation, visit www.palestineheritage.org 

Craft Learned in Childhood

Imagine a six-years-old girl being taught the craft of skilled embroidery. Her mother would buy more silk threads as the young child expanded her work on loomed linen or purchased silk. As a result, her beginning threads were often different shade from her final ones. But an examination of the underside of the stitches in the fabric would reveal that the girl had learned strict rules and adopted a professional attitude, as evidenced by her clean and precise stitching. It was part of the culture and part of the preparation for the young lady, who eventually would make her bridal dress and trousseau of three to eight dresses.

If the seamstress worked alone, each dress could take as long as a year to make and embellish with colorful regional embroidery patterns. Many girls did labor for years, with help from female relatives. Others with less time and talent commissioned professional embroidery workshops where work was still done by hand. Typically, ceremonial wedding dresses were crafted as part of a daily routine. Each afternoon upon completion of chores, a teenage girl congregated with her mother and women from her immediate family to embroider her bridal dress while chanting special wedding songs together. It was a labor of love, as well as a perpetuation of the clan identity via threads of tradition.