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Detail of a dagger belt from the Neksha Harazi group, Al Hajjarah, Yemen. TRC 2012.0392.Detail of a dagger belt from the Neksha Harazi group, Al Hajjarah, Yemen. TRC 2012.0392.The world of Islamic and Arab art is well-known for its beautiful calligraphy, its manuscript miniatures, the exquisite geometric designs on wood, its pottery and silverware, and so forth, but little has been written about another important aspect of Arab culture, namely its diverse and beautiful embroidery.

This exhibition package, which is for hire by suitable museums or institutes, is based on the Encyclopedia of Embroidery from the Arab World (London: Bloomsbury 2016) and the exhibition ‘Embroidery from the Arab World’, mounted at the Textile Research Centre (TRC) in Leiden, The Netherlands, in 2010-2011. The objects included in the basic exhibition package derive from the extensive holdings of the TRC (see the TRC online catalogue). In consultation with the TRC the exhibition can be expanded with objects from the host museum or institute.



Burqa face veil from northern Sinai. TRC 2002.0018.Burqa face veil from northern Sinai. TRC 2002.0018.The Arab world stretches from the Atlantic Ocean (Morocco) in the west, to Iraq in the east, and from the Mediterranean in the north to the Horn of Africa, the Arabian Peninsula and the Indian Ocean in the south. For hundreds of years, embroidered textiles have decorated homes, public buildings, animals (especially horses), as well as men, women and children. Embroidery has played an important role in the social and cultural life of communities, as well as influencing their economies and politics.

The term ‘Arab world’ includes numerous different cultures that were brought together by Islam in the 7th and 8th centuries AD. With the spread of Islam came the Arabic language, which became the lingua franca of all of the Arab lands and nowadays is spoken by approximately 360 million people.

Embroidery is widely found in the Arab world and includes a wide range of styles, techniques, colours and patterns, as well as a variety of different uses, literally from small kerchiefs to huge, tent dividers.

The exhibition is used to look at a range of subjects, including the function of embroidery in the lives of men and women, the use of embroidery for personal adornment, as well as for furnishings for the home and public buildings. It also looks at the role of embroidery for decorating animals, notably camels and horses; the various techniques used to create these embroideries, with an explanation for embroidery lovers of the various materials, threads, stitches, and so forth. The exhibition also contains a description of the range of designs and colours used and their symbolic meanings, as well as a display of embroidery from Morocco to Iraq via Yemen. These items are displayed according to technique and function in order to prevent accusations of bias towards one particular country.

All of these and many other subjects are explored in the exhibition, using actual objects, texts, photographs, other illustrations, etc.


Exhibition structureA Bethlehem jacket for a woman, based on a British military uniform jacket, complete with epaulettes and medals, worked in couching using gold thread with details in coloured silks (1920’s, TRC 2004.0120).A Bethlehem jacket for a woman, based on a British military uniform jacket, complete with epaulettes and medals, worked in couching using gold thread with details in coloured silks (1920’s, TRC 2004.0120).

The exhibition is divided into four main sections, with a number of sub-sections:

  1. Background
  2. Materials and techniques
  3. Historical examples of embroidery
  4. Modern and pre-modern examples of embroidery

In addition, there is a small number of snapshots that expand upon a particular theme

1 Background

  1. Embroidery and the Arab World (general)
  2. Uses of embroidery in the Arab World (general)
  3. Local, national and international influences, materials, etc.
    1. Bethlehem jacket: local and tourist examples
    2. Snapshot: Iraqi Bedouin blankets used in Saudi Arabia
    3. DMC’s influence in the Middle East
    4. Embroidered shawls: the Chinese, Palestinian, Spanish and South American links
  4. Male and female makers of embroidery
    1. Learning about techniques (general)
    2. Public and domestic production
    1. Snapshot: Madame Luce’s school (a French teacher working in mid-19th century Algeria)
  5. Uses of embroidery
    1. General
    2. Dowries and bridal embroidery
    3. Snapshot: Siwa bridal embroidery

2 Materials and techniques (descriptions and actual examples of materials, threads, as well as the finished products)

  1. Ground materials (silk, linen, cotton, indigo cloth, etc.)
  2. Threads (silks, cottons, DMC)
  3. Applied items (braids, cords, spangles, sequins, paillettes, bracteates, amulets, etc.)
  4. Beads and beading
  5. Tools and equipment
  6. Designs and colours

3 Historical examples of embroidery

  1. Embroidery in the tomb of Tutankhamun (oldest known embroidery; including replicas)
  2. Coptic period embroidery (woollen and silk versions)
  3. Embroidered tiraz (medieval Arab world)
  4. The Kiswah and Mecca
  5. Ottoman influence on Arab embroidery

4 Modern and pre-modern examples of embroidery (textboards, illustrations and numerous actual examples)

  1. Decorative stitching
    1. Counted thread work (examples from Morocco, Palestine, Jordan, Sinai, Yemen)
    2. Free-style embroidery (examples from Egypt, Jordan, Saudi Arabia, Syria, Sudan, UAE, Yemen, as well as Touareg)
  2. Gold and silver embroidery (examples from Morocco, Tunisia, Palestine, Iraq, Syria)
  3. Badla/telle metal thread embroideries (examples from Egypt, Lebanon, Oman, Yemen)
  4. Couching and passementerie (examples from Morocco, Tunisia, Palestine, Syria, Oman)
  5. Quilting and eyelets (cap examples from Oman)
  6. Smocking (Sur fisherman’s gown, Oman)
  7. Appliqué
    1. Technical details (general, examples from Palestine)
    2. Snapshot: Street of the Tentmakers (Egypt)
  8. Applied items (excluding beading)
    1. Buttons, shells (Egypt, Yemen)
    2. Snapshot: face veils from the Sinai (northern and southern versions)
    3. Metal objects such as chains, coins and bracteates (examples from Saudi Arabia, Yemen)
  9. Beading
    1. Caps with embroidery and beading (Saudi Arabia)
    2. Asir beaded dresses (east African influence)
    3. Rashaidi beaded outfit (nomadic group living in western Saudi Arabia and east Africa)


Embroidered yoke of a woman's tunic. Tunisia, 20th century. TRC 2011.0036Embroidered yoke of a woman's tunic. Tunisia, 20th century. TRC 2011.0036Technical information

Size of exhibition: minimum c. 150 sq metres

Number of objects: c. 250-300 items ranging in size from a needle to c. 2.5 x 2.0 m applique and embroidered panels. The number of objects can be extended by TRC or the host museum/institution. The items include a number of complete and spectacular outfits that can be fitted onto mannequins (not included in the package).

Range of dates of TRC objects: 4th century AD to the present day; most of the pieces are 20th century in date

Illustrative items: photographs, original prints, award winning video about the Street of the Tentmakers (made by Sam Bowker in 2015)

Lighting: most of the items are 20th century and made with synthetic dyes. It is not necessary to keep to a strict 50lux lighting situation for these objects.

Display: the archaeological and medieval items should be behind glass, but most of the other TRC garments and outfits can be displayed on podiums, behind waist level barriers, etc. There should be a ‘do not touch’ policy.

Intended public: anyone interested in Arab culture, textile techniques, embroidery (history and techniques), art and design groups, etc. The exhibition contents can be changed and adapted to the needs of the host museum's public.

Related activities: workshops about applique making by two men from the Street of the Tentmakers, Cairo.

Lectures/workshops: ancient Egyptian embroidery techniques, Palestinian embroidery techniques, etc.

Publications: Embroidery from the Arab World (Primavera Press, Leiden 2010); Encyclopedia of Embroidery from the Arab World (Bloomsbury Press, London, 2016), both by Dr. Gillian Vogelsang-Eastwood, director TRC. A range of suitable postcards are also available, all based on items in the TRC Collection.

Catalogue: An illustrated catalogue in manuscript form (written in English) can be provided if required

Available from: Summer 2017

Length of loan period: three to four months (longer is possible if necessary)

Loan fee: €40000 

Courier: flight (KLM, economy) dependent on distance, plus accommodation and per diem in Toronto.

Transportation of objects: (if a specialist art courier is used), c. €12000.

Optional extra: specially made replicas of several of the embroidered garments found in the tomb of the ancient Egyptian pharaoh, Tutankhamun, who died in c. 1322 BC. These are the oldest known embroideries in the world. The TRC is conducting a special research project (in conjunction with the GEM, Cairo) about the textiles and garments from the tomb of the young pharaoh.

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