Grace Crowfoot and the Aleppo tarbit (ikat) industry

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Woman's coat from Jordan, 1920's, made of ikat cloth (TRC 2005.0076).

Woman's coat from Jordan, 1920's, made of ikat cloth (TRC 2005.0076).

Among the many items belonging to the English textile archaeologist Grace Crowfoot (1879-1957) now in the TRC Collection Leiden, are a few objects relating to the production of tarbit (ikat) in Aleppo, Syria. In particular there is a letter that describes some of the relevant processes in Aleppo in 1939.

Ikat is a general term for a form of resist dyeing technique, in which the warp and/weft threads are coloured prior to the weaving of the cloth. In Syria it is known as tarbit. There has been a trade in the production of tarbit in Aleppo and surrounding regions for hundreds of years.

In order to produce ikat, groups of threads are being tightly bound together in a specific order to create the desired design. By repeatedly binding, dyeing, rebinding, dyeing, and so forth, it is possible to create a range of patterns. Tarbit from Syria often take the form of silk striped cloth and checked cotton forms. Where a silk or artificial silk warp is used together with cotton wefts, then this type of cloth is known as qutni (‘the cotton ones’).

The two cities that were particularly associated with the production of tarbit, are Aleppo and Homs. In both cases the textiles are colourful warp-faced forms with plain coloured weft threads.

Within the Crowfoot Collection at the TRC there is a letter that was written on the 13th September 1939, just a week or so after the outbreak of the Second World War (1939-1945). The letter was addressed to Mrs. G. M. Crowfoot, The Old House, Geldeston, Beccles, Suffolk, ANGLETERRE. The letter is from Bechir Balit, who lived at 11, Rue Zebral, 11, Aleppo, Syria. His letter was sent in response to one from Grace Crowfoot (which has not survived). The Balit letter describes the process of dyeing this type of cloth.

The Balit letter

Dear Mrs Crowfoot I was very much honoured to have your letter of a month ber it as well as I do, I should be glad if you would transmit to them my congratulations on the family they are founding in their turn.ago with the news of your family. I often recall the Alexandretta adventure of Dorothy and Joan, and if they remem

The investigation you asked me to make about the sample of cloth has taken some time to pursue. It is a very great speciality of Aleppo, a secret handed down through many generations of one or two families of Christians here, and jealously guarded by them. I succeeded, however, to some extent in making a younger member talk, and here are as many details as I could collect.

The cloth is called daraqli (……….): if used for bath towels, it would form a peshtemal (Turkish) or futa (Arabic), but in a different disposition of the threads it might, for example, be a stuff to cover furniture with or to form a tablecloth.

Silk thread from Aleppo, dyed in ikat technique, and mentioned in Balit's letter of 1939 (TRC 2016.0192).

Silk thread from Aleppo, dyed in ikat technique, and mentioned in Balit's letter of 1939 (TRC 2016.0192).

 The cotton or silk is taken, and if yellow, it is first bleached to white. About 300 metres of thread would be folded continually in half till it came, say to 12 metres and then, according to the pattern required, a sufficient quantity that is to remain white would be tied extremely tight with cotton thread so that the dye cannot enter: it would then all be sent to the dyer’s to receive a yellow colour. On return, it is tied anew – such of the yellow that is, as they want to remain yellow, upon which it would return to the dyer for the rest to be dyed red and following that, after a new tying, blue. When this is finished the whole thing is untied to form 18 balls of different colours, and then there ensues the process upon which my informant felt compelled to be mute, namely the placing of the different threads side by side with enough irregularity to give the different pattern: that is the red would be pulled higher or lower than the yellow next to it, and so on. I managed to secure a sample from the end of a supply (`fin d’un metier) which, if you look at the part that is tied, will perhaps yield up its secret to you (my expenses for this and for postage would come to about 30 francs) [this is TRC 2016.0192, see illustration]

The difficulty of explaining this you can well understand, and I can only hope the sample arrives safely, registered as I shall try to have it done if the post office can, together with my very best wishes to you.

Yours very … Bechir Balit

P.S. I am sorry I cannot identify what you mean by the “bardimani’ of Yemen, or the ‘ikat’’ or ‘chiné’ procedures.

Some further details about the letter

The letter was actually written by someone else, but signed by Bechir Balit.

Dorothy and Joan: these are two of the daughters of John and Grace Crowfoot. Dorothy went onto to become Dorothy Crowfoot Hodgkin, who won the Nobel Prize in Chemistry (1964) for her work with insulin. Joan Crowfoot became Joan Payne, a notable Egyptologist who worked at the Ashmolean Museum, Oxford.

A Turkish peshtemal and the Syrian futa are large cotton cloths that are often used in bath houses. They can be worn over the shoulders, wrapped around the lower half of the body, etc.

“Bardimani of Yemen”: so far I have been unable to trace this term, but presumably it was in use in early 20th century Yemen for this type of dyeing process/cloth. Ikat is the Malay/Indonesian term. The term ikat is now generally accepted and used for this form of resist dyeing. Chiné is the French term for this type of dyeing and is used for both 18th century forms (which were dyed) and early 20th century forms in which the warp threads were printed with the relevant colours rather than resist dyed.

Ikat sample from Aleppo, Syria, 1920s (TRC 2016.0177).

Ikat sample from Aleppo, Syria, 1920s (TRC 2016.0177).

Tarbit in the TRC Collection

The TRC/Crowfoot Collection includes examples from the Aleppo region and includes dyed silk threads for the warp (TRC 2016.0192) and two cotton textiles (TRC 2016.0138  and TRC 2016.0177). The silk sample is the one referred to in the letter by Bechir Balit.

In addition the TRC has a woman’s coat (TRC 2005.0076) dating from about 1920’s, from Ma`an in Jordan. It has been made from Aleppo silk tarbit in a satin weave (atlas) and came to the TRC via the Josephine Kane Collection.

Gillian Vogelsang, 19th May 2018

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