Thoughts in Jerusalem

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Street scene in the Jerusalem bazaar, 29 July 2019. Photograph Willem Vogelsang.

Street scene in the Jerusalem bazaar, 29 July 2019. Photograph Willem Vogelsang.

On Monday, 29th July, Gillian Vogelsang wrote from Jerusalem:

The last two weeks have been quite a time, both at the TRC Leiden itself and for myself. It has included the Out of Asia programme in Leiden, between 14 and 19 July. A few days later I took part in a symposium at Leicester University about science and archaeological/historical textiles, and now with Willem we have a few days in the old city of Jerusalem (a holiday, of sorts).

A theme of all these events, which became clear to me the last few days, has been the passing down of knowledge and community identity through crafts, rather than solely by the written word (a skill that was long in the hands of a few, elite men).

It has left me a little sad, as it is clear that conflicts, changes in communication (spending time on telephones and watching tv), technology (computer driven machines) and that dreaded word globalization have broken the lineage of generations of craft knowledge, which will never come back.

These are not new thoughts, many other people have been muttering about this. But the last few weeks have driven home the need for groups, such as the TRC Leiden, to record, document and preserve as much as possible of this knowledge….. In basic terms, the historic dialogue between the local weaver and the local carpenter, to discuss the construction of a new loom has, in so many places, been broken. And the same applies to so many other aspects of cultural heritage.

Walking down the streets of the bazaar in Old Jerusalem is fun, exciting, but also a bit depressing. I must be getting a little sentimental in my old age. I had been told you can get anything in the Jerusalem suq, but what I saw with regards embroidery was garment after garment that was decorated with machine embroidery, rather than worked by hand.

Part of the ‘problem’ is that there is a difference between professional embroidery for urban (religious, court, elite) use, and regional embroidery. Ironically, the rise of regional embroidery on a large scale in many parts of the world was based on industrialisation (thereby making cheaper materials and designs more widely available) and nationalism. It started around the 1840’s and reached a peak by the 1930’s. Then came a decline due to political, economical, and of course military developments.

Until the 1990’s there was still a large stock-pile of hand embroideries and related knowledge, but as less people (usually women) had the time to embroider, they have become scarcer. Following the fall of communism in the 1990’s and the opening up of new markets and sources, dealers and collectors have hoovered up examples and sold them on, or had them at home to enjoy. This movement of items has been so great that Turkmen embroidered coats from Central Asia are now being sold in southern Morocco (and Jerusalem!) as local forms.

A major contributor to this change is technology. Since the 1880’s hand embroidery had been copied on machines, literally called the hand embroidery machines, which were widely used in Germany and Switzerland. But only certain embroidery stitches could be copied. Then came the many different types of Schiffli’s, Cornely’s, and other machines. None of these, however, could satisfactorily copy cross stitch embroidery. Computerization has changed all of that. And that is what we are seeing in the Jerusalem bazaar. Coat hanger after hanger of machine embroidered Palestinian style embroidery. Even down to a small dragon design that is based on a 1930’s DMC (French) copy of the Welsh dragon, but that is a different story.

Some of the machine embroidery we have just seen was made in Jordan. Syria used to be an important source, but that trade is struggling due to the conflicts there. Many of the market stalls are now dominated by Chinese items made for the Middle Eastern market. And there are even items with Chinese designs, which are sometimes being sold as local.

A fez (0ttoman) rather than a tarbush (Arab) that was covered with machine embroidery, with motifs based on a Ramallah woman’s dress, symbolised for me the end of the hand embroidery lineage in this part of the world.

All the more reason for the TRC to continue even harder with the Bloomsbury encyclopaedias of hand embroidery, while there are still those who still remember the lineage of skills.

But on a positive note, what is also clear from Jerusalem is that the theme of dress and identity is alive and well and is playing an important role in so many people’s lives. It is constantly changing and developing, and that is how it should be. Change has always been a feature of textiles and dress, and I was fascinated watching some fashion students doing a fashion shot just outside the Jaffa Gate. They had made some summer coats decorated with Suzani style designs from Uzbekistan. They were very pretty and wearable garments. The students were enjoying and celebrating the patterns and colours, and perhaps that is the most important part of this journey, taking time to have some gentle pleasure in colourful patterns.

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