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Two Middle Eastern women in Rotterdam proudly showing their embroidery.Two Middle Eastern women in Rotterdam proudly showing their embroidery.Arab embroidery is an art that is strictly linked to the female domain. It's not just a traditional form of dress decoration, but an icon that reflects the woman's identity passed down from mother to daughter for generations.

In the past, traditional embroidery was distinguished by its rich colours, enchanting silk fabrics, golden threads, its geometric patterns and unique motifs that symbolized stories of women and their surroundings, their identity and their position in society.

With the advent of modernity, the Middle East witnessed significant changes, which brought dramatic transformations to Arab culture and its identity.
 Globalization, modernization, war and displacement of people are the major factors of the loss of traditional culture, collective memory and the obliteration of traditional practices and cultural intricacies. All these are factors that with the passing of time, made me reflect and therefore decide to study and document many aspects of my culture with the intent to preserve and share it with other people.

Class of Arab women in Rotterdam practising Middle Eastern embroidery.Class of Arab women in Rotterdam practising Middle Eastern embroidery.One of these projects is the embroidered traditional female dress. The reasons behind this choice is the fact that, since my childhood, embroidery played an import role in my daily life. I used to embroider along with my mother, sisters and neighbours. We used to embroider cushions, table runners and many other small pieces. It was a moment of female gathering and storytelling. Now that I am an adult, whenever I embroider or talk about embroidery I instantly go back in time to those beautiful moments and my home land, and I cannot but think about the extent of loss embroidery faces on a daily basis.

At my last exhibition at Caploc in Capelle a/d IJssel (near Rotterdam) in August 2019, I had the pleasure to talk to many Arab women living in Rotterdam. They instinctively got emotional and cried when they saw my embroidered dresses. It was so touching to see how embroidery made them go back in time to Syria, to those beautiful memories before the war and displacement. They talked about those lost memories with nostalgia and the embroidered dress became a sort of photograph that reminded them of their past, their homeland, and all those traditions that were lost due to war.

The exhibition at Caploc made me reflect about how I could help these women to approach or bring back what was lost and how to help ease their solitude as refugees in the diaspora.

As a result, I decided to act on that emotional experience and try to create an embroidery project that aims to bring in as many different women from Capelle a/d IJssel as possible.

Teaching material for Arab embroidery course.Teaching material for Arab embroidery course.Hence, I proposed the project to the Municipality hoping to find support and approval and to my great surprise, the project was accepted with great enthusiasm and fully funded.

Geared up with enthusiasm and determination, on the 17th January 2020 I started treaching my first lesson of Arab embroidery. Many women from different Arab countries took part. Most of them were Syrian, Palestinian, Jordanian, Iraqi, Lebanese, Yemeni and Somali; a melting pot of cultural heritage to talk about and from which to learn.

The primary purpose of this project is to talk about the classic cross-stitch patterns that are common to Syria and Palestine, and at the same time highlight the other embroidery forms of stitches that are used in neighbouring Arab countries. I want to explain the meaning of every motif that women used to cross-stitch and to stress the importance of understanding it because it’s part of the our Arab national identity and cultural heritage.

The main challenge in this process was to try and find any Syrian embroidery patterns and in some way, create a sort of parallelism with the richly documented patterns found in Palestinian dresses.

Unfortunately little is known about the Syrian embroidery. However two people, Dr. Gillian Vogelsang-Eastwood of the Textile Research Centre in Leiden, The Netherlands, and Salua Qitan from the Tiraz Centre: the Widad Kawar Home for Arab Dress & Textile Museum in Amman, Jordan, were of enormous assistance. Thanks to their support and knowledge I was able to make it possible for the Syrian women to embroider their personal motifs, such as the Cypress tree and Palm trees from the Al-Sukhna area in Syria.

More than ten women come to the workshop and most of them had zero experience in embroidery. In less than six lessons most of them now are capable to embroider basic cross stitch motifs and it’s very amusing to see how they challenge each other on how many motifs they can stitch in a week at home.

Learning Arab embroideryLearning Arab embroideryDuring the lessons and while we embroider, we often listen to Fairuz, Om Kaltum or various other classical Arab singers. We talk about food or share beautiful memories about Syria, Iraq, Palestine, Yemen and the way these countries used to be before all the major upheavals. The women feel safe, protected and happy to be together.

What these women teach me is that, regardless of what they have gone through, the traumas, and the struggle to get to the Netherlands as refugees, their hopes and spirits are high and whoever goes by our class room can hear their laughter and song.

But we also talk about embroidery in present terms. Embroidery can be regarded as a tool of empowerment and economic independence. During the lessons I often give examples of successful women, organizations and fashion designers that use this beautiful skill as a tool for empowerment and self independence. Inaash, a Lebanese organization with more than fifty years of history in embroidery training and empowering of more than two thousand women in refugee camps across Lebanon, produces some of the finest quality handmade embroidered products in all of the Middle East. Another example is Taqa, an atelier that embraces the rich Palestinian and Middle Eastern heritage with a modern touch, to create unique pieces for contemporary women's dresses, etc, etc. Learning this beautiful skill in a professional way could be a means to gain financial independence, by creating personal embroidered products and sale them to the market.

Class of Arab women, learning embroidery.Class of Arab women, learning embroidery.I would like to end by saying that I find it very important to keep alive this extraordinary handcraft in order to pass it down to the future generations that live in the Netherlands. Preserving it means keeping alive traditional culture and heritage, reinforcing their connection with the lost homeland and at the same time it represents an act of community building and women aggregation and empowerment.


The author of this blog, published on 21st February 2020, is Fatima Abbadi. She is an Italian – Jordanian/ Palestinian photographer, embroiderer and collector of Jordanian and Palestinian traditional dresses. She grew up between Abu Dhabi (U.A.E) and Jordan, and in 1997 moved to Italy in for her university studies and where she lived until 2019 before moving to the Netherlands in March 2019 along with her husband and two children.

 "My love for my roots encouraged me to carry out research in the field of photography as well as in that of traditional dress.

Carnival's outfit from The Netherlands (TRC 2020.0392a-b).Carnival's outfit from The Netherlands (TRC 2020.0392a-b).From the 23rd-25th February, people in large parts of The Netherlands, especially in the south, will again be celebrating carnival. This festival is a Western Christian tradition that is especially celebrated in Catholic countries, and takes place just before the liturgical period of Lent (the forty days of fasting before Easter). 

Carnival always ends with Ash Wednesday (this year the 26th February), which is the first day of Lent. The preceding Tuesday is often known, especially in Protestant countries, as Shrove Tuesday or Mardi Gras, or more popularly, 'Pancake Day'.

Carnival is generally marked by street parades, fancy costumes, and an overall mockery of the establishment. An important aspect of carnival is the fancy costume that people are wearing.

The TRC recently received a carnival's outfit (TRC 2020.0392a and TRC 2020.0392b). We don't  know its origins, it may even derive from the Leiden area. Carnival in the Netherlands is traditionally centred in the south of the country, with a dominant Catholic population. In the more Protestant north, including Leiden, carnaval is not widely observed.

The TRC costume consists of a polyester cotton with a colourful printed design. The skirt is made of straw. In the week of carnival the fancy costume will be on display at the TRC.

Gillian Vogelsang, 13th February 2020.

Berlin wool work chart, mid-19th century, made in Berlin (TRC 2018.1578).Berlin wool work chart, mid-19th century, made in Berlin (TRC 2018.1578).On Saturday the 15th February 2020, Gillian Vogelsang wrote:

For the last few months we have been discussing the TRC Library, its future and how to make it more accessible, especially as more and more books are being donated to the Library.

It is rapidly growing into a comprehensive source of information about textiles and dress from throughout the world with books in a wide range of languages.


The Native people of Alaska (USA), known generically as Inuit or Eskimos, live in one of the most challenging environments of our planet. Protective clothing often means the difference between life and death. The Yup’ik are an Eskimo people living in southwestern Alaska, where temperatures range from 20 degrees Celsius in the summer to -14 in winter. Yup’ik women are responsible for clothing production in their communities; Yup’ik girls traditionally cannot marry until they have mastered skills such as hide preparation and sewing. Over the centuries they have developed a distinctive style of clothing that is insulated and durable, waterproof, wind resistant, and comfortable to wear even while hunting or fishing.

Eskimo parka from among the Yup'ik, Alaska (1980s; TRC 2020.0400).Eskimo parka from among the Yup'ik, Alaska (1980s; TRC 2020.0400).

The handmade woman’s parka (TRC 2020.0400) was produced around the 1980s in Emmonak (population 762), near the Bering Sea in Alaska. In 1986 it was given as a gift by a Yup’ik woman to the gussuk (white man), Michael J. Anderson, a lay Roman Catholic worker at the St. Mary’s Mission School, near the confluence of the Yukon and Andreafsky rivers. It was a thank-you for accompanying a group of boys back to their villages, some 80 miles from the boarding school. A parka (an Inuit word meaning “animal skin”, first written down in English in 1625) is a traditional hooded jacket, frequently hip length, made most often of caribou skin (either from the wild caribou (Rangifer tarandus granti) or the domesticated Rangifer tarandus taranduse, or seal skin.

Parade uniform of a Russian senator, velvet and silk. The gold thread embroidery and buttons were considered a sign that the Emperor respected the senator's status. Late 19th-early 20th century.Parade uniform of a Russian senator, velvet and silk. The gold thread embroidery and buttons were considered a sign that the Emperor respected the senator's status. Late 19th-early 20th century.On Sunday, 9th February 2020, TRC colleague Shelley Anderson wrote:

The exhibition “Jewels: Glittering at the Russian Court” may be its most popular exhibition ever, according to the Hermitage in Amsterdam. It is easy to understand why. On display are over three hundred pieces of jewellery and dozens of court ball gowns, many complete ensemble of gowns, shoes, fans and jewellery. Also on display are some hundred portraits that show how the Russian aristocracy used dress to project wealth and power.

The exhibition is stunning. It showcases over two hundred years of royal fashion (mostly women’s fashion, although there are some beautiful examples of children’s clothes, and of men’s. The emphasis is on three important trend setters: Anna Ioannovna (who ruled 1730-1740), Empress Elizabeth (who ruled from 1741 to 1761), and Catherine the Great, ruler from 1762 to 1796.

Opening of the TRC American Quilts exhibition, 5th February 2020, by Marja Verloop, the Deputy Chief of Mission of the American Embassy, The Hague.Opening of the TRC American Quilts exhibition, 5th February 2020, by Marja Verloop, the Deputy Chief of Mission of the American Embassy, The Hague.On Friday, 7th February 2020, Gillian Vogelsang wrote:

The American Quilt exhibition has just been officially opened (5th February 2020) and it was a most inspiring event with lots of visitors!

It started with a lecture by Susan Cave on the history of American quilts. The talk was illustrated with photographs of quilts form the exhibition and numerous anecdotes based on Susan’s long experience of working with quilts.

Additional, and more technical details were provided by Beverley Bennett. Lynn Kaplanian-Buller presented details about Mennonite relief quilts (three of which are on display in the exhibition).

A few days ago I published a blog about TC (Technically Correct) embroidery, and I have just come across a fascinating example from the 17th century of something Non-Technically Correct. It is the initialled handkerchief of King Charles I (reign: 1625-1649) of England, who was executed on the 30th January 1649.

The handkerchief and other items such as his silk shirt, pair of gloves (also embroidered) and part of his black cloak are now in the Museum of London, They will shortly go on display in an exhibition at the Museum about executions in the city. All of the items mentioned above were worn by King Charles when he went to his own execution.

Embroidery chart for the initials of Charles I, used for his handkerchief associated with his execution on 30th January 1649. To the right the TC version, to the left the actual, non-TC version.Embroidery chart for the initials of Charles I, used for his handkerchief associated with his execution on 30th January 1649. To the right the TC version, to the left the actual, non-TC version.

On a much lighter note, the handkerchief bears the initials C.R. (Carolus Rex) under a royal crown. The crown is worked in back stitch using a black silk thread, while the initials are in cross stitch. The original cross stitches are of varying sizes, in order to create the appearance of regularity. They were worked over various numbers of warp and weft threads. If an actual version of the initials is produced based on the number of stitches then the letters are of different sizes (to the left in the chart). If a 'correct' version is produced (to the right), then more stitches would be required than actually was the case!

Is this an example of quick work that looked okay from a distance due to the circumstances of when it was required? Or something else? We will probably never know.

Gillian Vogelsang, 1 February 2020

Mennonite women in North America engaged in making quilts, 2005. Mennonite women in North America engaged in making quilts, 2005. In 1994, twenty relief quilts made in 1945 by North American Mennonites for the Dutch were given into my care. Last year I lost one…. and that was okay. Here’s the story.

After WW2, Russian Mennonites fleeing westward were allowed to stay in The Netherlands for a short time providing that the Dutch Mennonite (Doopsgezinde) community would house, feed and clothe them.

Short of supplies themselves after the Honger Winter, Mennonites in Canada and the US sent over pallets of food, clothing and quilt blankets, which they’d been preparing since 1940.

The relief was coordinated by the Mennonite Central Committee (MCC), founded in 1920 to assist Russian Mennonites to emigrate to Canada after WW1. Many of the key people in the 1945 efforts were themselves refugees from the previous war. Helping now was their way of repaying and passing on the comfort they had received.

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TRC in a nutshell

Hogewoerd 164
2311 HW Leiden.
Tel. +31 (0)71 5134144 /
+31 (0)6 28830428  

Open on Mondays - Thursdays
from 10.00 - 16.00.

Bank account number:
NL39 INGB 0002 9823 59,
Stichting Textile Research Centre

Entrance is free, but donations are always welcome!

TRC Gallery exhibition:
5 Febr. -25 June 2020: American Quilts

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The TRC is dependent on project support and individual donations. All of our work is being carried out by volunteers. To support the TRC activities, we therefore welcome your financial assistance: donations can be transferred to bank account number NL39 INGB 000 298 2359, in the name of the Stichting Textile Research Centre.
Since the TRC is officially recognised as a non-profit making cultural institution (ANBI), donations are tax deductible for 125% for individuals, and 150% for commercial companies. For more information, click here
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