Raf-Raf Suriya Mabdu (Tunisia)

Elaborately decorated Suriya Mabdu dress from Raf-Raf, Tunisia, second half of the 20th century. Elaborately decorated Suriya Mabdu dress from Raf-Raf, Tunisia, second half of the 20th century. © Trustees of the British Museum, acc no. Af1998,01.112.

Raf-Raf is a small town, southeast of Bizerte, Tunisia. It is famous for its regional bridal costume and its everyday tunic or chemise for women (suriya mabdu). This latter style of dress was still being worn at the end of the twentieth century, but its use is rapidly dying out. The suriya mabdu is made in various forms. Basically, it is a rectangular garment, previously of linen, now of cotton, with a decorative plastron.

It is normally decorated with vertical stripes, often in red and white. A pair of sleeves is added to this rectangle. These sleeves are made from tulle (triz et-telli), which is embroidered in coloured wool or, in later examples, a brightly coloured synthetic yarn. No metal thread is used on the sleeves. The upper part of the armholes and the plastron are decorated with a rich, wool embroidery arranged in bands. The colours are always brilliant, and turquoise predominates. Over the wool embroidery there are sewn sequins, cannetille, gold and silver thread, and so forth. These are used to enhance the pattern and make the effect as glittery and luminous as possible.

The outer band of the plastron and the inner ones of the armholes generally consist of a line of stylised flowers and auspicious symbols worked on a silk ground. Turquoise, violet and black are the favourite colours for these bands. The outer edge of the bands are often scalloped and there are similar embroidered scallops around the small stand-up collar. Inside the bands there are usually lucky symbols alternating with leaves and flowers. Some favourites are fish, the moon (full or crescent), peacocks, crab-like animals, and occasionally a hand with five digits (khamsa). Some tunics have embroidery at the bottom, which is generally a triangle of flowers. These are predominantly worked in a black thread.

See also the TRC Needles entry on Raf-Raf embroidery.


  • AYOUB, Abderrahman (2003). Signes et Symboles en Tunisie, Tunis: Institut National du Patrimoine.
  • GINESTOUS, L. (1954). ‘La tunique brodée de Rafraf,’ Bulletin de Liaison de l’Office des Arts Tunisiens, 1, pp. 13-20.
  • STONE, Caroline (1985). The Embroideries of North Africa, London: Longman.
  • TANFOUS, Aziza Ben (et al; 1988). Les costumes traditionels feminins de Tunisie, Tunis: Maison Tunisienne de l’Edition.

British Museum online catalogue (retrieved 9th July 2016).


Last modified on Saturday, 20 May 2017 14:41