Palestinian embroidery and the methods use for creating it distinguish it greatly from other cultural forms of embroidery, namely western cross stitch and even eastern European embroidery styles that sometimes appear similar in styles and motifs. (Due to historical influences over time such as immigration to Palestine especially during the days of the British mandate, some Palestinian embroidery motifs and designs do resemble those found in eastern Europe - more on that in a future blog post.)
Traditionally, Palestinian embroidery does not use a hoop. The value in Palestinian embroidery comes from the labor put into the pieces, not from any additional supplies used in the creation of the embroidery itself. In not using a hoop, and completing two stitches in one motion, our ancestors and practitioners today are able to more swiftly move through their pieces even when a piece can sometimes take over a year!
One of the distinguishing features of Palestinian embroidery is the fact that the emphasis in our embroidery is as much on the back of the work as it is on the front. This stems from the sustainability of Palestinian embroidery historically as a practice. Our ancestors did not have excess so they did not waste - and even if they did have the luxury of excess, we know that it is haram [haram is an Arabic word used to refer to something that is morally wrong] to waste in any context. In practice, this translates into an intentional approach to every motif - threads are not carried across the back of the work nor hanging from it. We try not to knot if possible so nothing catches on the backside of our work, too. By approaching motifs strategically and not carrying our threads across the back of our work, no excess thread is used. This is even more important historically as our ancestors were using even more costly materials than we commonly use today. [Think: the price of silk which is usually pre-dyed for us is quite expensive today. Imagine the time and cost put into naturally dying and preparing that silk even prior to embroidery for our ancestors centuries ago.] Lastly, the cleanliness and neatness of the back of an embroidery work is also a cultural indication of a woman’s skill historically. This is still true today - while often unnamed, there was always a competitive - yet friendly - nature to admiring the skill/back of another woman’s embroidery work.
Another distinguishing feature in our embroidery that is unheard of in other cultural practices of cross-stitch embroidery (the most common stitch used in Palestinian embroidery) is that the purpose of our stitches is not actually to form an X! In fact, we do not even think twice about the direction of each X or stitch in the embroidery because as we stitch on the front of a work, our mind is consumed with imagining the back of it (see paragraph above). In western cross-stitch and eastern European forms of cross-stitch, the direction of each X is very important. This is because it impacts the way the light hits the work and the sheen of the thread. What this means is that if the half stitch running from the lower left to the upper right of the X-stitch is underneath on the first stitch, emphasis should be placed to ensure that EVERY stitch is crossed in the same fashion - with the half stitch that runs from the lower left to the upper right underneath the other half stitch that runs from the lower right to the upper left.
For Palestinians embroidering our thobes and other items - we spend no time thinking about the direction of our stitches (on the front at least)! This is because the purpose and emphasis of each stitch is to achieve full coverage of the fabric so that by the time the embroidery is complete, each X comes together to form a motif - not a series of distinguishable X-es.
To see how we approach our stitching and the strategies used in embroidering the Palestinian thobe, see the videos and explanations below. Please note that one motif may employ one, two, or all of these strategies in attempt to create the neatest back possible. Each of the strategies may also be completed from left to right or right to left, from bottom to top or from top to bottom. The idea is to create a motif on the front side and achieve a back that is mostly all in the same direction in terms of the direction of the stitches - and also to create a back that nearly looks like the front. The three strategies used in Palestinian embroidery are the column stitching strategy, vertical stitching strategy, and diagonal stitching strategy. Below are explanations and demonstrations of each of those strategies.
The Column Stitching Strategy
To use the column stitching strategy, you will move up and down through a motif in columns by completing half stitches. To begin, your needle will come from the back to the front of your work at point A, leaving a tail which you will stitch over to secure as you complete your first few stitches. You will then move your needle through your fabric horizontally completing two stitches at a time by pushing your needle down through point B and bringing it up through point C in one motion. Repeat the same motion, two stitches at once, using points D and E respectively and then F and G. Continue with this motion until you’ve reached the desired length/height of this column according to your motif. To complete this column of stitches, you will come back down the column crossing each half stitch you have created. To end your thread, push your needle and thread to the back of your work and tuck your thread underneath a couple of stitches and then remove the needle and trim any excess thread. See the diagrams on the right. For a video demonstration, see below.
The Vertical Stitching Strategy
The name of this stitching strategy refers to the way your thread lays on the back of your work – in small vertical lines for every stitch you make (as opposed to the horizontal lines left on the back of your work by the column stitching strategy). To use this stitching strategy to complete a motif, you will bring your needle up from the back of your fabric at point A, leaving a tail which you will stitch over to secure as you complete your first few stitches. Then, in one motion, push your needle down at point B and bring it up at Point C. Complete the same motion using points D and E respectively. Continue moving across your work until you have achieved the desired width of your row. Then, to cross and complete these stitches, you will complete the same motions in the opposite direction moving back towards your original stitch until you have completed crossing all stitches. You can then move up or down to complete another row of stitching on top of or below the row you have currently completed. See diagrams to the left or the video below for a demonstration.
The Diagonal Stitching Strategy
The diagonal stitching strategy is often used to complete diagonal sections of a motif such as the arches of a chest piece or to outline tiles. This stitching strategy leaves either all horizontal lines on the back of the work or all vertical lines, depending on the way in which the embroiderer approaches the strategy. To begin, you will bring your needle up from the back of your fabric at point A, leaving a tail which you will stitch over to secure as you complete your first few stitches. Then, in one motion, push your needle down at point B and bring it up at Point C. Complete the same motion using points D and E respectively. Continue this motion until you have reached the farthest point of your diagonal line. Then, using the same motion in reverse, return to cross each half stitch you have created moving your way back down the diagonal of half stitches. See the diagrams to the right or the video demonstration below.