All About Palestinian Tatreez: A Jiffy w/ Joanna Barakat from The Tatreez Circle
Can you tell us a bit more about yourself?
I'm Joanna Barakat, an artist living in the UAE. I was born in Jerusalem and grew up in Los Angeles. I moved to London for university and received my BA in Art and Design from Central St Martins and my MA in Global Media & Postnational Communication from SOAS. Fast forward many years to when my art practice was reshaped by my exciting discovery that Palestinian embroidery can be used to communicate ideas and identity. Palestinian embroidery, or tatreez falasteeni, provided a connection to my Palestinian culture in a way that my broken Arabic and Western upbringing had always prevented.
Like many people growing up in the diaspora, I felt like a foreigner in both worlds, striving to find inner balance while seeking outer approval. It took years of growth and self-remembrance (which is an ongoing process) to recognize that the sense of balance and belonging I searched for existed in me all along. When working on my painting, Heart Strings, I discovered the storytelling capability of Palestinian embroidery and the way it resonated universally. By incorporating the indigenous language of Palestinian embroidery in my artwork, I redirect conversations to our culture and humanity. In addition to my art practice, I teach tatreez workshops and curate The Tatreez Circle, an Instagram page that celebrates Palestinian embroidery.
What is the Tatreez Circle?
The Tatreez Circle is an Instagram page where I share my passion for Palestinian embroidery. I create educational content and share the work and posts of other artists, designers, social enterprises, and organizations incorporating Palestinian embroidery in their work. I have made so many wonderful friends and have been able to connect people through my page. I encourage Palestinian creatives to promote and support each other because our success (in every definition of the term) is crucial to our cultural survival. I want to share content that inspires and teaches people about Palestinian embroidery while keeping it relevant and facilitating a connection to our culture that many Palestinians in the diaspora long for.
How and why did the Tatreez Circle come to be?
It all started with a phone call from my friend Dina Yazbak. She asked me if I knew anything about tatreez because she was interested in finding a way to preserve it for future generations. At the time, I already began intensively researching it and using it as a medium in my artwork. Sharing her concern, I suggested that we organize tatreez workshops, and she hosted the first workshop I taught at her house with some close friends. I started The Tatreez Circle Instagram page after the first few workshops. Along with teaching embroidery techniques in my workshops, I place great importance on teaching the history and evolution of Palestinian embroidery. I want my students to gain a deep understanding of Palestinian embroidery’s historical and cultural significance. There was a time when I only knew Palestinian embroidery as a nostalgic decoration and wasn’t aware of its integral role in the narrative of Palestinian women across the centuries. I highly recommend anyone interested in Palestinian embroidery to read Threads of Identity: Preserving Palestinian Costume and Heritage by Widad Kawar, Traditional Palestinian Costume: Origins and Evolution by Hanan Munayyer, and Tatreez and Tea: Embroidery and Storytelling in the Palestinian Diaspora by Wafa Ghanim.
How different is Palestinian tatreez from other forms found in the Levant?
Palestinian embroidery varies in its stitches, motifs, and the placement of panels. The shapes of the dresses, jackets, and headdresses also vary. The most important difference is that Palestinian embroidery is tied to our identity, representation, and narrative. It went from representing a very personal and localized identity before 1948 to a collective identity afterwards.
I recently came across a post you shared, which outlines the different types of tatreez from the different towns, cities and regions in Palestine. How do they differ?
Palestinian embroidery is rich and diverse. Each village had its own style of expression and trends when it came to how women dressed. Historically, the headdresses, dress shapes and styles varied regionally. As did the fabrics, types of stitches and colors used, which can vary from village to village. Since the motifs described the environment and personal details about the wearer, there were regionally specific motifs too and regional variations on common motifs. For example, the orange blossom motif was commonly found in Jaffa, the grapes motif in Khalil, and the leech (the one that looks like an S) in Ramallah. Bethlehem was famous for its intricate couching embroidery.
Now that we’ve discussed how they’re different, how would you say they’re similar?
It was only the farm and village women who wore the embroidered dresses. Their dress expressed where she came from, her beliefs, her economic and marital status. You will find variations of some motifs across the regions, such as geometric motifs, stars, or cypress trees. Fabrics imported from Syria or traded from the weaving centers in Palestine were also found across the different regions. Belting dresses or over the long coats was common across all areas. Silver jewelry was also something women across the regions wore before the 1940s.
What are some of the most commonly used colours and fabrics for and in Palestinian tatreez?
Along with imported Syrian silk fabrics, the textiles produced in the weaving centers (before most were destroyed in 1948) were linen, cotton, and linen-cotton blends. Velvet became popular after it was imported in the 1930s, especially in Jerusalem and Bethlehem. The threads were hand-dyed silk, so the stitches were so tiny on the old dresses compared to the cotton thread we use now. In Northern Palestine, you find a wide variety of styles and textiles because they had access to and were influenced by the surrounding countries of Syria and Jordan. For example, women in Safad wore a large striped wrap made from a striped Syrian fabric over their dresses called a safadiya. The women of Northern Palestine wore beautifully embroidered coats and headbands. Nablus and surrounding areas were also well known for their use of fabric for their long coats rather than for embroidery. As you go south to Khalil, you find densely cross-stitched dresses with beautiful appliqué panels down the front. Ramallah is well known for its red cross-stitch on the white (for summer) or black (for winter) rumi linen dresses. This kind of linen was woven in Ramallah. They would be worn with embroidered shawls over their halo-like saffeh coin headdress. Bethlehem is famous for its luxurious tahriri couching embroidery, imported Syrian fabrics and shatweh headdress. Jaffa mixes couching with cross-stitch, most notably the exquisite dresses from Beit Dajan. Jerusalem was known for chest panels with Bethlehem couching embroidery and striped fabrics imported from Syria. Before 1948, women in Gaza used fabrics from the weaving center in Majdal, embroidering a v-shaped composition on the chest panels. Here you find pinks, purples, and greens in stripes on the fabric and in the embroidery. The bedouin dresses of Southern Palestine were wider and using bright red, orange, yellow and pink geometric motifs. When widowed, the woman would wear blue embroidery, and then if she remarried, she would add the red back in. The colors and motifs in the embroidery and worn headdresses played an essential role in communicating information about the woman who wore the dress and the natural environment surrounding her.
What is the history and cultural context of embroidery prior to 1948 from various regions in Palestine?
Historically, Palestinian embroidered dresses embodied the story of the wearer. She communicated different aspects of her identity and environment through hand-embroidered motifs that were important information for people in her village. She also shared the story of the land, the sky, the trees, the agriculture, and the birds surrounding her. The motifs were initially more geometric and abstract, but later women began incorporating birds, humans, and animal motifs. Major events in her life would also be documented on her dresses, like having a child, a prayer for healing her sick husband, or an upgrade to her house. Each dress was an autobiography.
How have they changed after 1948?
After 1948, the embroidery went from symbolizing a very localized identity to representing an entire collective. Though the embroidery was affected by the economics and politics of the Ottoman Empire, it became a symbol and tool of resistance only after the Nakba. Examples such as the well-known Intifada dresses illustrate how women who embroider played an active role in resisting the occupation. The farm and village women who wore the embroidery also became symbols of the motherland, resilience, and a deep-rooted connection to the land as featured in the paintings, posters, and political cartoons of the liberation art movement up to now.
The embroidery also changed technically. Women stopped wearing the headdress, and gold jewelry replaced the hammered silver jewelry. In the refugee camps, organizations taught women how to embroider to sell their embroidery and earn an income. The hand-embroidery that began to come out of the camps was no longer only created for personal use. Instead, they were produced to be sold to support these women and their families. The embroidery that was worn was no longer regional and became a mix of motifs and styles. The shape of the dress and placement of the panels also changed. Cotton thread replaced the original hand-dyed silk thread. There was little to no access to imported Syrian fabrics and locally woven fabrics. The weaving centers in Palestine, like in Majdal, were destroyed along with the villages. Before 1948, city women found the embroidered dresses unfashionable and socially unacceptable for them to wear. Though they appreciated the skill of embroidery, women in the cities preferred Western-style clothing and fashion. After the commercialization of hand-embroidery, this stigma around wearing embroidery that lasted up to my grandmother’s generation no longer exists since only wealthy women could now afford it. Embroidery became a general expression of Palestinian identity worn by women in Palestine and the diaspora. Machine embroidery and synthetic fabrics made making, buying, and wearing generic Palestinian embroidery affordable for everyone in and outside the camps. Unfortunately, this goes against how hand-embroidered thobes on natural fabrics would have been made, mended, reused or passed down to the next generation. With more awareness, there will be more demand for a return to the original sustainable values regarding the construction of the thobes and more focus on the fair compensation of the embroiderers.
As language and fashion evolve, so does Palestinian embroidery. Designers recreate traditional hand-embroidered dresses, hand-embroidery on western-style clothing, and machine-embroidered modern interpretations of Palestinian thobes, abayas, and ball gowns. Palestinian embroidery has become common to wear for henna or engagement parties and weddings. In addition, you find modern recreations of the traditional belts and headdresses. The headdresses no longer signify a woman’s wealth and marital status with usable coins; instead, it is a decorative nod to Palestinian heritage.
Do you think that Traditional Palestinian embroidery (tatreez) played an important role as a form of indigenous language in Palestinian culture before the Nakba, the 1948 mass displacement of Palestinians from their homeland?
Absolutely, and it still is a Palestinian indigenous language where the motifs serve as pictograms to tell a story. Before 1948, it communicated a personal account of a woman’s life within a specific time and place. This ancestral knowledge and the embroidered dresses would be passed down generationally. Like all languages, this one has also evolved a great deal after 1948, though we still use the original motifs. Once you begin to view it as a language and its critical role in the Palestinian narrative, you can appreciate the urgency of its preservation.
Would you say that Palestinian tatreez has been culturally appropriated under the occupation?
When Palestinians see Israeli or Western designers, businesses and corporations thoughtlessly using our embroidery, it is like salt in a very deep open wound. The lack of respect when using these symbolic and cultural items contributes to the ongoing oppression and dehumanization of Palestinians. The intentional usurpation and erasure of our culture are tools of ethnic cleansing. This is why I urge people to teach and preserve our embroidery, ensuring that future generations recognize it, understand its history, and realize its cultural value.
Where would you recommend people shop from if they’re looking for authentic traditional Palestinian tatreez?
I personally prefer antique pieces or hand embroidery on natural fabrics. There are so many designers, social enterprises and organizations that work with embroiderers, so it’s hard to only name a few. I would advise people to be conscious makers and consumers. If you aren’t sure who is doing the embroidery and how they are being compensated for their work, please do your research and ask questions. Organizations that I trust and have bought from include Inaash Association in Lebanon and the Palestinian Cultural Center in Amman and Kuwait. Sunbula and Inash al Usra in Palestine are also great organizations. I recommend Kissweh, who work with embroiderers in Lebanon and Jordan River Designs in Amman, for beautifully made cushions. For clothes, I love Taqa and Deerah. Nol Collective in Ramallah also has lovely pieces that incorporate embroidery, majdawali and traditional Syrian fabrics. For designs made with panels of antique embroidery, I would recommend Jeel Design in Dubai and Suzy Tamimi in New York.
How do you think artists reinterpret tatreez in our modern-day?
When I think of artists, I also think of embroidery artists along with visual artists. I’m always discovering talented embroiderers and am impressed with the variety and beauty of their work. Even when something doesn’t appeal to my taste, I can appreciate the skill, time and energy that went into producing it. For many practitioners, embroidery isn’t just a creative outlet; it’s a way to process, heal and connect. Outside of the realms of embroidery and fashion, Palestinian tatreez can be found in all other areas of the visual arts. While some artists reinterpret its symbolism to express concepts around identity and memory, others celebrate its beauty or focus on cultural preservation. With embroidery now expressing our collective identity, artists capture the stories, emotions and perspectives that open space for us to reimagine, hold conversations, raise awareness, and create a positive impact.
I am currently working on a book about the role Palestinian embroidery plays in contemporary art. The book is a compilation of essays, interviews, and photographs taken directly from the featured artists about the unique intersection of Palestinian embroidery and contemporary art. Artists using Palestinian embroidery in their artwork is a testament to its continuing symbolic power and its integral role in Palestinian visual language.
Can you share some of your favourite tatreez artists and pieces? They can be old and/or new.
My favorite artists are the women who embroidered the dresses in the early 1900s. The older, the better. I love the delicate tiny silk cross-stitches and the artistry involved in the color choices and composition of the geometric motifs. I also love antique jackets with couching embroidery from Bethlehem.
There are so many visual artists that I admire, but I’ll just name a few here. Sliman Mansour, Nabil Anani, Tamam Al-Akhal and Ismail Shammout created the symbolism surrounding the woman in the thobe and stirred our emotions with scenes of displacement, resistance, and an idealized Palestine. As important as it is to preserve and understand the embroidery, artists should be challenging our perceptions and ideas around it. I have been inspired by Laila Shawwa’s artwork, both visually and conceptually. Other artists who have brilliantly incorporated tatreez in their work are Hazem Harb, Larissa Sansour and Amer Shomali. They make us rethink how we interpret the stories, symbolism, and memories (real or imagined) tied to the embroidery.