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> The Embroidery of Gaza
Along the southern coastal end of Palestine lies the ancient Philistia with Gaza, Isdud and Ascalon as its main towns. Majdal, the weaving centre that has already been mentioned, stands slightly inland from Gaza. A few kilometers southwards was the busy market-town of Khan Yunis. It was a centre for the Bedu of the Negeb desert and was described briefly by a certain Bimbashi McPherson (1983) who was there during World War I.
The Gaza region is hotter and more humid than the rest of Palestine and was until 1948 a good fruit-growing area as well as it had a dyeing industry. The weavers would take their skeins of thread, rather than the prepared material, to the dyeing shops in town, where they were placed in large copper pans of dye. Eventually the skeins were rinsed in the sea, the salt acting as a mordant and making fast the dyes.
Gaza and Majdal were two of a number of flourishing weaving centers in Palestine. There had by all accounts been a very long weaving tradition, though fine Syrian silks were also prized in many parts of the country for dresses and other articles of clothing. By the mid-nineteenth century, European textiles began to flood the market and weaving began to go into a slow decline. Three types of loom were in use, the treadle, the vertical and the ground or mat loom. The ground or mat loom was used by villagers and the Bedu women who wove not only cloth for the tents, but rugs and a variety of bags and saddlebags. The treadle and upright looms were mainly, though not always, used by townsmen who were weavers by profession. Spinning dyeing and warping were all carried out by specialists. The fibers used were goat, sheep and camel wool, as well as some silk, cotton and flax. By the nineteenth century most cotton and flax in its raw state seems to have been imported from Egypt, while most of the silk, which was used mainly in embroidery came from Syria. The main weaving centers were Safed and the areas around it as well as Nazareth, Nablus, Hebron, Bethlehem and nearby village of Beit Jala. The people of Lake Huleh (now mostly drained) made mats for sale from the papyrus reeds. The men cut the reeds and the women wove them on upright looms which were placed vertically against their reed hut dwelling.
The costumes of the Gaza part of the coastal plain, while using the motifs common throughout Palestine, were not so heavily embroidered as those of the Hebron locality. Striped Majdal materials were naturally the most popular while the cut of the dresses was much narrower than elsewhere. The necklines where V- shaped and the sleeves where the tight straight village ones. Gaza-region embroidery was distinguished by motifs of criss-cross scissors (muqass), combs (mushut) and triangles (hijab). These were frequently to be seen arranged in clusters of fives, sevens and threes. In the 1930s when the popularity of Bethlehem couching was at its height a wedding jillayeh might have been appliqué and couched down the main front panel and the appliqué arranged in three or five mihrab strips (the mihrab was a motif shaped like the prayer niche of the mosque). The number five was considered efficacious against the evil eye and this was no doubt related to the Khamsa which also performed the same function.
The qumbaz was widely worn by men in Palestine. The most common materials in the Levant were striped silks.The garment opens right down the front and is fastened to one side of the center and then belted. Originally the cummerbund (hizam) was worn, cashmere in winter and silk or muslin in summer; later teacher belts became commonplace. Women also wore the qumbaz although the neckline would be lower and the sleeves slit to the elbow to show the undergarment. When working the women would hitch the end corners into their belts so showing the sometimes intricately embroidered trouser legs. Although the qumbaz has been going out of fashion for a long time, a few men still wear it and it is worn on special occasions.
Thob from the Gaza/ Isdud region:
This dress is made of Majdal woven cotton material with orange, purple and green stipes of silk and cotton; this material is known as abu hizz ahmar. There are 'cypress tree' (saru) and 'arch' patterns. The patterns between the 'arches' are 'cushions' (mehkeddah) and 'combs' (mushut). They are all arranged in the typical manner of the region.
Gaza was probably an old centre of weaving. Gauze, (gazzatum in mediaeval Latin), the very thin transparent material woven of silk or cotton, is reputed to have originated there- hence its name.
Back of a thob from the Gaza/ Isdud region:
A back view of a dress which has little embroidery on the front and the 'combs' (mushut) motif down the back.
Source: Rajab,Jehan. Palestinian Costume. London and New York: Kegan Paul International, 1989.