De Borduurschool: Fatima Abbadi

Text: Nora Veerman

It is a Friday morning in November, nine o’clock in the morning. A clammy wind blows through Capelle aan den IJssel, but in community centre De Linie, there’s no sign of it. Mugs of tea and coffee, plates of home-baked biscuits and boxes of yarn sit on a long table. Around it are six women of various ages. They laugh and talk with each other in Arabic or Dutch, while their hands embroider motifs on cotton fabric: plants, flowers, birds and stars, from Syria, Palestine, Iraq or Jordan.

Fatima Abbadi walks around the table. Occasionally she leans in, to point something out or have a chat with one of the women. Fatima is the founder of this embroidery group, which is advertised on the internet as an Arabic embroidery course. In reality, it is much more, Fatima explains. It is a place where women can come together, and where disappearing Arabic embroidery traditions are revived.

To start at the beginning: what was your first experience with Arab embroidery? 

‘I was born in Abu Dhabi, in the United Arab Emirates, from a Jordanian-Palestinian father and an Italian mother. We had neighbours from practically every Arab country. They all brought their own culture, including beautiful garments: sequined dishdashas, or dresses with Palestinian hand embroidery. My mother learned to embroider and she taught me when I was about ten years old. She just gave me a pattern. I had to figure out for myself how it worked: where to put the needle into the fabric, and where to take it out again.’

‘When I was fifteen, we moved to Jordan. Many Palestinians lived there, starting since 1948 with the creation of the state of Israel, when they were violently expelled from their homes and became refugees from their own homeland, Palestine. Our house was full of Palestinian embroidery. We made our own things: dresses, cushions, anything.’

What did that embroidery look like?

‘The basis of Palestinian embroidery consists of cross stitches, but other techniques are also used, such as satin stitches, couching or patchwork. Depending on the region, different stitches are combined to make patterns.’

‘All patterns have meanings. Colours play an important role. Women used to be able to identify themselves through their use of colour. Each area in Palestine had its own shade of red, for example. In the southern part of Palestine, blue was mostly worn by Bedouin widows from the Bir Saba’ area. An embroidered dress was like a woman’s personal ID card. You’d never have find two looking the same.’

What has changed since then?

‘These dresses are hardly worn anymore. Most of the embroidery you see now is machine-made. It is produced on a large scale, usually with synthetic threads. All sorts of motifs are just put together. No attention is paid to the meanings of the patterns, the combinations don’t make sense.’

‘As a consequence, the knowledge of patterns and their meanings is disappearing. Little has been documented. It’s not really part of our culture to document, we mainly pass on oral history. That is not necessarily a negative thing, but due to a lack of documentation, a lot has been lost, especially during wars or through displacement.’

 

Photography: Fatima Abbadi | Amman (Jordan) 2024

Why is preserving that knowledge so important?

‘Preserving knowledge of Arabic embroidery techniques, like any form of art and culture, is important because it shows the beautiful and human side of history. Take Italy, where my mother is from. A lot has been documented there. All those ancient artworks prove that history was not just war, but that people produced culture and exchanged it continuously.’

‘When I look the violence in Palestine and elsewhere in the world, I wonder: what are we fighting about? We are all human beings, aren’t we? Humanity is what we have in common. It’s our humanity we should be guarding.’

How does one capture an embroidery tradition, when so little of it remains?  

‘In 1997, I moved to Italy to study. I didn’t embroider anymore then, but I did do photography. Every time I went back to Jordan, I photographed women in Palestinian dresses. During that time I met Widad Kawar, an expert and collector of garments and textiles from Palestine, Jordan and other Arab countries. Her large collection is housed in the Tiraz museum in Amman, Jordan. I visit her every year. I photograph garments from the collection and copy embroidery patterns. I ask around about the meanings of these patterns and study the stitches. And I use the patterns for the embroidery group.’

 

Traditional costumes from the Um Qais, Jerash, and Ajloun areas (Northern Jordan).

 

How did this embroidery group come about?

‘When I came to the Netherlands in 2019, I wanted to do something here against the disappearance of Arab embroidery traditions, something like Widad is doing in Jordan. That’s why I set up the embroidery group. It is also a place for Arab women to get together and talk about their experiences.’

What happens in the embroidery group?

‘The women learn to embroider. I give them a pattern and briefly explain something: this is how you make a cross-stitch, and you can follow the pattern from left to right or from top to bottom, there is no fixed scheme. After that, it’s up to them. Those who need help can ask the other women. It’s a way to engage in conversation.’

‘They usually start with a small Palestinian cross-stitch pattern: a star or a cypress for example. When they have the confidence to take the next step, I let them choose a pattern and colours. In this group, we stick to traditional patterns as much as possible. It’s about conservation: If you start combining all kinds of colours and patterns, you lose the history. In my view, it’s important to have a good understanding of your history first. After that, you can do with it whatever you want.’

 

De Borduurschool is an initiative of Crafts Council Nederland. Through transmission, presentations, research, and lectures, we are collectively building an ecosystem for embroidery. We pass on the stories, vital knowledge and skills to younger generations. This is necessary to preserve and future-proof the intangible heritage of embroidery techniques.

Do you want to learn more about the history of clothing and textiles from the Middle East, particularly the rich and extensive tradition of textiles from Palestine and Jordan? Sign up for the lecture ‘The Soft Power of Embroidery’ with Fatima Abbadi on Thursday June 13, as part of State of Fashion.

Register here.