Adopting the ancient art of tatreez and deepening my Palestinian identity

Here I am in elementary school during a cultural performance, one of the first times that I remember wearing a thobe.[Photo © Nihad Jassser]

My mother told me that generations of Palestinian women learned the traditional style of tailoring known as tatreez from their mothers, who learned it from their mothers, who learned it from theirs.

Mother and daughter would sit together under an orange tree by the sea – at least in my mind – and learn about the different patterns and what they all mean.

Unfortunately, my mother’s mother did not learn the tatreez. She was born in Lebanon, to a family of 14 who lived in a two bedroom apartment with one bathroom. They were very poor, not even a generation distant from the Nakba – the dispossession of some 700,000 Palestinians during the 1948 Palestine War – who robbed them of their homes.

My great-grandmother had more to worry about than teaching her daughters the traditional embroidery of our country.

Now my grandmother lives in Ottawa with us. She first visited her homeland in the summer of 2019. She spent a week in Jerusalem and brought me T-shirts, millions of photos and a little tatreez starter kit.

I discovered my love for tatreez the same way I discovered my love for most other things: at first sight. I love the special occasions when I can take out my thobes – the long, flowing traditional clothes of our people – to spin around. I loved the first time my uncle told me that every design on my dress stood for something. I love the colorful and intricate designs along the sleeves and on the back.

Blue, red, purple and pink thread on an empty embroidery sheet and a tatreez pattern book.
You use the same things for the tatreez as for any other embroidery project; the only difference is that the thread is finer than traditional embroidery thread. [Photo © Yasmeen Amer]

Tatreez is present in Palestinian history. A book titled Palestinian traditional costume: origins and evolution by Hanan Munayyer dates back over 3,000 years to the Canaanites who lived in the area at the time. The unique form of embroidery and patterns can be found as early as 1200 BCE, where there have been depictions in ancient artwork of Canaanite women in dresses unique to their region covered in tatreez-type patterns.

Munayyer discovered that Palestinian fashion even had an impact on medieval Europe. The headdresses worn by European noble women were very similar to those worn by the women of Bethlehem and the embroidered Arabic calligraphy sewn in the same way the tatreez was found on European dresses.

Palestinian women used the tatreez to represent different things. The quality of the materials used for the yarn and the dress itself could represent the socio-economic status of women. The patterns sewn onto the dress and the colors they used could represent a variety of things, including a woman’s region of origin to her marital status.

But when the Nakba took place, forcing the Palestinians to leave their land, the women left with the clothes on their backs and their children in their arms. Pattern books and embroidery floss were left behind.

So how has this centuries-old tradition survived? Tatreez has become a source of income for Palestinian women in the refugee camps. They sold simple clothes to earn money for themselves and their families, and this helped them pass on the tradition.

However, it was not as widely used. Women didn’t have the time or resources to embroider elaborate designs, so it wasn’t very common in the years after the Nakba, especially for Palestinians in the diaspora like me.

Three different tatreez patterns: an eight petal flower in green and blue, a column with diamonds in green and red, and a red, green and pink square.
Some examples of patterns that I have already been able to sew. A lot of them are made of the same shapes, and they all use the same X point. [Photo© Yasmeen Amer]

In the 1960s, however, tatreez made a comeback – but in a different form. Instead of beautiful silks and gold threads, women used plain cotton thread and inexpensive functional fabrics. The patterns became more geometric as they acclimated to modern fashion and, due to the refugee camps that housed Palestinians from different regions, the patterns that defined different cities in Palestine were combined to create new ones. . Tatreez has become a symbol of Palestinian identity.

Palestinian women even used the tatreez as a form of resistance. When the State of Israel banned the Palestinian flag after the Six Day War, Palestinian women sewed the flag and other symbols of Palestine onto their clothing using the same colors as the Palestinian flag.

Today, tatreez is still a way of bringing Palestinians together. Worn on traditional thobes or embroidered on handbags, Palestinian women around the world – in Palestine and in the Diaspora – continue to wear it, showing their heritage.

Although the tatreez still exists, few Palestinian women know how to embroider it themselves. After the Nakba, many women did not have time to sew the same elaborate patterns, so they became not only simpler, but also industrialized.

It was just the result of the lack of time and resources available to Palestinian women after the Nakba. But they still found a way to pass on the tradition which I think is why tatreez is so special. It is a symbol of the resilience of the Palestinians and their commitment to keeping their culture and traditions alive.

It was 21 years before I picked up a needle and thread and tried to learn to sew. My cousin and I sat in her living room while her mom pulled out colorful threads and showed us how to sew the X’s that made up each pattern.

It’s a lot easier than I thought – and a lot more addicting. Now every free moment I have is spent embroidery. It’s a way for me to feel more connected to my heritage, to bridge the ocean that is between me and home.

When I proudly showed her my first flower, my aunt joked, “Now you are officially Palestinian. “

Close up of a simple tatreez pattern: an eight petal flower in pink.
It was the first model I made; a simple one called the Moon of Bethlehem. [Photo© Yasmeen Amer]

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