Labour of Love‭: ‬Embroidering Palestinian History

Baha Jubeh
Assistant curator
Baraa Bawatneh

In collaboration with: Qatar Museums Authority

Palestinian folk fashion is a catalyst for exploring the social history of Palestine as a whole, not solely the history associated with women’s work. Through the centring of women’s labour within this narrative, Palestinian embroidery (tatreez) is woven into the society’s social, economic, and political fabric across the different historical stages that produced and continue to produce it. Thus, tatreez itself documents and narrates changes across time.

In the Palestinian context,tatreez is regarded as an artefact that bears witness to stages of social, political, cultural, and economic transformation. We therefore find tatreez in every Palestinian home, carried with Palestinians to every corner of the Earth.

In a process demonstrating different stages of modern Palestinian history, the exhibition traces the shift of tatreez from personal practice, made with love, to a symbol of national heritage, and later, to a product circulating in the global marketplace.


About the galleries

Embroidery in Daily Life: Testaments to Women’s Labour
Palestinian dresses (thobes) are typically worn during special events and weddings, but this is not the full story. They are also daily-wear items with varied designs for different functions and occasions such as household work, fieldwork, and breastfeeding. The thobe is essential to the identity of the Palestinian woman, closely tied to her daily life, and accompanying her as she completes her various tasks.

This section embodies the intimacy that characterises Palestinian embroidery (tatreez). These thobes have become mosaics, bearing the traces of older garments, inherited by generations of women before reaching us today. Each stitch, thread, patch, and tear is a material touchstone of daily life in Palestine during the late 19th century and a testament to women’s toil and labour.

Years of painstaking work have left their mark on the ’thobes of everyday life’. Their indigo-dyed linens are lighter in many places, bleached from long hours in the sun-soaked fields. Patches at the knees reveal the sitting position taken during cleaning or preparing food, while small openings, neatly darned in the chest panel, show where mothers nursed their children.

’Thobes of everyday life’ invite us to ‘read’ tatreez by taking into consideration its multifaceted and emotional nature. Irreducible to a single moment or individual maker, these everyday dresses reflect the lives of the women who wore them over time.

From thobe to photograph: embroidery as a symbol
Palestinian embroidery (tatreez)’s symbolic significance can be felt on a material level through visual representations of embroidery motifs inspired by daily life, flora and fauna, and political events.

After the tragic uprooting and displacement of Palestinians in 1948, known as the Nakba (the catastrophe), tatreez took on a conceptual dimension, encompassing a series of symbols representing heritage, longevity, and power. Images of tatreez and women wearing embroidered Palestinian dresses (thobes) were frequently seen on political posters, both within Palestine and abroad. As part of the Palestinian Liberation Organisation (PLO)’s revival of heritage as political rhetoric, tatreez was exhibited worldwide and worn for dabkeh dance performances. International embroidery exhibitions were backdrops for high-profile political meetings, deployed as a form of cultural diplomacy.

During the First Intifada (1987—1993), embroidered thobes were worn throughout the long period of protests against Israeli occupation. Traditional motifs, such as cypress trees and horseshoes, mingled with motifs of doves, rifles, maps, and political slogans, comprising a physical representation of narratives of political struggle.


Beyond ‘Women’s Work’: embroidery and gender
Embroidery (tatreez) in Palestine cannot be separated from its relationship to gender. Practised by rural Palestinian women for centuries, it has historically been connected to significant milestones in their lives, from childhood to adulthood to marriage. The entrenched association between tatreez and rural femininity became central to the representation of women in artworks post-Nakba. Images of Palestinian village women, always depicted in embroidered dresses (thobes), became shorthand for Palestinians’ longevity and steadfastness (sumood).

This imagery took on significant political meaning in the 1970s and 1980s and has maintained its popularity in the decades since then. While the conflated symbolism of land and mother connotes strength, such images have also reduced women to abstract references disassociated from their identities.

To this day, tatreez is considered ’women’s work’, not something men in Palestine practice publicly. However, for male political prisoners in Israeli prisons — sites of undisputed masculinity — practising embroidery is a source of pride. Even in precarious circumstances where such crafts are banned by the Israeli authorities, in secrecy, they embroider extraordinary work that fuses patriotism and resistance with devotion to their families. Some of these works are showcased in this section.


Forest of thobes
Comprised of historical thobes and other embroidered garments gathered from every region of Palestine, this section shows how different motifs and designs vary even between neighbouring villages, and how specific cuts, colours and patterns are particular to different regions, indicating the richness and diversity that characterises Palestinian fashion and clothing.

Embroidery (tatreez) in Palestine has always been intertwined with rural life, practised by village women who expended considerable time and effort on it. Its motifs, inscriptions, and alterations are passed down through generations, with tatreez evolving into a language with terminology and rules, making it possible to read the personality of its creator, as well as her circumstances and social status.

The cotton and linen fabrics were traditionally dyed in indigo. They were soaked repeatedly to achieve the strongest shade possible, as this would eventually determine the selling price of the fabric; light-coloured thobes were cheaper, while dark indigo thobes were ascribed a higher status. The embroidered sections of the thobe, including the collar (al-Qebbeh), the side panels (al-Banayiq), the back area (al-Shinyar), and the sleeves were crafted and embroidered separately before being sewn together.


From a Labour of Love to labour
Palestinian embroidery (tatreez) and the market have always been entangled, not least through the textile trade and the production of fabrics. Women had always undertaken embroidery projects for personal wear until the Nakba significantly altered the structure of embroidery production. Although there were tatreez items made for the market before then, the catastrophe severed rural women from their self-sufficient livelihoods in agriculture and forced them to seek paid work instead.

Consequently, embroidery organisations were founded to provide support and employment for women and their families, with institutions such as Inash Al-Usra constituting pillars of political resistance. The result was the integration of rural women into a wage-labour market, and thus, the integration of tatreez into capitalist modes of production; women became workers, and tatreez became work.

Today, Palestinian embroidery is ubiquitous as a commodity. The thobe, however, did not die out. Instead, it has evolved in different environments, notably refugee camps, settling into homogenised forms characterised by innovation in colour and motif.

Performing identity: embroidery, clothing and class
Made and worn on the body and connected to expressions of identity, clothing holds up a mirror to class dynamics in Palestinian society. Tatreez was previously a craft practised by rural women, while urban Palestinians adopted Ottoman and European clothing by 1900. Embroidered clothing became a ‘costume’ reserved for dress-up in photographers’ studios.

By the early 20th century, the impact of colonialism on tatreez and textiles became apparent. The introduction of embroidery threads by the French thread company DMC brought with it new pattern books, fabrics, and industrially-dyed threads to Palestine, changing the nature of the craft.

Embroidery organisations were also, to some extent, inherently connected to class dynamics, as politically and socially privileged individuals initiated charitable projects to support the marginalised. In the decades following the Nakba, middle-class Palestinian women established embroidery-producing organisations to employ refugee women. Unintentionally, these organisations have institutionalised socio-economic divisions between well-off women who buy embroidered products, and the women who make them. Thus, the question must be asked: does tatreez truly empower Palestinian women? We can assess the conflicting desires and emotions at stake in its commodification and sale by acknowledging the neoliberal frameworks that it is currently produced in. Within this framework, mass production and distribution are incentivised, as are large (though inequitably distributed) profit margins.

The embroiderers
Who are the women behind the embroidery that is sold? What does embroidery mean to them? Does it still retain a political dimension? These questions are explored in The Embroiderers, a film directed by artist Maeve Brennan that follows the stories of embroiderers from Palestine, Lebanon, and Jordan through a series of interviews.

The final object in the exhibition is an intricate thobe made by Raja El-Zeer from Salfit to wear at her son’s wedding. Judged against customary tatreez standards, little about this thobe—from its cut, colour, silhouette, and motifs—is considered ‘traditionally’ Palestinian. Yet, by being handmade by a Palestinian woman, it remains as much a Palestinian thobe as those that are hundreds of years old.

El-Zeer’s work is a reminder that tatreez is an active, living and breathing craft. Just as 19th-century women sought innovation and novelty by looking at their contemporaries in other communities, women today draw inspiration from each other, exchanging designs on social media. Thobes such as El-Zeer’s are evidence that tatreez continues to have an important place in Palestinian society, evolving in the hands that create it.


Tatreez as commodity
Palestinian embroidery organisations typically have two goals: supporting marginalised women by providing them with a source of income and contributing to the ‘revival’ of tatreez as a Palestinian craft. In the 1970s, tatreez initiatives mobilised sub-communities that were financially and culturally impoverished by the Nakba. Since then, hundreds of tatreez organisations have been established, changing the nature of the labour that goes into tatreez and its market.

The rhetoric of women’s empowerment conflates the provision of income with strength. While income is certainly significant to marginalised families, money is rarely sufficient to shift the embedded power dynamics that determine poverty and wealth. Seldomly are the embroiderers working for these organisations paid enough to be financially independent.

Dar Al-Tifel Al-Arabi Institute, Tiraz: Widad Kawar Home for Arab Dress, Jihad Saleh, Shu'un Filistiniya, George Al-Ama, Arab Museum of Modern Art – Doha, Qatar, Sheikh Hassan M. A. Al Thani – Qatar, Amer Ahmad Abbas, Karam Al-Maloukh, Baha Jubeh, Maha Abu Shosheh, Inash Al-Usra Association, Malak Al-Husseini Abdulrahim, Inaash Association.

Exhibition team

Curation and collections
Ruba Totah, Curation and collections management; Baha Jubeh, Curation and collections unit management; Bara Bawatneh, Collections coordination; Nadine Aranki, Exhibitions officer; Salma Abu Mariam, conservation; Jenan Awad, Logistical support 

Public programme and production
Obour Hashash, Public engagement and production management; Khaled Shaar, Technical production and exhibition design; Lena Sobeh, Graphic design; Hareth Yousef, photography and audio-visual content; Haneen Makho, Media and communications; Raneen Kiresh, Public programme and events 
Content administration
Hala Shrouf, Publications management; Bader Othman, Copyediting and translation; Rawan Nemer, Editing and translation

Ashraf Abu Issa, Ameed Hamed Al Hussein, and Rami Radi El-Natsha