Stories from Amman part two – the Abaya

According to Mrs. Widad Kawar, this Abaya was made in Syria by an Iraqi woman using Palestine embroidery patterns on a piece of handwoven Iraqi wool fabric called al-najafy . The original owner of the Abaya ordered it because she was going to receive the Prince’s Choice award from Holland and so it was made and worn for the special event.

Blue Abaya with heardscarf Front

The Abaya is comprised of two long pieces woven in the Islamic year of 1389 (1969 AD).  It is very rare to be able to place the date so precisely, but this skilled weaver wove the date into the decoration on the back of the Abaya.   Women usually went around the home in short sleeves in Arab countries. If they left the house to go out they put on an Abaya as a quick and easy cover up. They used to be made either in Syria or Lebanon.Blue Abaya with heardscarf sideBlue Abaya with heardscarf

It was bought by Mrs. Kawar’s daughter at an auction in NYC.

Blue AbayaIMG_0754

Photos with girl, could be considered orientalist style.

Stories from Amman


As I have mentioned before, I would like to share some stories of textiles I have studied and photographed in Amman.  This might just be a short text on where they come from, or it might be the story of how the garment became part of the collection.  First, I would like to start with this wedding set comprised of a jacket and skirt:

Blue Velvet Skirt and JacketThe daughter of an Arab banker in Jerusalem was getting married and the family were influenced by the Ottoman formal dress style and Ottoman styles in general so they decided to go to Damascus and order a dress in the Ottoman style but with a European twist, and they were told it would be finished in two months. After two months had passed and it wasn’t finished, they took it to be finished in Aleppo. The people who finished the wedding outfit in Aleppo were two woman who were also invited to bring it to Jerusalem and attend the wedding. It was worn on the night before the wedding (they were Christian) and it became the talk of the town. 1912 apx or in the 20’s after the war.

Blue Velvet Skirt

Mrs. Kawar came to have the dress when two sisters of the bride living in Damascus came to inherit it.  The bride had already left the Middle East. The two sisters, through a friend, heard about Mrs. Kawar and that she collected dresses.  They called her from Damascus.  They had a very high asking price and when she refused, hung up. Later in the day they called back and accepted the new price.  The two sisters said they might come or they might send it. One day later they called again, this time from Amman, where Mrs. Kawar resides. With the dress, they had travelled though the night on a bus from Damascus to Amman; the journey by bus took 5 hours. When they arrived they said that they could not depend on anyone to carry the money for them, so they had come themselves. Mrs. Kawar invited them to stay but they said they could not and left the same day.  They came prepared to take the money in cash, as one of them pulled out a money belt and quickly hid the money from sight.

Blue Velvet Jacket back

The blue velvet skirt and jacket are embroidered using the Samra technique.  The name of the pattern is “The Name of the Thousand Branches”.


The dress has a variety of stitches in silver threads that are gold plated on velvet cotton, probably imported from Europe and more specifically Germany.  The silver threads originate from Aleppo.  Embroidery became more connected with Aleppo when machines were invented to produce the silver thread.

DSCF6566Mrs. Kawar acquired it in the early 1990’s.

Back to Base


I had a wonderful experience in Amman! I really am surprised at how fast the past two weeks have gone by, with so many things to do and see. I found so much rich history and so many stories hidden away in the Middle East. The textiles of the Middle East form a large part of its culture and traditions.  Simply being there and soaking up knowledge is a tangible experience that is difficult to explain or put into words.  For example, by the end of the trip I had a good idea of where a fabric was produced just by looking at it.  I learned some interesting things about Middle Eastern jewelry as well, which is a whole other field in and of itself, but since jewelry and textiles are both important parts of the cultural costume, they go hand in hand and you can’t help but learn about both even if you didn’t intend to in the first place. Safe to say, I learned a thing or two about Middle Eastern jewelry as well.  The makers of silver jewelry traveled around the Middle East (they were often the people that harvested crops) so there was not a country-specific jewelry style. Some styles seem to be timeless; they are found in archaeological grave finds throughout the Middle East as well as sold in jewelry shops today, making them one of the hardest things to determine the true origin of.

One of the reasons that the Triaz Widad Kawar Home for Arab Dress  ( is such an important and inspirational place to study is that it is one of the only places that has such an extensive Middle Eastern textile collection.   This heritage should be protected as it is slowly eroding and morphing into something that is not nearly as nice as the things from the past. Modern fabrics and machines are taking over and, while this allows textile artists more freedom of design, it also means that the traditional patterns and methods are slowly sinking out of sight without being fully recorded. I would encourage everyone who has an interest to visit.  By educating yourself, you become one more person who is there to share the knowledge.

In the following post, I will highlight a small sample of some of the textiles I find the most interesting, including not only the history and story of each textile, but also the story of how they came to be in this most impressive collection as well.

One Week in Amman

I am here in Amman, Jordan to study the collection of an inspiring textile collector named Widad Kawar who has the largest collection of Middle Eastern textiles in the world.  Not only are her textiles amazing but she is an inspirational person to be around because of all of her knowledge about textiles.  I’m here to work with and study her Syrian collection and catalogue the silk pieces produced in Syria; there are so many that it’s an impossible task to complete in just two weeks, but I’m going to try and do as much as I can! 

I’m working to catalogue all the silks, but focusing on the brocades that I find, as well as the ikats.  The ikats come from Aleppo and I find them very interesting as ikat is not an easy technique to master.. There are also lots of lovely indigo-dyed cotton fabrics coming out of Aleppo. I think one of the most interesting things is how different cities specialized in different techniques.  You can tell where a  piece was from, or even the village or tribe of the person who was wearing it, simply by the pattern and the cut.  Since what comes from where hasn’t been recorded  the people that can still make or at least identify where they came from are fast disappearing, making it doubly important that we can write it down now. This is one of the many reasons I feel it’s so imperative that we document all these things now, and that they be studied and catalogued today and not tomorrow. 
I wanted to share some of things that I’ve been able to study with you today so that you can have an idea about what I’m working on.  
These are some of my favroite pieces. They are actually all men’s jackets from different parts of Syria, mostly from Damascus.  The short one is a Bedouin jacket used for weddings and the longer two were used for festive occasions.  They were all produced between 1910-1935.
More to come later with even more intesting discoveries.  Honestly, for a textile person who’s interested in history and the Middle East, it’s a bit like Candy Land.Yellow and Gold Dress FrontMen's Wedding jacket backRose and Gold Dress 1

Preparing for Jordan

I can’t contain my excitement about going to Amman to study a collection of Syrian and other Middle Eastern textiles at Tiraz Widad Kawar Home for Arab Dress! ( This is such an amazing opportunity.  As I’ve mentioned in other blog posts, not much information on specifically Syrian textiles is available in English, so this is really a break for me and my project on damask.  I will be gone for two weeks, which seems like a long time now, but I know it will go by in a flash.  I’m excited to not only learn more about textiles but also about Amman itself as I’ve heard it is a very cosmopolitan city.  Learning about and experiencing the culture is half the learning process and I’m can’t wait to do it all.  More to come from Amman….




A Series of Weaving Workshops

Just a bit of a forward I was supposed to put some photos with this but as they never came my way and it seems a shame for me to lest this post go to waste, even if it’s a few months old.  This is the end of our first set of weaving workshops before the winter holiday, I just wanted to add some finaly thoughts onto it, but as you see I never quite got around too it. However, better late than never.  Here our my final thoughts on our first set of wrokshops, happy reading 🙂

As I have mentioned in a previous blog post this weaving course was the off-shot project of another course I was attending, this was a totally hands on workshop dealing with Bronze and Iron Age textile tools and how to use them, warping and weaving on the two beamed loom, as well as setting up the warp weighted loom.  Those were the main projects, as well as preparing and spinning wool on various Bronze Age style drop spindles and the occasional modern one. Not only was it an opportunity for people to learn about textiles and textile archaeology it was a great place to have discussions around all parts of the history of textiles while learning the old ways of making textiles.  No matter how many or few skills you have in working with textiles you will always learn something and speaking as someone who knows a fair amount regarding textiles, I still learned so much about working with, for instance the two beamed loom, as a modern weaver it was so great to be able to work on a style of loom that was used so many years ago.  I think it’s just so amazing how advanced people were back then and I’m sure as time will tell they were even more advanced than we think.

As you can see this is very physical work, can you imagine how fit the people who were working as full time textile workers were?  I would say that it was akin to what we would call today a “modern” athlete, a person of today would never been able to keep up with the physical capabilities of people in the Bronze Age. Simply from warping and weaving I can tell you that you have to sit in some very uncomfortable positions and you will have to jump up and down very frequently.  Practically every time you want to change a shed.  So to says that weaving is a very physical activity is an understatement to say the least and that leaves out all the the fiber preparation, something like hours of spinning really works your shoulders and arms so that you can be very sore after only an hour and you would have needed to spin upwards of 13,000 hours to get enough yarn to weave a single garment.  The threads were also very fine, making them hard to see. As someone who already finds somethings hard to see I wonder how they worked that way, only during day light hours or by the light of a candle or fire of some kind, how would that have affected their eyes as they grew older and how old would a woman or a man be when they would be forced to stop weaving and move onto another occupation?  These are just a few of the questions that I think to myself when I start weaving ans struggle with these things, it really gives you an shoulders of what it took to make a garment in the Bronze Age, but these things are things that you would never think about if you weren’t working with it yourself and experiencing the sore back or shoulder the next day or struggling to see the fine threads that you are weaving.  It really opens up a whole new perspective to what life in the Bronze Age might have been like as a textile worker.

You really learn a lot from doing and I think that’s one of the reasons the workshops have worked out so well, as they are also very free, letting each person experiment with the things that they are interested in.  This term we were only able to fit in a four part series, but since they worked out so well  I know they will be back next semester to continue and expand these wonderful experiments.

Adventures in Lyon

While I am always interested in looms and weaving of any kind, I do love damasks and pretty much anything that occurs along the Silk Road.  (Okay, what am I saying, you say “loom” and I’m there) but more to the point: a few weeks ago I was presented with a very exciting and unique opportunity to go to Lyon, France to see a few looms (*giggles in hysterical excitement*).  Lyon was the capital of weaving production during the 19th century.   It seems that weaving wasn’t well paid and it was an undervalued job. I find that interesting.  Nowadays when I see a weaver, I always get excited and am like “let’s talk about weaving, teach me everything you know!” but back then they weren’t well treated and only got paid once the fabric was finished; if the buyer didn’t like the fabric, or said there were mistakes in it and wouldn’t buy it, the weaver, who could have been working on this fabric for one to two years, would have had a disaster on his hands.  It seems crazy to me to think that there was a time when weaving was something other than an art, all that time and energy spent weaving, making such beauty with your hands.  Sad to think that when the weavers went on strike they were simply shot during the strike.
To me, an experienced weaver is like gold. It’s funny how different what we used to, and now do, deem most precious.  Mostly it’s been money (mostly? who am I kidding, it’s always been money).  At one point silk and gold were equally valuable, which I find quite amazing considering the fact that now we can buy silk very cheaply; it can cost almost nothing (although there are no promises about the quality).
Lyon was also the home to Joseph Jacquard, the inventor of the Jacquard loom. His loom changed the way of weaving forever and was the first mechanical loom.
Not to mention Lyon is just a beautiful place to be.  If you climb up Lyon (it’s partly on a hill) you will have such a wonderful view looking across the city and down to the two rivers.  It was so wonderful to enjoy the sun after being in Denmark; it felt almost like it could have been summer in the middle of winter.  It was quite a break from the depressing, gray weather.
Of course they are famous not only for their weaving; there’s screen printing and velour to think of as well.  Below is  a picture of velour painting. It’s got such an amazing texture that you want to touch it all day.  It’s genuinely wonderful to see how the colors are blended on the fabric as well. It’s a fabric with a very magical feeling. Very aesthetically pleasing.img_0272These textiles provide not only a history of the techniques but also of the people who make them, sometimes for generations. This man (or what you can see of him) has been working in the business for ages, working with screen printing and velour.  Here you see him adding the last layer of paint to a series of scarves.  In the studio, they mix the inks themselves with their own recipes, and there are many tests done to assure that the color is the same every time. He even went back with a brush to fix some mistakes where the ink didn’t come through.  There is just so much precision to it that it is truly incredible to watch. img_0265However, Lyon as is sensational on the inside as the outside. When it comes to looms it’s actually difficult for me to put into words the way I feel about them.  They are like very old people with so many stories, so smart and yet often overlooked.  I want to be the person who hears the stories of the looms, the unique fabrics they have produced.  I always want to be around looms and I can’t really explain why, but they just make me happy.  A well-made loom, at least to my mind, is as valuable as a painting or a precious stone, if not more so, as  it gives you more and increases its worth every time a magnificant piece of fabric comes off of it.  Pictured below is a brocade weave, with the background as the white and the small shuttles are the pattern, not unlike a knitting pattern carrying the pattern threads.img_0351Below is the first mechanical band loom I’ve ever seen.  It’s truly an fascinating thing to see at work.  They don’t have one big reed, they have individual ones for each band. I found that very curious.img_0377Here is a woven velour. I wish I could have everyone one touch it.  It’s got such a unique texture, especially the difference between the cut and uncut parts. Of course this is the weave you have to pay the most attention to, as if you make a mistake there is no going back! img_0359This a picture of a piece woven on a Jacquard loom (that I had to stand on a chair just to take a picture of).  This fabric made in Lyon is all about where I grew up, Philadelphia!  I think it’s so cool that you can see the far-reaching arm of the Lyon weaving industry stretching across an ocean, all the way to my home town! img_0363There are some other things that just can’t be beat, and I have to say that the open air fresh food markets were definitely right up there (but after looms of course). I mean, just look at this lettuce! It’s so green and tasty!  Makes me want to have a salad even in the heart of winter.  With all the people out there buying their fresh food everyday, it’s really something that we in the north could take a page from, although maybe not through all of the winter.  But, we definitely need more veggies that look like this up here.
img_0423Lyon sits on the uppermost cusp of southern Europe, making it just as picturesque as any city in the south of Europe, while still having small elements of northern Europe hidden in it.  There are so many little galleries and cafes.  It would take years to explore.  While I do love it here, even that short taste has made me wonder, why don’t I live there? img_0428