Lace and My Muses Part 1:
Egyptian Mummy Lace
or "Assiut Cloth"
by Najia Marlyz
lace got to do with dancing?" My student asked, looking
up at the handmade bobbin lace collar of silk I have framed and
hung above my mirrors in the dance studio. Since middle
of the '90s, when I first conceived of the idea of creating a
small personal art museum from my collections, I have had framed
and hung numerous pieces of handcraft to display alongside graphic
artworks throughout my entire home. It never occurred to
me that it might seem to some students a curious choice to combine
with dance-especially Belly dance! I think that my
student was hoping to lure me into telling her another of my infamous
stories about the history of belly dance as it developed here
in the San Francisco Bay Area during the late '60s and early '70s,
but moreover, she was genuinely perplexed by my choice of displaying
the framed antique lace piece inside my home dance studio.
dancing has always been surrounded and enhanced by artistic handcraft
in general-and the artistry of antique lace and other interesting
textile arts in particular. Combining the movement arts
with more tactile arts always seemed logical to me because I think
of dancing as a classical and somewhat antique art in some forms,
as are handcrafts and other artistries of antiquity.
glad that you asked!" I answered her. I fastened around my hips
a white Asiutte cloth encrusted with gold knots throughout, forming
pictographs of falcons, pyramids, crosses, and diamond shaped
designs. "I'll bet you didn't know that this Egyptian antique
cloth is an early lace technique that some call sprang!"
I laughed, showing her the ends of the piece with its stately
rows of little golden falcons formed by the flattened knots embedded
in a white ground of twisted net. Even today, Egyptians have
begun to produce these pieces once again that used to originate
mostly in a village named Asiutte, Egypt.
However, these new pieces they are producing these days do not
have the softness of those older versions mainly because the ground
net of the newer ones is produced by machine. Machine-made
netting, though it softens somewhat with repeated washing, will
never equal the fine, soft quality of the hand made pieces that
mostly has reached us dancers today after it has spent more than
a lifetime as great-grandma's precious shawl for parties. Some
of the handmade Assiut fabrics have survived to revel in a subsequent
reincarnation as fabric for use in decorating Belly dance costuming
in a new and quite different millennium.
newer pieces have less weight because they contain less silver
or gold knots to form the designs and the designs are more sparse
and to my taste, weaker. The knotting technique is laborious
and time consuming, and the silver and gold flat tapes are heavy
and difficult to obtain. Once I was going to Paris directly
after Cairo, and a costumer in Cairo asked me to purchase for
him some rolls of the tape (a flat metal thread) from Paris and
to mail the rolls to him for use in producing some new "Asiutte"
pieces because the tape is quite expensive in Egypt
and is so difficult for him to import to Egypt. Well, it
isn't cheap in Paris either! There is a silver tape and
a "German silver" tape. To my way of thinking, for use in
dance costuming, German silver tape is preferable to the tapes
with a higher, and more pure, silver content because the German
silver tarnishes less easily. However, being the crow attracted
to bright and shining objects that I am, I prefer the heavier
pieces laden with silver knots and have added one or two to my
Only a few
of us dancers have felt the need to know much about textiles,
especially the hand-made variety. However, I was fortunate and
feel honored to have been closely associated with two highly unique
people in Berkeley who not only knew about handcrafted fabrics
but also became absolute experts in the making and care of antique
and modern lace! (They began a retail establishment for teaching
artistic textile crafts and selling both supplies and vintage
pieces of handwork. The current store in Berkeley is called "Lacis".)
Because they mentored and befriended me, I think of them
both fondly as my personal muses who have added immeasurably to
my appreciation for many of the vintage arts. They were patient
enough not only to teach me to appreciate them, but also how to
revitalize and care for my pieces of Assiut and other textiles.
first and foremost caveat is to keep Assiut cloth and other vintage
fabrics clean and the second is to repair them promptly with 100%
cotton thread if they meet with any unfortunate snags.
I have spoken
with many dancers, otherwise prizing their possession of a hunk
of tattered and dirty Asiutte cloth, who never dreamed of simply
washing it because they feared it would fall apart. Actually,
the contrary is true, unless you have let them get too filthy.
fabrics made of natural fibers are attacked by microscopic pests
called "dust mites." The mites will eat away at it with glee as
long as they are allowed to do so undisturbed by the horror of
soap and water -- or even a common detergent and water.
is not necessary to wash Asiutte cloth in cold water using only
"Woolite", as some believe; it works just as well to wash the
fabric (by hand, of course) in warm water and a little detergent.
Surprisingly enough, one may whiten the white pieces without weakening
the fabric significantly by soaking them in a solution of bleach
and water for 3-5 minutes.
washing and/or soaking your treasured Assiut or Mummy Lace
(one of its names), do not "wring it out". Instead, roll
it up in a large terry-cloth towel or two and press the excess
water out of it. Next, spread dry terry cloth towels on
a flat surface. (I like to do this outdoors to freshen the scent
of the fabric.) Reshape your piece to its proper size without
pulling tightly; just coax it to open the natural holes so that
the "sprang ground" from which the fabric is made opens. (Sometimes,
sprang is referred to as "tulle" by the Egyptians, and
usually referred to as tulle in Europe and America,
when it is machine-made netting).
their 1973 book, "Bobbin Lace: Form by the Twisting of Cords"
by Kaethe and Jules Kliot, the authors have written about the
historical origins of bobbin lace as follows:
Tahiya Carioca & Fairuz (last name? not
the blond Lebanese singer)
slaves executed what is now called Mummy lace by a technique
now known as sprang. Threads supported at both top and
bottom, were twisted together, forming a twined mesh symmetrical
about the center. Without a rigid frame, short lengths
of thread supported only at one end, such as the hanging warp
threads of a woven fabric could be similarly manipulated to
form braids. Handles, which acted as weights supported
by the free ends of these threads, simplified the plaiting process.
The freedom to manipulate these thread by these handles, or
bobbins, was eventually to be explored and refined into what
is now called bobbin lace. Although evidence of bone bobbins
has been found in ancient Rome, this textile form lay dormant
for thousands of years, not to surface again until the fifteenth
Is that more
than you ever wanted to know about the technique of making Bobbin
Lace? Well, then, perhaps you understand now why people's
eyes glaze over when we dancers discuss choreography and dance
I find it fascinating that these fine fabrics, which were so expensive
to produce and so prized by the crown heads of Europe, found their
way into the costuming of the Egyptian Belly dancer even before
they clothed the royalty of Europe.
lace made by the sprang technique of twisting threads is most
frequently seen in costumes worn for dancing in the old black
and white movies from Egypt, whenever "Beledi" (or country)
dance scenarios are depicted.
Because of my
Berkeley muses and others who were attempting to revive many of
the handcraft arts in and around the bay area of San Francisco during
the two decades of the sixties and seventies, my dance was included
in an opening for an exhibit of textile arts displayed at the Transamerica
Building in downtown San Francisco where huge artworks of modern-day
rope networks made by the sprang technique were fastened high up
and around the base of the tower. I danced there beneath the
sunlight that was filtered by the nets and enjoyed catching the
eye of the local business people--and a few tourists, too.
designs used in Asiutte fabrics usually concentrate on geometrical
shapes repeated in various sizes throughout the entire piece,
and because the work was often produced in an Egyptian village
named Asiutte by Coptic people, many of the pieces contain Coptic
crosses and depictions of people, animals, trees, and buildings
that would have been unacceptable to include under the restrictions
of the newer, younger religion of Islam in which it is forbidden
to depict actual works of God.
Najia dancing for textile exhibit at Transamerican
in San Francisco
many, or most of these lovely and simplistically designed pieces
of handcraft purposely include errors in their design so as not
to offend by "attempting to imitate God's works."
you would like to seek further information about sprang and other
lacemaking techniques, you may be able to locate the informative
instructional book by the authors whom I mentioned earlier. If
it is not available in your local library, you can click on: www.lacis.com
where you may find many books and articles about sprang and other
types of lace, as well as other intricate handwork with threads.
In part two
of "Lace and my Muses", I will show you how aging handmade lace
and its modern machined versions were utilized for our dance on
the stages of the past and how they are currently being used in
costuming for Belly dance worldwide.
a comment? Send us a
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to all the photographers and volunteers whol help make this happen.
We still need a few names to go with faces!