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Assiut/Assuit

Fascinating FAQs About

Setareh

by Dawn Devine, Davina
posted October 3, 2011

Assuit is one of the most luxurious, exciting, and mysterious textiles worn by modern dancers.  Shawls, robes and even bedlah sets are crafted from this distinctive and expensive Egyptian cloth.  To help you understand a little bit more about this garment I’ve constructed this handy little FAQ (frequently asked questions).  It addresses some of the most common questions I get asked about this marvelous cloth.  Enjoy!

Asyut and Cairo on mapQ – What is the RIGHT spelling for Assiut?
A – There is no one right way to spell Assiut.  However, Assiut cloth is named for the textile-producing city in Upper Egypt.

Egyptian Arabic has been transliterated into English and there are two accepted standardized spellings, which you can find on maps today as either Assiut or Asyut.

  Either one of these spellings is the most accurate.  There are other widely used spellings of this cloth used around the web today.  They include (but are not limited to) Assuit, Assuite, Asyute, and even Azute.  In Egypt, it’s called Tulle bi Telli (or Tulle bi Telly) and is a literally translation of the phrase "mesh with metal."  Sometimes this is name is shorted just to Telli (Telly).

Q – When was Assiut first made?
A – There is a colorful history concerning the origin of Assiut cloth and, like the fabric itself, it is flashy and full of holes. First, we do know that Assiut shawls were first mentioned in travel literature as early as the 1870’s.  Before the 1870’s, there are many references to Egyptian shawls and embroidery, but none made to metallic embroidery on net or mesh.  Instead, richly embroidered woven shawls with complex Arabic designs were collected by European travelers, especially during the Napoleonic era when dresses were long and slim, and not warm enough in chilly northern climates. Tulle Origins

Q – I want to find out more about Assiut history, why isn’t there more written about Assiut in the history books?
A – Assiut cloth was originally made from mosquito netting and sold to tourists.  The ground cloth was either mill ends from the mosquito netting industry or was recycled from left over chunks of the netting when bed coverings were manufactured.  Assiut began appearing in the literature of travel as one of the most desirable and distinctive items you could buy in Egypt.  Because it started off life as tourist art, it has been neglected in Egyptian history, anthropology and scholarship.

Q – I heard that Assiut dates back to ancient Egypt?
A – This is where the history becomes mythic. There are no surviving examples of Assiut that predate the mid 19th century.  I have never seen a full-sized piece of Assiut made on hand-made ground cloth.  Instead, it is the product of the industrial revolution, crafted from machine-made fabric. 

However, mosquito netting was invented by the Egyptians and dates back thousands of years.

  The Greek scholar Herodotus traveling through Egypt between 450 – 420 BCE noticed and recorded that Egyptian fishermen used their nets to combat the mosquitos.  There are ancient Egyptian mosquito net frames that survive from the Pharaonic days, but none of the actual fabric has stood the test of time.  Did they decorate these handmade mosquito nets?  We simply don’t know.  But it’s certainly fun to imagine Cleopatra reclining under a vast cloud of silver-spangled mosquito netting, the ancestor of modern Assiut.

Hanan's Assiut booth at Rakkasah in the 90sQ – How is Assiut made?
A – Assiut cloth is a two-part construction technique.  The ground-cloth of tulle is machine-made from linen, cotton or a blend of the two. Tulle is named after the lace-making capital of France, but this fabric was actually first known as bobbinet or English lace.  The bobbinet machine was invented in 1806 by an Englishman, John Heathcoat, with the goal of producing fine pillow-lace style mesh in large quantities.  The figurative metal patterns are an embroidery technique using a large-eyed needle and thin silver strips.  Each individual stitch is wrapped around and through the mesh at a diagonal, the wire is cut, and then hammered into place.

Q – There is a myth that Assiut is made by blind women?
A – Perhaps in the past there may have been a blind woman or two, this is simply not documented.  Today, Assiut embroidery is made by women in small home-based embroidery "factories."  I can imagine a time when Nile-side vendors created richly embellished stories to make their shawls more unique and desirable.

A British or American tourist may have found this story of blind embroiders a picturesque story and a great tale to tell their friends back home.

Q – Why is vintage Assiut so much finer?
A – There are several reasons why vintage Assiut is finer.  First, most of the vintage cloth is actually made from linen, a bast fiber that can be spun quite a bit finer than it’s shorter staple cousin cotton.  Older tulle-making machines also made a more loose and open net than modern equipment.  There is a general rule of thumb: the finer the thread and the larger the net, the older the cloth.

Q – Why does the metal vary in color?
A – There is no one source for either the cloth or the metal.  As with most manufactured products, the metal is an alloy and can vary in content.  If you see a piece of vintage Assiut that claims to be all silver, or with high silver content, be skeptical.  High-silver content Assiut tarnishes, and the silver goes dark, almost black over time, and is impossible to polish.

Gold-toned Assiut is made from metal thread with higher brass content.  But don’t worry about the metal content. Instead, look for high quantities of metal in the tone you prefer with tightly wrapped stitches in designs that you love.

Q – How do I make my own Assiut Costume?
A – For a quick and easy Assiut costume, check out this "dancer design" from Dahlal International.  There are lots of tips, techniques, tools and more for designing and making your own costume are available on my blog.  Check it out! www.davina.us

This is by no means an exhaustive compendium of information about Assiut.   Keep watch for another installment soon!

Assiut Robe Box Pleat, photo by Davina

 

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   |       |    5 Comments

  1. No Gravatar
    Cecile

    Oct 12, 2011 - 12:10:25

    Hi! Thank you for the assuit info. I have a beautiful, very heavy vintage piece (about 3 1/2 yards) that is torn in a few spots. I am debating whether to take the plunge and make a dress out of it, or mend it and leave it as is. Do you have any suggestions or recommendations regarding cutting or mending tears?  I have condidered backing the fabric with another peice of tulle, but am unsure how to proceed. Any info would be greatly appreciated!

  2. No Gravatar
    Sausan

    Oct 17, 2011 - 09:10:56

    Hi, I really enjoyed this article.  I was told that if the designs are geometric that the assuit was made by Muslims and if the designs contain animal or people patterns that the assuit was made by Christians.  Thank you for contributing!
     
    -Sausan
    http://www.sausanacademy.com

  3. No Gravatar
    Davina

    Oct 18, 2011 - 10:10:19

    Cecile – Oooh.. vintage assiut – how rare and wonderful – you lucky thing!
    The first thing I would do is stabilize the fabric by flat mounting it onto modern tulle.  This will support the weight of the fabric and keep it from tearing.   Once it is mounted, carefully hand wash it using some extremely gentle soap.  Vintage clothing enthusiasts swear by a product called Orivis, but I’ve found that Dreft is quite gentle and does a good job for the fraction of the price.
    Once it is mounted and cleaned.  Enjoy it.  Wear it out to a dance event as it is as a shawl or scarf.  Or, like my friend Sarah does in the photo in the article, wear it draped over an existing costume.  You can either put it over one shoulder as she demonstrates above.  Or you can wrap it around your neck and tuck it into your hip belt front-to-back or on either side.
    Once you’ve worn it and experimented with it as a whole piece, then you will understand it’s drape, nature and value, then consider using it as costume piece.  The easiest tunic is just to open a neck hole at the center and wear it over the head.  It does the least damage to the original shawl, and it creates an amazing tummy cover .   You could also cut it in half and make a lovely skirt from it by simply adding a waistband at the top.
    Regardless of what you ultimately choose to do with your vintage assiut shawl, be sure to really enjoy it!
    Happy Costuming!   ~ Dawn Devine ~ Davina

  4. No Gravatar
    Georgette Tarsha

    Apr 4, 2012 - 10:04:28

    Hi , Thanks for all the info about assuit. Now all I need to know is its value. Several years ago, I inherited a small brief case full of vintage assuit. I would love to see it used as it is quite beautiful. But will not sell until I know. Can you direct me ?

    Thanks Again – Georgette 

     

  5. No Gravatar
    seshathot

    Dec 1, 2013 - 04:12:21

    Hello,
     
    I’ve recently bought a vintage assuit shawl, there are 2 little holes. The piece is very heavy, and I wanted to reinforce it as you mentioned by mounting a new tulle net. That would also help me to repair the holes.
    But I’m looking for advise on how to do that ?
    Adding a net on the back and only sew on 4 edges ? Do you also have to sew in the middle of the shawl to truly reinforce it I guess, but how ? and what space between 2 seams ?
    I’m very bad at sewing, and I don’t want to ruin it !
    thanks in advance for your help.
    S

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