Fascinating FAQs About
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!
Q – 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.
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A – Assiut cloth was originally made from mosquito netting and sold to tourists.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.
Q – 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!
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