Assuit Shawls, a Research Paper from 1979
by Yasmela-Shelly Muzzy
posted February 12, 2012
Most of this was written in about 1978-79 when I was at Fairhaven College/Western Washington University getting my BA in History and Research. I have amended the end of it, but it was a paper written as the culmination of a quarter’s research into metal thread embroidery. At that time, videos were not available of the Stars of Egypt, so seeing the amazing costumes that are available on YouTube to everyone now was not possible. I did weeks of library research, inter-library loan, etc. as well as personal interviews with dancers and collectors including Aisha Ali, Cathryn Balk (Farideh) and a collector from the UK.
Metal thread embroidery is an ancient form of ornamentation and can be found throughout the Middle East, the Balkans, India, China, Japan and parts of Europe. There are biblical references to its use with the linen cloth of Egypt. Inexpensive machine embroidery, usually containing metal-wrapped threads, is a common export from India today. At one time, however, Egyptian net embroidery was a unique product that involved the export of shawls around the world.
The invention of the bobbinet machine in Tulle, France in the early 19th century gave impetus to the popularity of hexagonal mesh fabric and it became known as tulle. During the French Protectorate, the bobbinet machine was introduced into the Asyut region of Upper Egypt by the French in hopes of establishing a source of employment and income to the depressed farming area sometime in the latter part of the 19th century. The Asyut region was a logical location since that area was already a well established textile center.
After manufacture, the hexagonal net fabric was given to local artisans. It was then embroidered with 1/8 inch flat strips of metal, gilt silver or copper wire and later, chrome plated copper or brass.
The wire was crossed over the threads, cut and folded into a small package to keep the ends from poking out. When finished, the piece was laid out and the metal work was hammered flat and sometimes rolled to give it a uniform texture.
The motifs used were either geometric or figurative and sometimes combinations of both. One source told me the geometric pieces were older, although the use of figures by Coptic artisans dates back to the introduction of Christianity into Egypt. It was common for bird and animal motifs to be used for ornamentation during the Ottoman occupation (1517-1914 except for a brief French occupation during the Napoleonic wars). Some older pieces were very elaborately decorated or even solidly filled in with little or no exposed net and little discernible pattern. Finished shawls were sold by weight, if they were silver, to European tourists who then used them as shawls or piano scarves. In the early 20th century many pieces were used to make gowns or robes, the first true lame.
Assuit’s first appearance in quantity in the U.S. was at the 1893 Chicago Exposition where they were sold as souvenirs of the scandalous Midway Plaisance. Shawls experienced another upsurge with the opening of King Tut’s Tomb in 1922 when all things Egyptian became popular.
Although these shawls have been around well over 100 years, it is very difficult to obtain information about their origin. Having dealt with assuit since I first discovered it as a student of Jamila Salimpour in San Francisco in 1972, I have been fascinated with the plethora of romantic myths and stories that accompanied each piece. Through the years I’ve had many many pieces pass through my hands. There are seldom two pieces alike with the exception of the smaller sparsely worked geometrics. The larger pieces are quite elaborate and as a form of folk embroidery, I have been told that patterns were passed down through families.
Figured shawls that I have actually seen and handled have consisted of a huge variety of patterns: Tree of life, tent or mosque, camels, geese, people, camels with god’s eyes on their backs, god’s eyes, snowflakes.
Geometrics consist of large and small diamonds filled with cross stitch, lines or grids and chevrons. Most of the shawls are white, ecru or black. I believe the colored shawls were dyed after they were made or sold. I have seen them in the classic rectangle shape, as bed canopies, and in small squares. There is evidence that triangle and small rectangle shawls were made in Syria of a much finer softer net and worked in real silver. I have seen several of these and they are cited in The Arts and Crafts of Syria by Johannes Kalter. These pieces have delicate finished edgings. There were a number of dresses made from assuit that were originally designed as long traditional dresses, not shawls made into dresses. They are patterned with appropriate protective embroidery designs around the neck openings, sleeve edges, side openings and usually triangular filled areas across the pelvic area. Upon close examination of the rectangular shawls, you will often be able to discern a discrepancy in pattern along the side that is considered the “signature” of the embroiderer.
Today we can see assuit worn in the vintage Egyptian films of famous dancers. The dresses usually denote the dancer as doing a baladi (country) style dance, which would be a toss to the origin of the shawls in Upper Egypt, the country. The 1950’s production of Samson and Delilah starring Hedy Lamar shows the splendor of its use as exotic costuming for Ms. Lamar. She appears in two magnificent outfits, one of white and one of black assuit shawls made into dresses. The more modern film adaptation of Agatha Christie’s Death on the Nile features Mia Farrow wearing a late ‘20’s, early ‘30’s style gown of ecru assuit. During the late 60’s and early 70’s the pioneer of Middle Eastern dance on the West Coast, Jamila Salimpour, gave great impetus to a revived interest in this fascinating cloth. When she took Middle Eastern dance out of the clubs and onto the stage of the Northern Renaissance Pleasure Faire, they became her signature look. Her troupe of dancers, Bal Anat, became famous for draping themselves in this exotic fabric and achieved a romantic, tribal elegance, entertaining families with a fantasy variety show.
Many old pieces of assuit have found their way into private collections and even scraps can sell for high prices to become incorporated into the modern tribal look popular with some present day performers. There is new assuit being manufactured, but the cloth and workmanship are light years away from the drape and weight of the older shawls. The older pieces were labor intensive and expensive. It is unlikely that we will see this quality of workmanship revived. The romance that surrounds these shawls harkens back to a different era, when handicrafts were valued for their own sake, and intricate decoration of everyday objects was part of everyone’s life.
If you do own one of the older shawls, or should you be looking for one, a note on their storage: The metal used for design can cause the cotton or linen thread base net to rot. Metal just does this naturally, but if the cloth has been exposed to light and dust, it speeds up the process of deterioration. Perspiration is deadly to both cloth and metal. Do not fold the pieces to store. Simply lift them up and sort of puddle them in a nice acid free paper or chemical free bag, out of the light. At my advancing age, and having coveted the shawls as both a dancer and textile collector, I hesitate to tell you not to use them or wear them. Egads, if they are in good condition, wear them, flaunt them, enjoy them. Try not to hang them on the wall in the sun, but do show them off. They’ve been here a long time and you won’t be.
My daughter Lise models a dress that belonged to Farideh as do all the shawls modeled.
The photo with two figures on it is of a long jacket. I have never seen another shawl with that kind of patterning.
Ready for more?
- 10-11-07 The Jamila Experience
All of these feelings fled as soon as Jamila walked through the door. A big impressive woman clad entirely in black…
- 5-8-07 The Bou-Saada Bus
Every single one of us could play an instrument, sing, dance, run a sound board, set a stage with backdrop, lights, monitors and microphones, plug them in, and put them away. We made our own costumes and our own drums and used duct tape in a thousand creative ways. While we never made a living from it, it was our way of life. Our experiences will bond us forever.
- 6-25-04 Romancing the Road (The Bousada Troupe Tours)
We carved our own niche, created our own style, scandalized, delighted, educated and entertained everyone around us, including ourselves. We were “Bou-Saada”.
- 5-28-04 Dance Contests
People being who they are, and dance and art and America being what they are, there will always be the competitive urge, the attitude that success is defined by the amount of your income, the number of your trophies.
- 10-3-11 Assiut / Assuit, Fascinating FAQs
However, mosquito netting was invented by the Egyptians and dates back thousands of years.
- 6-15-04 Lace and My Muses Part 1: Egyptian Mummy Lace or “Assiute Cloth”
I fastened around my hips a white Assuite cloth encrusted with gold knots throughout, forming pictographs of falcons, pyramids, crosses, and diamond shaped designs.
- 4-18-07 Antique Textiles: Renewed Life for Dance
In fact, we often danced for many little luncheon gigs in offices and other places as a surprise birthday gift—to the music of our own solo sagat. Now, that is a skill that I have never seen anyone repeat since the early seventies!
- 7-31-07 Antique Textiles: Part 2 Costuming Before the Reign of Egyptian Costumers
I view today’s dance values as interlopers—meant to mitigate Belly dance’s checkered past by exchanging its innate free emotional expression for speed and difficulty of execution and an over-the-top outpouring of energy that is neither sensual or exotic.
- 11-24-07 Antique Textiles Part 3: Creating Your Unique Statement
It is possible that you may never have performed professionally while wearing a lampshade on your head… but I have!
- 2-16-05 Lace and My Muses, Part 4 of 5:Tarnished StarDust
Not until very recent times, could I admit, even to myself, that I had lost a large part of my creative thrust along with many of my treasured friendships because I had perceived wrongly that I needed to become more like the Egyptian and Lebanese dancers of the day.
- 9-15-05 Antique Texttiles: Part 5, Lace and My Muses: Treasures
I was looking at a piece of artwork featuring a classical dancer of the past, turning it this way and that to get a better view, and suddenly, I realized that I had lost contact with my treasured mentors and had also abandoned my sense of artistic direction that they had helped to foster within me.