Wednesday 24 August 2016

Decorative Textiles from Arab & Islamic Cultures

Book review:  Decorative Textiles from Arab & Islamic Cultures: Selections from the Al Lulwa Collection · Lisa Hjalt

Earlier this summer I received a book for reviewing, Decorative Textiles from Arab & Islamic Cultures: Selections from the Al Lulwa Collection. The book is truly beautiful, I enjoyed reading it and would recommend it to anyone interested in exotic textiles and Islamic culture. Jennifer Wearden is the author of the text; Jennifer Scarce writes the introduction. The collection is a tribute to the grandmother of Altaf S. Al Sabah. In a short note before her preface, she explains that al lulwa means a pearl, which was her late grandmother's name. The book is produced by Paul Holberton publishing. In a press release they state: 'The Al Lulwa Collection has a heritage that reaches back well over a thousand years, and is significant both for its quality and as an illustration of the survival and adaptation of a major industry.'

Decorative Textiles from Arab & Islamic Cultures is a paperback with flaps, 200 pages with 140 illustrations in colour. It's divided into four chapters: 1) Floral Decoration, 2) Geometric Patterns, 3) The Written Word, and 4) Applied Decoration. The textiles come from the Middle East and the Arabian Peninsula, Iran, India, and North Africa. Wearden has written a flowing, entertaining description of each item featured. The text is educating without being too scholarly, enriched with historic and cultural details.

Each piece of textile featured in the book is described with an illustration next to it, and the details of many have a close-up view on a separate page. For non-scholars in textile design, this is very interesting; to be able to explore the motifs and patterns in more detail with Wearden's text as a guide. Sometimes she compares the textiles and points out their differences and similarities, which is invaluable. Occasionally she points out the mistakes in patterns that make them even more fascinating to look at. The book also includes a glossary with drawings of various stitches.

Detail: Part of a cenotaph, a tomb cover, Iran, early 18th century, pp. 140-3

Altaf S. Al Sabah, 'a researcher and writer in material culture and traditional arts', says she started collecting textiles in the early 1980s and she supports the preservation of the craft. In her preface, written in Kuwait in 2015, she says how she loved wearing her 'traditional thoubs, Kashmiri shawls, Palestinian, Egyptian and Ottoman dresses' and that 'weavings and embroideries hang blissfully' on her walls (p. 7). Given some of the stunning wall hangings featured in the book I can only imagine the style of her home. She gives the reason for presenting her collection:
In the light of the rapid vanishing of many craft traditions in the Arab and Islamic world in general, and the slow extinction of many of the fine hand skills related to traditional textiles and embroideries in particular, I thought it relevant to showcase some notable pieces of late Islamic decorative textile arts to be enjoyed and appreciated today as they were in the past. (p. 7)

Left: Woman's dress, Saudi Arabia, Ta'if region, Bani Sa'ad tribe, 2nd half 20th century, p. 186.
Right: Part of a woman's shawl, Sindh, 20th century, p. 51

Mi'zar al-hammam, a wrap, Syria, mid 20th century, pp. 126-7

As someone fascinated with the geometric designs and motifs in Islamic art, I particularly enjoyed reading a chapter called 'Geometric Patterns' and would say that 'The Written Word' chapter, with its beautiful calligraphy, is visually the most pleasing. Before moving on to the textiles featured in the former, Wearden observes:
Geometric designs are the most characteristic feature of Islamic art and are found in their most perfect form decorating both the interior and exterior of buildings, symbolizing the principles of tawhid (the unity of all things) and mizan (balance), which are the laws of creation. (p. 85)

Shawl border, Kashmir, 19th/20th century, pp. 44-5

The text is rich with Arabic words and their meaning, such as khamsa, or the Hand of Fatima, a common decorative motif. Another common motif, that reoccurs in the 'Floral Decoration' chapter, is the boteh (see image above). In the Western world we refer to the motif as paisley, named after the Scottish town (Glasgow area) that became famous for its patterned shawls. Wearden explains how the motif evolved:
It began life in the late [17th] century as a naturalistic floral sprig, a stem with a few leaves and three or four flowers. By the early [18th] century the uppermost flower was drooping to one side; by the middle of the [18th] century the leaves and flowers were less well-defined and the sprig was fast becoming an outline containing flower heads and foliage; by the beginning of the [19th] century it had taken the form we are familiar with today. (p. 23)

Man's abba, Syria or Iran, late 19th/early 20th century, pp. 98-9

The pattern featured on the cover of the book in detail can be traced to its former owner. It's the gold and purple man's abba in the image above that belonged to Major-General Sir Percy Zachariah Cox (1864-1937). He was a British Indian Army officer and diplomat, a key figure in the creation of Iraq. Wearden observes that this robe would unlikely fade into the background. 'Royal purple and bright gold thread send out a clear message of wealth and power, they attract attention, they say "look at me"' (p. 98). Oh, we see you indeed!

Tegeia, Tunisia, Mahdia, probably 1920 to mid 20th century, pp. 182-3

The fourth chapter, 'Applied Decoration', is short and contains a few beautiful pieces for women. The Tunisian tegeia is one of them, a headpiece worn by 'a bride on the day henna was applied to her hands and feet' (p. 183). As seen in the image above, the fringe has a star-shaped medallion and its filigree work a small English gold sovereign with the head of King George V.

Top: Shawl, Syria, Damascus, dated 1855, p. 146.
Left (detail): Part of a woman's shawl, Sindh, 20th century, pp. 50-1 (see in full in image No. 5 above).
Right: Khayamiya, a hanging, Egypt, late 19th century, p. 172

If you happen to be into calligraphy you will likely take in more slowly the textiles featured in 'The Written Word' chapter, which is decorated with Arabic calligraphy by Jasser AlShammari. It has gorgeous cloths, for example, Egyptian hangings called khayamiya in blue and red that I couldn't stop admiring (see below and above right). Wearden explains the importance of calligraphy in the Muslim world:
The art of calligraphy, Khatt ul-Yad, is the practice of hand-writing based on the Arabic script and for many Muslims is the most admired and esteemed form of Islamic art, because it links the people with the language of the Qur'an and through that with the spiritual world. (p. 135)
She points out embroidering mistakes, or broken strokes, which were probably the result of either the embroiderer's carelessness or illiteracy (an example is the textile to the right in my bottom image: the vertical strokes are incorrect).

Khayamiya, a hanging, Egypt, late 19th century, p. 174

Decorative Textiles from Arab & Islamic Cultures: Selections from the Al Lulwa Collection is a wonderful addition to my slowly growing collection of textile books. The layout deserves praise: each selected piece of textile is given its proper place with an informative, flowing text. The close-up illustrations are a welcome for readers interested in details. Altaf S. Al Sabah has paid an astounding tribute to her late grandmother and anyone who reads this beautiful book will want to view the entire Al Lulwa Collection in person.

Decorative Textiles from Arab & Islamic Cultures:
Selections from the Al Lulwa Collection
By Jennifer Wearden
Paul Holberton publishing
Paperback, 200 pages, illustrated

Three panels, possibly Syria, 1928, 1933, and one reduced in size, no longer showing the date, pp. 154-5

images by me | except for No. 4-7, courtesy of Paul Holberton publishing | credit: all images in the book are by Stephanie McGehee


  1. just one word....beautiful....and it would be a pitty when it would will

  2. This book looks truly amazing Lisa!!! Serious envy!!

    1. I have been swooning over it since I got it. I think it's a natural state to be in love with patterns ;-)


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