The embroidery mistress, or mu'allema, was traditionally a very important person in the life of a young girl in North Africa, as elsewhere around the eastern Mediterranean. Past her first youth and of proven respectability, she had to be not only a fine embroideress, but also a good influence, for her pupils would come to her at the age of seven and, if they proved teachable, would spend most of their days with her - at least during the winters - until they were 14. Naturally, the mu'allema's status varied from period to period and place to place, but the most highly regarded ones - sometimes they might even have performed the Hajj - would teach their girls the life of the Prophet, traditions concerning him, and stories about local religious men; they might even teach the girls to recite some chapters of the Koran, thus providing them with the only education they would receive.
Since at least the beginning of the 16th century, and up into modern times, it has always been very important for a girl to learn to weave or embroider. Roughly speaking, it seems that weaving is the indigenous textile art of North Africa; embroidery appears to be a more recent introduction - by and large an urban skill, associated among other sources with the settlers from Andalusia, who fled to North Africa after the Christian reconquest of Spain. The choice of craft depended on region, but also on the wealth of the family, for embroidery was far less tiring and was considered more suitable for a relatively well-to-do girl than weaving.
A girl who could embroider had all kinds of advantages: She could prepare her own trousseau at a fraction of what it would otherwise cost; she could earn pin money by embroidering for friends or neighbors, or by doing piece-work for a shop; later in life, she might in her turn become an embroidery mistress and so win respect and a position in the community, save some money to buy herself a piece of land, or even support the family in case of widowhood or hard times.
Women, for the most part, enjoyed embroidery: It was much more amusing and less back-breaking than housework or tilling the fields. It gave them a measure of financial independence, it provided an outlet for their creative instincts, and it was sociable. Often a group of women would work together, each at her embroidery frame, chatting, snacking and drinking tea, perhaps with one of the older women leading the prayers at the appropriate times. It was, in fact, very similar to an American quilting bee.
And what did the women make? This varied very much from place to place. In Tunisia, most of the finest embroidery was, and to some extent still is, on women's clothing, whose styles may vary from one village to the next, even if they are only a few miles apart. Only at Raf-Raf, for example, a largish village on the north coast near ancient Utica, do the girls embroider spectacular tunics for their trousseaux; 70 is the number aimed at - including one especially magnificent piece for the wedding day. The Raf-Raf style too is said to have been brought back from Andalusia in the 16th century.
Knee length and made of vertically striped cotton, often red-and-white, the front of the tunic is heavily worked in gold thread, tinsel, spangles, tubular beads and colored wools in the brilliant colors of a bunch of anemones, with turquoise added. The designs are a mixture of very stylized flowers, crescent moons, stars, fish and bunches of grapes with their leaves - fishing and fruit growing are the two main occupations of the village - along with purely geometric motifs. The sleeves are an unusual technique too: Ordinary white tulle or net is embroidered with geometric patterns in wool, with the occasional gold sequin. The effect is striking and very simple; little girls learning to sew usually begin with a pair of sleeves.
The idea of making as many as 70 pieces of clothing is a common one: They are intended to be a lifetime supply, for once the woman is married and has children there will be little time for making herself pretty clothes. These Raf-Raf tunics, which look to us like evening dress, are in fact for everyday wear. Indeed, it is surprising how often peasant dress all over the world is - or was - extraordinarily rich by modern standards. In fact, the girls of Raf-Raf would wear their tunics inside out to protect them when doing rough work, though in other towns, clothing was worn inside out only as a sign of mourning. The magnificent marriage tunic itself might be stored to be used at last as a shroud.
Raf-Raf is a small, rather poor village, so its costume, although very pretty, is made valuable by its workmanship, not its material. In many of the wealthy cities along the coast, however, the wedding costume may include 15 or 20 kilograms (30 to 40 pounds) of gilt silver thread, or even more. This is true at Sousse, where the background silk of the long robe, trousers and veil looks almost as if the bride were wearing armor. Elegance and beauty have been forgotten in the interests of a rich effect. Ideally, the girl should be so dazzling when the light catches her that she is hard to look at, and so weighed down by her clothes and ornaments that she cannot rise from her chair without help.
This embroidery is not, of course, always done in gilt silver thread. In the past it might even have been gold. It is recorded that an antique marriage chemise from Hammamet, on the northeastern Tunisian coast, recently sold to a Saudi lady collector for the price of its seven kilograms (15 pounds) of pure gold thread. The intrinsic value of the marriage clothing was not without a practical point: The precious metals provided the girl with an extra nest egg which was absolutely hers to draw on in case of need.
Hammamet, surprisingly, has retained its very pretty everyday costume. It consists of a knee-length robe of very loosely woven black wool gauze, made at home, decorated with heavy gold embroidery at the neck and little gold "wings" on the shoulders. Over the body of the dress are scattered flowers and stars. These are not worked with a needle but by pushing a kind of flat silver gilt thread back and forth through the cloth. This sounds easier to do than it actually is, because the thread is soft and pliable and, once twisted, it is hard to straighten. This robe is worn over a white lacy blouse with enormous sleeves, very wide at the wrist, made of .the same sort of embroidered net as at Raf-Raf, and over matching, rather Victorian-looking pantaloons. Hammamet is one of the few places where little girls wear the same clothes as their mothers; in these dresses, they look enchanting, especially when they wear the regional gold-embroidered headdress with colored ribbons.
It would be quite impossible to describe all the embroidery styles or wedding costumes of Tunisia, for not only does almost every town and village have its own way of doing things, but traditionally a bride from a wealthy family would have seven different sets of wedding clothes for the seven days of the marriage celebrations. Each unique, they probably provide an anthology of the changing fashions over the years. Nowadays, three days of celebrations are more usual, and typically the bride will wear her local dress on one day, on another the old Turkish-style dress of the capital - embroidered cap, jacket and voluminous baggy trousers - and a modern white dress with a veil on the third day.
Most Tunisian embroidery was on clothing, but this is not true of Morocco, where the most spectacular pieces were intended as furnishings: curtains, cushions, bed covers and hangings of various kinds. Personal items usually were intended for the bath. Since women did not go out very much, the visit to the hammam (public bath) provided a good opportunity for showing off one's possessions. Great care was lavished on making elegantly embroidered towels, strips for tying up the hair, squares for wrapping up damp clothes or cosmetic boxes, and so on.
Once again, the style varies considerably from town to town. Like all of North Africa, Morocco has had a turbulent and varied history, a past reflected even in the embroideries, where Spanish, Turkish, Balkan, Berber and now French influences all show themselves, turn and turn about. Nothing could be more indestructible than the reversible Fez embroidery worked in regular geometric patterns in dark blue, dark red or purple on a white or natural ground. By contrast, the Rabat embroidery on muslin may have 30 or 40 beautifully graded shades for the great abstract designs on marriage curtains, done in a local, soft silk that wears out so easily that the curtains were never used except for special days.
Different again are the embroideries from Meknes, which lies in the heart of the Berber country, with their earth shades, reminiscent of the local weaving; or the splendid, brilliantly colored hangings on yellow, pink, sky blue or scarlet satin or taffeta from Tetouan: These are clearly of Turkish inspiration.
Another style should be mentioned as well, however, precisely because it is common throughout the Muslim Mediterranean, and found in Cairo, Tripoli, Damascus or Istanbul just as much as in Tunis, Algiers and Rabat. It is the magnificent embroidery done in gold or silver thread on a background of velvet or heavy silk. The most famous example is the kiswa, the veil of the Ka'ba at Makkah, which is replaced annually (See Aramco World, September-October 1985).
This same splendid technique is much used for mosque hangings, tomb covers, Koran cases and texts from the Koran or the Hadith (the collected sayings of the Prophet), intended to be hung up in the home or the shop. It was also used for secular purposes, particularly horse trappings and sword belts. Although, according to the Hadith, men are forbidden to wear gold, an exception is often made in the case of the handles of weapons and the accoutrements of war. Certainly the sets of gold-embroidered saddles, saddle cloths, reins and trappings are some of the most magnificent objects made in North Africa today. Naturally, they are rarer than in the past: 50 years ago one Moroccan tribe alone, the Bani Tadla, would commission 1,000 sets a year, and an elegant man would change his saddle as soon as it became a little worn or even ceased to be in the fashionable color and design. Now, given the price of materials and the fact that the embroidery work alone takes two to four months, such sets are only made to order - but the workmanship is as fine as it ever was.
The other things made in this magnificent kind of embroidery are certain headdresses and marriage robes, little boys' circumcision costumes, and women's slippers and belts - especially the belt offered as a wedding gift. The work is done by both men and women, but always at a professional level, although the women of course work in their homes.
Embroidery in North Africa is still very much a lively art. Even if women no longer spend weeks and months making clothes for themselves worthy of the princesses of The Thousand and One Nights, they still do very nice work commercially. A gold saddle from Rabat, or wedding sheets from Fez with a meter (three feet) of embroidery at the turnover, or a silk kaftan from Tunis, are treasures to be prized.
Caroline Stone is the author of The Embroideries of North Africa, published by Longman and available from Pillars of Hercules, Calle las Teresas 3, Santa Cruz, Seville, Spain.