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TIRAZ EMBROIDERED TOWEL SILK ON LINEN EGYPT - 14TH CENTURY
BACKGROUND: This towel was not simply a utilitarian object as we currently think of a common hand or tea towel. It its period, its display served to show the talent and artistic skill of its maker or owner. When draped over the arm of a servant welcoming a guest with warm rose water after a dusty journey it showed honor to the one using it and also conferred honor on the house that offered the use of such a luxurious object. The Islamic culture rose from desert nomadic tribes where, even if wood had been available to make large furniture, the nomadic lifestyle would have precluded its use. Even several centuries later, households did not include a lot of heavy furniture. Benches built into the walls were cushioned with pillows and throws. Treasured household goods were displayed in wall niches, draped with elaborate fabrics. In a culture that placed great value on the textile arts, the richness and quality of such home furnishings represented not only the comfort and luxury of interior decoration but served as actual movable wealth. And whether this towel dried the hands of the honored guest at the door or after washing the hands before a meal or before prayers, whether it covered the bread that was served at the table, or draped a wall niche that displayed the family’s prized brasswork or ceramics, it was as conspicuous a sign of luxury and wealth as any precious metal or gem.
This illustration shows an automated servant. In one had she holds a glass of fruit juice to be served and in the other a towel embroidered with bands such as this one. "The Book of Knowledge of Ingenious Mechanical Devices" by al-Jazari (1206) Baghdad The al-Sabah Collection, Dar al-Athar al-Islamiyah, Kuwait Time-Life Books. What Life Was Like in the Lands of the Prophet: Islamic World, AD 570-1405. Alexandria, Va: Time-life Books, 1999. p. 81

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TIRAZ TOWEL EGYPT TH 13 - 14TH CENTURY SILK ON LINEN
Materials Used: ITEM Towel Fabric PERIOD MATERIAL Hand woven linen – 16” - 18” wide Imported Silk Floss – locally dyed PRESENT TIME MATERIAL Purchased linen even-weave Purchased stranded silk floss – Kreinik Silk Mori

Dark Blue – Indigo Dark Navy 5016 Embroidery Floss Medium Blue - Indigo Lt. Navy - 5013 Red – Rose Madder Very Dk. Coral - 3017 Yellow – Dyer's Chamomile Dk. Buttercup - 2026 Turquoise – Scoria of Iron or Lt. Jade - 4193 Flowers of Copper

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TOOLS USED:
All Objects from Petrie Museum of Archaeology – dated Roman Period to end of Islamic Era

Petrie Museum of Egyptian Archaeology, University College, London. http://petrie.ucl.ac.uk/, ITEM Period Tool Present Time Tool

SCISSORS

SNIPS

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NEEDLES

THREAD WINDERS

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MATERIALS – FABRIC - LINEN:
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Egypt was the preeminent producer of linen in the Mediterranean world and had been so since Pharaonic times.3 Spinning and embroidery made of a large portion of women’s work whether she did so for the family’s use or as work for hire. Every fiber was hand spun and, although the spinning wheel began to make its appearance early in the 13th century, it did not come into general use until much later. After the fiber was spun it was woven into lengths on narrow looms, yard upon yard that produced the fine, delicate linen fabric for which Egypt was famous throughout the Mediterranean world. This weaving would have been done commercially and the finished yard goods would have been purchased for use in the home. This simple rectangle of cloth was then either purchased as part of yard goods or pre-hemmed to become part of a lady’s indispensable household goods. Such a labor intensive article was understandably expensive and represented a part of a woman’s very real personal wealth. Not only did it add to the dignity and beauty of her home, but in times of economic need it could be sold for ready cash. The more it was decorated, the more valuable it would be.4 It may have been part of a trousseau, goods a bride brought with her upon her marriage. Perhaps, she embroidered it herself as a young girl for what we would now call her “Hope Chest”. Fine embroidery was part of a girl’s education5. Or perhaps it was purchased plain to be decorated at some later time.

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COLOR
The color palette in general use at the time was somewhat limited consisting of a simple group of primary colors – red (madder), blue (indigo) and various yellow – plus brown, black, and green. Often work of this type was executed in monochrome indigo or brown as can be seen in many surviving examples. But there are examples where these simple colors are wonderfully used to offset one another. Such examples are in the Collection Bouvier that served as the inspirations for these color choices for the bands on my towel.

Fragment of Linen embroidered with silk Egyptian – Mamluk – 13th – 14th C Tissus, pp 289-291

Fragment of a decorative linen band embroidered with silk Egyptian – Mamluk – 13th – 14th C Tissus, pp 289

Color is, perhaps, one of the most fundamental human cravings. From the earliest times we find brightly colored adornments associated with human living. Time has faded many of these surviving relics, but their testament remains to the inventiveness and artistry of not only the artisan who used the materials but the dyer who colored the fibers. We can surmise that this, along with medicine, formed the basis of chemistry. We are fortunate that the climate of Egyptian not only preserved pieces of the dyer’s and embroiders art but also a record of what was used to color the fibers. And although the palette may, at first glance, seem limited to simple colors, the range of what is possible with those colors in expressing pattern and design are vast.
Towel – Top Band

TIRAZ EMBROIDERED TOWEL

8 The brilliant red and blue of the original embroidery are still vibrant after nearly 800 years. The lasting intensity of the red and blue is an eloquent illustration of what made these dyes so valued throughout history. Indigo blue, madder red and safflower were used to dye cotton, linen, wool and silk, and are found prominently in the embroidery of the time throughout the Islamic world. Their hallmark navy blue and deep reds can be seen on samplers from Cairo8 and the dresses found in Lebanon9 and carpets from Persia and the Caucasus. The plants from which they are derived are indigenous to the area and were used since antiquity until they were replaced with synthetic dyes in the 20th century. Other substances were also used as is evidenced by the Stockholm Papyrus. Dated circa 300-400 AD, it is a section of a professional dyer’s shop book, containing recipes and procedures that remained in use virtually unchanged until the advent of modern chemical dyes10. In studies of Medieval Egyptian textiles, it is an invaluable source or information on fabric dyes of the time. Dying in Medieval Egypt was done on a commercial professional basis and the embroidery thread would have been produced from bulk thread that was dyed and then divided into lots much as we buy embroidery floss today. The dyes used in my own embroidery are commercial and of unknown origin. The colors were chosen to match the original colors as closely as possible. BLUE – INDIGO – (Indigofera tinctoria) Indigo is one of the oldest known dyestuffs having been in use for over 5,000 years. It produces a deep cool blue that can vary from a rich royal blue shade to an almost black navy. The oldest known fragment of indigo dyed linen was found near Thebes in central Egypt and has been dated to circa 3,500 BC,11 but indigo did not come into widespread use until Hellenistic times12. It is especially valued not only for the richness of its color but because it is both light-fast and wash-fast. Both shades of blue in this piece – both the dark navy and the medium blue – are indigo based. Indigo producing plants are known virtually world-wide. The earliest origin of Egyptian indigo dye is the Isatis tinctoria plant that is also known in Europe as Woad, but was eventually replaced by true indigo, whose dye strength is fifty times that of woad. RED – The ancient Egyptians were familiar with a number of sources for rich color-fast reds. Among these were Akanna tintoria (alkanet), Rubis Tintorum (madder) and the flowers of Carthamus tintorius13. ALKANET (Alkanna tintoria) – This plant with a purplish root is mentioned in a Greek papyrus found in Thebes in the first ceturies CE. When mrodanted with oil or alcohol is gives a strong red color, otherwise when mordanted with alum a greygreen.14

TIRAZ EMBROIDERED TOWEL

9 MADDER – (Rubia tinctorium, var. perigrina, cordifolia) - The rich tomato red is derived from the madder plant that grows wild throughout the Near East, Persia and the Levant. Its Arab name al-lizari is the where we get our term alizarin crimson. The use of madder reds extends back at least to 2,000 BC. It is found in Egyptian mummy cloths, Coptic Textiles and Persian rugs. 15 YELLOW – WELD, LITHARGE, CELANDINE, SAFFRON & SAFFLOWER – It is difficult to know exactly what base was used for the yellow. The Stockholm Papyrus lists a number of sources and claims that each gives a color and lightfast deep golden color. Weld (Reseda luteola) was known from Roman times and produced a reasonable ight fast yellow16. Litharge, a yellow lead oxide, is mentioned 4 times in the Stockholm Papyrus17 as producing a dark yellow. The recipes that mention litharge specify preparing it in solution with quicklime and the corrosive properties of the lime would explain the deterioration of the thread over time. At least section mentions that the yellow color is not permanent but other recipes do not include this caution. Celandine (Chelidonium majus) is another plant dye mentioned in the Stockholm Papyrus that produces a golden yellow18. But is dismissed as being too expensive and the root of the pomegranate tree or safflower are suggested as substitutes. Modern accounts speak of the caustic properties of its bright orange sap, and emphasize the permanence of its bright yellow-orange color. Its caustic properties would also account for the deterioration of the original piece. Saffron (Crocus Sativus) is also a possibility, because of its deep golden color. It is derived from the stigmas of the female part of the plant, making it both rare and labor intensive to gather. It was therefore expensive, but was nonetheless used extensively in during the Middle Ages in the Middle East, Mediterranean countries and Egypt.19 Safflower (Carthamus tinctorius)20 is mentioned twice in the Stockholm Papyrus as a substitute for celandine for yellow dye21. Dyer’s Chamomile (Anthemis tintoria) When mordanted with chrome, the flowers give a strong tawny orange. This plant was known to be used as a dye stuff in ancient Assyria and also grown in Egypt.22 Pomegranate (Punica grnatum) Pliny mentions that the rind of pomegraate was used to dye leather yellow.23 TURQUOISE – This color is not as widely used, but we find a recipe in section 101 of the Leyden Papyrus X24 listing “scoria of iron” as the main ingredient. The Stockholm Papyrus recommends Flowers of Copper25 to produce shades from dark blue to deep leek green. Flowers of Copper is also defined as Blue Vitriol – a liquid form of copper oxide.

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THE EMBROIDERY
The stitches used are common to the period (see Appendix A – Stitches for details of technique). A framework of double running stitch (later called “blackwork” when it made its way to Europe) provides a lattice work punctuated by satin stitch stars and large motifs and frames filled with drawn work filet. No stitch is in itself complex. Instead, its visual richness is accomplished by intricate layers of structured, geometric composition, for which Islamic art in many forms is justly famous. The patterns in both upper and lower bands are derived from a variety of period sources. Some are used as found while others were adapted to suit the area the are called on to fill and the design function they serve. The derivation of these patterns is shown in diagrams on the following two pages..

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TIRAZ EMBROIDERED TOWEL

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TIRAZ EMBROIDERED TOWEL

13 While many of the patterns are of common derivation, three design elements of this piece stand out as dominant themes in Islamic textiles and deserve more lengthy mention. These are first, the wide band of nested octagons found in the lower register, and second, the section of writing called “tiraz” in general that is a common theme throughout Islamic arts even to the current era, and the third, deriving from tiraz, the particular “W” pattern in the main upper band.

LARGE BAND – GOLD STARS IN RED OCTAGON FRAMEWORK
Octagons filled with stars and similar motifs have been used in Egyptian textiles since at least the Coptic weavings of the 4th-5th centuries.26 They are found in rugs, kilims and weavings as well as the embroideries seen here so much so that one could almost fill a paper following the inhabited octagon through the centuries. Octagons fill spaces conveniently, stacking neatly and agreeably with the freedoms and limitations of the textile arts and offer a wide variety of design possibilities.

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Fragment of linen embroidered with silk Egypt – Mamluk -13th-14th Century CE27

Sample of nested inhabited octagons Egypt – 9th 0 11th Century CE 28

The principal motif of this piece is such a band, similar to the one at the left from the 13th-14th century and the one below from Nasrid Spain slightly later. It was chosen for its harmonious structure and bright colors that aptly set off the more animated figures in the adjacent smaller bands. The framework is worked in Holbein (double running) stitch and the stars in counted satin stitch. It is framed by small running bands in three shades of blue that set off the bold warm colors of the framework and stars. The three bands together give much the same effect as the Mamluk band to the left. This pattern was originally transcribed by Kay Montclare from an antique Moroccan sampler piece 29 and bears much similarity to Iberian brocades of the same period described by Patricia Baker, “ Occasional bands of various widths break up the endless repetition of stars juxtaposed with rosettes.”30

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Textile Panel – Silk Compound Weave Spain or Western North Africa (The Maghrib) 1400-16—AD 31

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“Blessings of God – Happiness and joy.”

TIRAZ – EMBROIDERY & BEAUTIFUL WRITING
“Beauty of script is incumbent upon you for it is one of the keys of mankind’s daily bread.”

Attributed to the Prophet Muhammad

Islam has a long and elegant tradition of beautiful writing. Calligraphy has developed as an important art form and devotional activity in Islam since it is regarded as one means by which the divine word of God can be recorded. It has permeated all aspects of creative expression in Muslim culture, including art and architecture, and is consequently more than merely a visual means of transmitting the Qur’an. This combined with the idea that making images of living things is forbidden has resulted that Arabic calligraphy is found on the noblest and grandest monuments, the most elegant treasures, and also on the humblest household articles. Perhaps no other culture has elevated the art of the written word into such an all-pervasive decorative art. The forms of the letters themselves have become the design elements, the beauty of their shape and motion of the word forms becoming artistic elements themselves. The use of calligraphy to decorate objects is known as tiraz, a word that many scholars believe is taken from the Persian word meaning “to embroider”. This would lead us to believe that calligraphy as an applied art was first worked into fabric and found its way later into ceramics, metalwork, carvings and architecture. The earliest surviving datable example of tiraz comes from the reign of the Sasanian Caliph Marwan I (745-750 AD). Already at such an early date it is the product of a large imperial workshop that supplied such linens for the royal household. These workshops also produced robes of honor that were given as gifts to high officials and honored guests. The texts included attribution of who gave the garment or fabric, and a blessing or quotation from the Qu’ran. This tradition quickly spread throughout Islamic lands, including Egypt were a tradition of inscribed textiles was already in place from Coptic times32. As with any popular practice initiated by the royal court, this was soon taken up by those of lesser nobility who had their own workman work garments with attributive inscriptions, and finally the common people who also wished to have elegant fabrics and garments showing these courtly traditions. But, two forces were at work on the elegant script bearing tunics of royal Damascus. The first is that any art that takes an element for design will change that element to suit its needs. It will embellish, simplify, ornament and, otherwise, reinterpret and reinvent that element to suit toe form and medium into which it is being rendered. So the form itself becomes the object of the work and its literal meaning becomes secondary.

TIRAZ EMBROIDERED TOWEL

17 The second forming force is in the hand of the artisan. From the well-regulated professional workshops of the Caliphs and Sultans, tiraz in embroidery and weaving made its way into the hands of the commoner artisan. Whether a hired embroiderer or simply a housewife embellishing her linens, the lofty blessings and quotations of royalty became blessings to the owner and well-wishing words and phrases. Such phrases as “Blessings on the person who owns this” were not uncommon, as well as simple words such as “Power”, “Health”, “Strength”, “Prosperity”, and “Happiness”. These words were also subject not only to the artistic constraints of the project at hand and to the relative literacy level (or lack thereof) of the person crafting the object. Tiraz motifs would have been copied from one person to the next, expanded or attenuated to fit a particular design demand, misinterpreted by the semi-literate, or mishandled by the simply inept. And so, over the centuries, miles and social distances, tiraz went from the lofty province of the elite to the “logo t-shirt” of its day. Tiraz embroidery and weaving is seen on the sleeves and cuffs of caftans, scarf ends, shawls and household linens. Some of it is decipherable at this distance of time and culture; some of it is not. Ultimately, what matters now is what mattered to the original artisan and owner, that is, an article of fashion and beauty, well-worked, to grace one’s person or home. The tiraz element of this towel is a phrase transcribed from a basket woven flyswatter. It was translated in the source I took it from as “Blessings of God – Happiness and Joy” (see composite illustration following page). At least, I assume it does, since I do not read Arabic, much less Medieval Arabic Kufic letters. So I sent it to a friend, a wise and learned man who studies such things and asked him to see if it was all spelled correctly and also to make sure it did not say anything rude or unintelligible. He assured me that “It looks good to me.” So I will take his word for it. This all makes it very period indeed, for as a skillful housewife who wants a beautifully embroidered towel, and a fairly well-to-do one who could afford such things, I might or might not have been able to read what it said. (nor would my friends who would admire it, so it wouldn’t have mattered in the long run). The example below is an excellent example of one in period and is the model from which I took the framework that surrounds the wording.

Egyptian 13th-14th Century

Dark Blue Silk on Linen33

At first glance the wording looks very plausible, but on closer inspection the inscription has no meaning at all34. Even one of the lozenges remains unfinished.

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THE “LUCKY W”
One of the delightful qualities of tiraz is the way words were adapted as design elements in their own right. The shapes of letters and words were explored artistically for their own sake and elements came from this that stood in their own right as pattern motifs only casually related to the words from which they had originally been derived. Such an element could be called the “Lucky W”. Opinions vary among scholars as to the actual origin of this element. It could be the word “Allah” that we see in isolated motifs on the cushion cover below35. Other scholars have conjectured that it may have begun as the word “health”36. Its distinctive shape comes from the diamond shape found in the center. One of the elements of tiraz (as well as calligraphy) is taking a word or phrase and book-matching or mirroring it, that is, beginning from the center writing the word or phrase and then repeating it backwards going in the opposite direction giving the appearance as though it were seen in a mirror.

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Egypt 13th-14th C. – Silk on Linen
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Whatever its original meaning, by the 13th-14th century we find it in many forms worked in as what could be viewed as a generally “lucky” sign, an element of general well-wishing and protection. We find it worked as fill motifs in delicate chains on an infants smock, as a scattered element on a cushion cover, and in larger more central placements such as the center piece of the elegant band above. Its shape conforms to many elemental shapes and design demands. It can fill an octagon, a lozenge and even a triangle. On the towel it is used as a central element on the upper band, intended in content, color and design usage to compliment the phrase used on the lower series. It is flanked by stars to compliment the large star band in a similar usage to the band seen above.It gives the appearance of complete tiraz but holds its own meaning of well wishing and invocation of divine blessing.

Mamluk Band – 15th C. Silk on Linen

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Time-Life Books. What Life Was Like in the Lands of the Prophet: Islamic World, AD 570-1405. Alexandria, Va: Time-life Books, 1999., p. 106 2 Ettinghausen, Richard. Arab Painting. Treasures of Asia. [Geneva?]: Skira, 1962.p. 116 3 Thomas, Thelma K., Textiles from Medieval Egypt, A.D. 300-1300, Carnegie Museum of Natural history, Pittsburgh, 1990pp., 29-30 4 Gotein, S. D. , A Mediterranean Society: An Abridgement in One Volume, , University of California Press, Berkeley, 1999, p. 456 5 Rapoport, Yossef, Marriage, Money and Divorce in Medieval Islamic Society, Cambridge University Press, Cambridge, 2005p. 34 6 Guthrie, Shirley, Arab Social Life in the Middle Ages – An Illustrated Study, Saqi Books, 1995, p. 153 7 Thomas, p. 59 8 Ellis, Marianne, Embroideries and Samplers from Islamic Egypt, Ashmolean Museum, Oxford, 2001. 9 Figue, Gerard and Oussama Kalib, La Memoire des Tissus: Etudes des tissues Medievaux de Mgharet Aasi El Nadath, Marshmallow Graphics, 1999, p. 142 10 “Dye Recipes from the Stockholm Papyrus”, translated by Earle Radcliffe Caley and published in the Journal of Chemical Education, Vol 4, No 8 in August of 1927, transcribed by Drea Lead, http://costume.dm.net/dyes/stockholm.html, accessed 26 November 2005, III. Commentary 11 Liles, J. N., The Art and Craft of Natural Dyeing: Traditional Recipes for Modern Use, The University of Tennessee Press, Knoxville, 1999, p. 53 12 Haidler, Maria, “Materials and Methods of the Ancient Weaver: Dyes”, Art of the Ancient Weaver: Textiles from Egypt (4th – 12th C. AD), Kelsey Museum of Archaeology, University of Michigan, Ann Arbor, 1980. p. 8 13 Minnache, Lise, An Ancient Egyptian Herbal, The American University in Cairo Press, 2006, p. 37 14 Minnache, p. 74 15 Liles, p. 102 16 Liles, p. 33 17 “Dye Recipes from the Stockholm Papyrus”, Sections 116, 122, 130, and 136 18 “Dye Recipes from the Stockholm Papyrus”, Section 139 19 Liles, p. 34 20 Minnache, p. 89 21 “Dye Recipes from the Stockholm Papyrus”, Section 118 & 139 22 Minnache, p. 81 23 Minnache, p. 148 24 “Dye Recipes from the Leyden Papyrus X”, translated by Earle Radcliffe Caley and published in the Journal of Chemical Education, Vol 3, No 10 in October of 1926, transcribed by Drea Lead, http://www.elizabethancostume.net/dyes/leyden.html 25 “Dye Recipes from the Stockholm Papyrus”, Section 120 line 6 26 Rogers, Clive, ed., Early Islamic Textiles, Rogers & Podmore, Brighton 1983, p. 14 27 Tissus d'Egypte, Temoins du Monde Arabe VIIIe-XVe siecles, Collection Bouvier, Musée d'art et d'histoire Fribourg, Genève and Institut du monde arabe, Paris. 1993, pp. 289-291 28 Rogers, p. 14 29 Montclare, Kay, Patterns from the Seventeenth Century – European Samplers – Book 4, self published, 1993. Morrocan Sampler Patterns, p. 32 30 Baker, Patricia, Islamic Textiles, British Museum Press, London, 1995, pp. 62-63 31 Metropolitan Museum – Timeline of Art History http://www.metmuseum.org/toah/ho/08/nfw/ho_46.156.16.htm Accessed: 5-27-2008 32 Ettinghausen, Richard, Oleg Grabar, and Marilyn Jenkins-Madina, Islamic Art and Architecture 650-1250, Pelican History of Art, Yale University Press, New Haven and London, 2001, p. 64 33 Kuhnel, Ernst, Islamische Stoffe aus Agyptische Grabern, Verlag Ernst Wasmuth, Berlin, 1927, plate 31, illus. 3176, p. 55 34 Kuhnel, p. 55 35 Kuhnel, plate 29, p. 52 36 Ellis, Marianne, Embroideries and Samplers from Islamic Egypt, Ashmolean Museum, Oxford, 2001, p. 33 37 Kuhnel, Plate 38, Item 3240, p. 64 38 Ellis, p. 58 39 Humphrey, Carol, Fitzwilliam Museum Handbooks, Samplers, Cambridge, Cambridge University Press, 1997, p. 13 40 Kuhnel, Plate 35, Item 1035, p. 59

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