When I was a kid, my grandmother and I lived in the same neighborhood. Whenever she visited, she brought with her things that she hid inside the qabbah (chest piece) of her thobe (dress). She would slide her hand through the opening on the side and retrieve keys, money, candy, lollipops, or nuts. She always had something. This pocket was like a magician’s hat! As a kid, I was fascinated with how this qabbah which appeared so beautiful and flat carried all those exciting things. I associated it with generosity, love, yummy candies, excitement and mysteriousness.
As I grew older, I developed a whole new level of fascination with the qabbah; However, this time it was the embroidery motifs, layout and shape.
My grandmother grew up in Innabah, a small village located between Lydd and Ramleh. Her qabbah design was very typical in her village. Women used to do the embroidery - nearly all of it being done using the cross stitch - on a separate piece of fabric. Then, it would be stitched down around three of the four edges onto the thobe, creating a natural pocket between the fabric of the thobe (where the front panel is located) and the opening of the chest piece which has not been sewed down.
The shape of the qabbah was a square or a rectangle which always made sense since it’s easier to make a pocket from these shapes! It’s also easier to cut and sew the fabric and it's a better use of the space on the front of the garment.
The embroidered designs that adorned my grandmother’s qabbeh were a variation of floral motifs, stars, Pasha’s tents and other similar designs, but a common theme between all these chest panels was the V-shape (also called al-kaws قوس or the arch) in the design. On my grandmother’s qabbah, the V-shape divides the design into two sections: the section on top of the V (arch) where you can see floral and star motifs and the section below the V (arch) which varies in the designs used.
This qabbah design was not necessarily unique only to our village or region. Many cities and towns shared a similar design with a few modifications in the motifs used, colors, or arrangement of the motifs. Ramallah, for example, has a remarkably similar design, sometimes less heavily embroidered and done mostly in a red color accented with a few other colors that were usually black, green, or pink.
In Beit Dajan or the Yaffa region, we can also see a V-shape in the qabbah design. Thobes from this region were more heavily embroidered with mostly red colors, but also incorporated many hints of the Mediterranean colors of the region’s environment such as oranges, purples, blue, yellow, and various shades of pink and green. The V-shape here can be wider (but not always), and sometimes there’s more than one arch stacked upon each other. The area on top of the arch usually has 6 vertical motifs that might include either floral or geometric designs. One of the most well-known motifs here is the orange blossom motif since Yaffa was known for its delicious oranges. The area under the arch is usually filled-in with geometric designs. The entire embroidered area is surrounded by sarou (cypress tree) and reesh (feathers) motifs.
In Hebron, we see a similar layout on the chest piece, but much more heavily embroidered with lots of floral motifs, leaves, and geometric shapes. The colors used in Hebron were typically a deep brown color, reds, greens, yellow highlights and accents of various shades of orange, pink and purple.
Moving to areas like Al-Majdal, Asdud, and more broadly the pre-1948 region of Gaza, the qabbah design was no longer square or rectangular. While it kept the V-shape in the form of the qalayed (necklace) motif, it differed in that all of the embroidery was stitched directly onto the thobe fabric, not on a separate piece and then attached. Thus leaving no space for the mysterious and magical pocket my grandmother wooed us with during my childhood.
In some areas within the pre-1948 region of Gaza, we also see a square or rectangular chestpiece without the central arch design that proudly showcases a combination of floral and geometric motifs that were arranged vertically and horizontally in a U-shape. This U-shape is also seen in the Safiriyaa thobe.
The Beer Sheba area is also characterized by the geometrical patterns in their qabbah which are shaped into a square or rectangle. The size of the qabbah varied by the occasion for which the dress was worn. It would have been smaller on an “everyday” thobe and very large and heavily embroidered for ceremonial occasions. The more heavily embroidered dresses were also usually worn by married women in this region.
All of the areas mentioned above traditionally used the cross stitch as the main stitch for their embroidery, but Bethlehem is distinguished for its use of the couching (tahriri) embroidery showcased best on the Malak thobe. One of the most well-known qabbah designs from this region was a design of multiple squares. The center square would have been filled by the presence of a beautiful circular, floral motif in the middle (sometimes containing a cross instead of a flower) with four floral circles in the corners. The spaces between these circles were filled with curvilinear patterns completed using the tahriri stitch. This center square was surrounded by 3 larger squares, each with different motifs and all were bridged together by use of the decorative herringbone (sabaleh) stitch.
Women from Bethlehem and in surrounding villages also used cross stitch for their “everyday” dresses stitching geometric motifs and others. Another characteristic of this region was the silk appliques applied with tishrim stitches.
Similar in some ways to the style of historic Bethlehem, historic dresses from the Jerusalem area also showcase the floral and circular Sa’aat (watches) motifs completed using the tahriri stitch while employing silk threads on silk fabric.
These are just a few designs that I am able to highlight from these larger areas based on my exposure to these dresses in particular. However, it must be noted that although these styles represent the most dominant or well known samples from each respective region, these are not the only designs and styles that were used.
You may come across via your own experience, in books, private collections and elsewhere dresses that originate from these areas but do not represent the most common or characteristic style as I have shown in photographs above. There are many reasons for this - historically people may have moved, marriages between individuals originating from different cities/villages/regions may have occurred, and styles of course change over time. It is only natural to see ideas, styles, motifs, colors, and materials merging and evolving on dresses over time, especially post-1948. For example, my grandmother was forced out of her village during the Nakba (1948). She moved with her family to the Ramallah area and a lot of her later dresses were influenced by the Ramallah style or by other women in the camp who came from various towns and villages.
However, no matter where an individual originated from historically or today, the qabbah or chest piece remains an important part of the thobe design. It historically reflected a woman’s embroidery skill and her design expertise as each chest piece reflected the artistry of the embroider. As I consider the chest piece today, I’m still wondering about answers to many historical questions. What marks the beginning of the arch or V-shaped trend on the chest pieces of various regions? When did the embroidery of the chest piece on a separate piece of fabric which was later attached to the thobe begin? Was this always the case? Or was it the clever nature of Palestinian grandmothers like my own so they could spoil their grandchildren with marvelous treasures that always came out as a show of love and endearment?