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Assuit shimmering "Fabric of Egypt"

Ancient Asyut

Is where we find the beginnings of this beautiful fabric from an ancient Egyptian city from which the name of the fabric is derived.

The early Egyptian Zawty (late Egyptian, Səyáwt) adopted into the Coptic as Syowt , which means "Guardian" of the northern approach of Upper Egypt. In Graeco-Roman Egypt, it was called LycopolisIt is from this historic and ancient city rich in tradtion and a wealth of imported goods that the fabric was created and traded and sold. Asyut was the capital of the Thirteenth Nome of Upper Egypt (Lycopolites Nome) around 3100 BC. It was located on the western bank of the Nile.

There were two prominent gods of Ancient Egyptian Asyut, Anubis and Wepwawet, both funerary deities.

Asyut was the end of 40 Day Road that connected the city to Darfur. The history of the road, known by local herders as Darb al-Arba'in, goes back over 700 years. It was used as a pathway for great caravans of up to 12,000 camels at its peak in the 14th century.

Now lets get back to the Fabric. Tulle-bi-telli, also known as Assuit, is a textile marrying cotton or linen mesh with small strips of metal. The fabric is not documented prior to the 19th century, though similar textiles existed in the Middle East in earlier times. Other spellings include assuite, asyut, assyut, asyute, and azute. The name translates roughly as "net with metal". Assuit has great lateral elasticity, thanks to its openwork mesh. It is heavy, and retains heat, but is favored for its ability to drape and the shimmer of the metal.

The base material is called bobbinet, which is a machine-made fabric made of cotton or, in older pieces, linen. The embroidery is applied by hand. Thin strips of alloy are threaded onto a flat, wide needle with a flat, wide eye. Alloy is most often used because pure silver will blacken with age and can be impossible to clean, and gold would be too costly but there are pieces with silver and gold plate.

Each strip is approximately 1/8" wide and 18" to 24" long. The strips are threaded into the mesh, criss-crossed, flattened with the fingernails, and cut. The fabric is then stamped down, and when the designs are finished, the fabric is passed through a roller to flatten the metal even more.

Through history, metal thread embroidery has been used extensively throughout the Middle East, Asia, and parts of Europe. References are made to its use with Egyptian linen in the Bible. Also, 3,000‑year‑old specimens of netting made with flax are preserved in the Museum of Montbijou, Berlin.

Zardozi is a metalworking embroidery that has more of a three dimensional effect.

With Assuit the hand-made net becomes one of intricate design; each net composed of some 365 individual fibers.

The dye techniques used were equally sophisticated; metallic salts to improve the fastness of dyes has been found in textiles in tombs dating from before 1500 BC. These early embroideries were done with the application of precious metals, especially gold. The pure metal was beaten into thin plates, divided into small slips which were rounded by a hammer, and then filed to form wire. Few remains of ancient wire work have been found.

In the late 19th century, Orientalism became very popular and tourism to the Middle East grew. Merchants in the town of Asyut began making shawls by using Turkish metal embroidery on leftover mosquito nets, perhaps in imitation of these ancient fabrics. Locally called tulle bitalli ("plated" or "coated"), it was named "Assuit" after the city in which it was sold. As it became more popular, bobbinet material was used, but it continued (and still continues) to be hand-embroidered.

Modern Asyut:

The city is one of the only cities in the world that still makes silver appliqué-work shawls and is home to a large textile industry. The city also produces fine pottery, inlaid woodwork, and rugs.

Assuit shawls were very much in demand in Cairo in the mid 1920’s, the output was greater between 1908 and 1912. In 1897, Egypt claimed over 9,000 tailors but by 1917, that figure had reached 29,000 comprising tailors, clothiers and costumers. Much of the increase was probably in part due to disruptions in Europe during the Great War and to the European fashions of Upper-class Europeans favoring flowing robes and turbans in the height of the Art Deco Movement.

Tulle-bi-telli lends itself particularly well to the style and fashions of Art Deco and was in high demand.

For dresses such as the Delphos dress below created by Mariano Fortuny, the rich and the famous vied with each other to wear clothing made from these shawls.

Delphos Gown

With the advent of the film industry, movie moguls such as Cecil B. Demille took to the exoticism of the East for their settings. Such as the lost Opus Cleopatra and this still from the set of Intolerance.

D W Griffiths 1916 Intolerance.

Claudett Colbert 1934 Cleopatra by Cecil B deMille

The Egyptian film industry was booming as well and Belly dance legends such as

Taheya Carioca

and Samia Gamal. Are seen weaving their magic on the big screen with the magic of Tulle-bi-telli.

below is a lovely studio shot from the US with Hedy Lamarr in Samson and Delilah from1949.

Even Rudolf Valentino can be seen wearing Assuit in the young Raja 1922

And the elegant Clara Bow below from It 1927

In Egypt, it was customary for every bride in the Saidi region, to be presented with a shawl prior to her marriage by either her own family or the groom’s. Usually this was used as it was originally intended – as a shawl, or made into a galabeya.

Tulle-bi-telli is still made in Egypt today, but often in Suhag and not just in Asyut. Much of it ends up in the tourist shops in Cairo.

Today’s fabric is coarser than the antique cloth which is soft and slightly stretchy. Artisans say the old technique is much more time-consuming with the soft tulle as the holes are smaller and it takes longer to pass the thread through the holes.

1915 Photo study by George Herbert

Hand tinted card of Princess Mazilla early 1900's

It was also worn draped over the head, as wraps, and as wedding gowns. It can also be used for decoration: Piano shawls were extremely popular, and specimens can still be found occasionally in antique shops.

Shawls come in different sizes, shapes and colors: most are long and narrow, and the designs vary, ranging from the simple to the elaborate. Some people believe designs have been passed down through families, as with weaving and embroidery work. Some designs appear to be intentionally left incomplete. The most popular shapes are diamonds, triangles, and images of dancers, camels, urns, papyrus, flowers, and tents.

Coptic Christian designs often have animal and human figures, whereas Muslim shawls rely on geometric designs.

In some places, Assuit shawls are incorrectly referred to as Coptic shawls.

We see the geometric designs that were popular with the Art Deco movement, beginning around 1920's and they have remained the standard over the years.

Assuit has remained popular with Egyptian Bellydancers through the years below In the 70's we have Nagwa Fouad.

Much later, the great couture houses such as Dior and Jean-Paul Gaultier reworked the styles but the fabric always remained true to it’s original beauty.

Below Galliano for Dior in 1998.

Assuit has come back into popularity with dancers and finding a modern piece in a multitude of colors is quite east and affordable.

Many vintage pieces have been put up on the market now that there is a bigger demand for the vintage fabrics a well cared for shawl can sell for up to $3,000

Some of Shahravar's collection of antique assuit.

Dont miss this great new book on the market with info and pics to oogle.


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