The Origins of Embroidery in Sicily
The Story of the Arab Tiraz Workshops
At MANIMA we celebrate the tradition of hand embroidery in Sicily. Over a thousand years old, it is known and recognised around the world and is an integral part of Sicily’s culture. What’s not commonly known, is the origins of embroidery and this tradition, and from where it comes. The first records we have of textile workshops in Sicily were the Arab Tiraz workshops.
Tiraz textile workshops were an integral part of the medieval Islamic world, particularly during the Abbasid Caliphate (750-1258 AD). The term tiraz is an Arabic word that means ‘embroidery’ or ‘inscriptions’. These workshops specialised in the production of luxurious embroidered textiles, often commissioned by the ruling elite. The tiraz workshops were typically established within royal palaces or specialised production centres in major cities such as Baghdad, Cairo and Damascus. They employed skilled artisans, including weavers, embroiderers, dyers and calligraphers, who worked together to create exquisite textiles.
The textiles produced in tiraz workshops were highly valued and had multiple purposes. They were used as clothing, furnishings and gifts for the caliphs, sultans and other elite members of society. These textiles often featured intricate patterns, vibrant colours and elaborate inscriptions, including religious verses, blessings or the names of rulers.
How the Origins of Embroidery were a Show of Authority
The embroidery techniques employed in tiraz workshops were highly advanced, utilising gold and silver threads, silk and other luxurious materials. The designs incorporated geometric patterns, stylised floral motifs and calligraphic scripts, creating visually stunning and culturally significant textiles. Still today geometric patterns and floral motifs play a strong part in the designs of Sicilian embroiderers, showing the strength and influence of the lasting Arab legacy.
The inscriptions found on tiraz textiles often served as markers of authority and ownership. The name of the ruling caliph or sultan, as well as the location and date of production, were commonly woven into the fabric. These inscriptions symbolised the patronage of the ruling elite and emphasised their authority and legitimacy. Tiraz textiles played an essential role in projecting power and establishing political connections. They were often given as diplomatic gifts to foreign rulers, ambassadors, or dignitaries, showcasing the wealth and cultural sophistication of the Islamic rulers. These textiles served as a form of soft power, representing the artistic and technical prowess of the Islamic world.
In addition to their aesthetic and political significance, tiraz textiles also had economic implications. The production of these luxury textiles supported a network of skilled artisans and craftsmen, creating employment opportunities and driving economic growth. The demand for tiraz textiles extended beyond the Islamic world, reaching as far as Europe, where they were highly prized and sought after.
From the Origins of Embroidery to Regional Developments
Over time, tiraz workshops spread throughout the Islamic world, adapting to regional styles and influences. Each region developed its unique techniques and designs, resulting in a rich diversity of textiles. In a similar manner to here in Sicily, in Al-Andalus (Islamic Spain), tiraz workshops incorporated elements of Roman, Byzantine and Visigothic artistic traditions, blending them with Islamic motifs and calligraphy.
The decline of the tiraz textile workshops across the Arab world can be attributed to various factors, including political instability, economic changes, and the rise of global trade routes. The Mongol invasions, the Crusades, and the shift of political power to other regions affected the patronage and production of luxury textiles.
The Lasting Legacy the Tiraz Workshops
Nevertheless, the legacy of tiraz textiles lives on in the surviving artefacts and historical accounts, and here in Sicily variants of its techniques are still practised and developed today. Many of these textiles are preserved in museums and private collections worldwide, serving as a testament to the artistic achievements of the medieval Islamic world and the importance of tiraz workshops in shaping its cultural landscape.
In Southern Italy, and particularly in Sicily, the legacy of the tiraz workshops thrives today. While by no means the only influence on the culture of embroidery that exists here in Sicily, with Norman, Spanish, Byzantine and Classical influences being equally strong, the tiraz shops are the first records we have of organised embroidery at such a scale. Notably embroidery was significant within the Byzantine and Greek cultures that had previously taken over the island; however the Saracens developed embroidery on the island to a scale it had never seen before.
We are proud to bear the legacy of a tradition over a thousand years old. MANIMA we strive to empower our artisans, to value their work, in the hope that we can protect this tradition and that in another thousand years it will still be preserved for future generations to enjoy.
by Will Scott