23 January 2010

From the archive: Fatimid Embroidered Milhafa

Fatimid Embroidered Milhafa
Julia May, aka: Sayyeda Samia al-Kaslaania
Copyright 2004, revised 2010.

Within the SCA we have the opportunity to research social history in such a way that the study of history comes to life in our hands. Our stated area of focus is pre-Seventeenth Century Europe, concentrating on the Western High Middle Ages[1]. Through casual research we encounter European countries bordering the Mediterranean and discover it is not so far a leap across that great waterway to any area that was controlled by the Byzantine and Islamic empires. It is within this greater context that the following research is presented.

Wraps in the Medieval Mediterranean were as ubiquitous as the women who wore them. To the Roman woman it was her palla, protecting her from the elements; to the Byzantine woman it was the paludamentium, protecting her embellished clothing from excessive wear; and to the Muslim woman is was the izar, protecting her from unwanted attention.

In recreating the dress of a Fatimid woman from Cairo in the eleventh century, I have made a specific izar called a milhafa. It is approximately 1-½ yards wide by 3-½ yards long and is frequently pictured as worn over the head and around the back with the decorative borders “ribboning” down the front. Ideally, a garment of this fine quality would also be perfumed[2].
Bibliotheque Nationale, Paris. Arabe 5847, fol. 125, Maqâma 40 : Abû Zayd devant le cadi

Defining which Arabian wrap a person is looking at is no small undertaking. The large rectangular wrap-garments carried many names. They are defined by the size and adornment, fabric weight, and weave—and also by the way the garment is worn and who is wearing it[3]. On top of that many names for these wraps were used synonymously. 

A unique fabric often used for a milhafa was called jallaya. The term loosely translates to “shiny” or “glossy” and it was a highly prized fabric according to the Geniza bridal trousseau records. Interestingly, jallaya fabric was only used for the milhafa according to those records[4]. It is from this description that I connected the idea for this garment to a well-loved but unused fabric in my stash: the body of my milhafa is a 90% linen, 10% metal blend and nearly sheer with a distinct glossy sheen.

The borders adorning the short ends of the garment (called mutarraf) depict a repeating motif of paired stylized peacocks dancing under the tree of life[5]. Each pair of peacocks is worked in a solid color of turquoise, red, green, or purple, using silk-ivory yarn and worked in both split stitch and satin stitch. The seams are flat felled and the hems are finished with a running catch stitch. The borders are applied with a modified slip stitch. The linen used for the borders is orange shot with red.
Samia's embroidery of peacocks

Birds were a popular motif among Islamic decoration, with the word “mutayyar” meaning “birded,” indicating that a fabric is adorned with birds[6]. The particular design for the mutarraf on this milhafa comes from an extant Fatimid textile fragment held in the Asmolean Museum[7]. Though Marianne Ellis in her 2001 publication indicated that this peacock fragment on linen ground was probably for furnishing she does not elaborate, whereas Stillman notes that—although there is nearly identical overlap in the types of fabrics used for furnishing and clothing among the Geniza—linen appears rarely in the furnishing category and quite often among the clothing[8].
Extant image of peacocks.  Ashmolean Museum, University of Oxford, 1993.248
 
Variations from the extant peacock design occur in part because I chose to narrow the
complexity of the design (seen when comparing the tree of life between the extant fragment, above, and my milhafa, far above) and to lend better identification of the creatures as peacocks—by making the “eye” of the feather more pronounced and adding the feather crowns to each peacock[9]. The embroidery on the extant fragment is executed in silk. My choice for silk-ivory (a 50/50 blend of silk and wool) is simply because of easy availability of the product.

Mediterranean textile historians are blessed with the deserts of Egypt and the desiccated treasures held therein. Utilizing discoveries of the extant textiles used in the period under study in conjunction with written records and illuminated images, we can produce reasonable facsimiles of everyday items from period. As an armchair historian, I believe that I have brought together sufficient research and scholarship to showcase this milhafa as a garment for a Fatimid woman.
Samia and her partner.


[2] Stillman, Yedida K., Norman A. Stillman, ed. Arab Dress from the Dawn of Islam to Modern times: A Short History.  Boston: Brill, 2003.
[3] Stillman, Yedida K. Female Attire of Medieval Egypt: According to the Trousseau Lists and Cognate Material from the Cairo Geniza. PhD Dissertation. Unpublished: University of Chicago, 1972.
[4] Stillman, Yedida K. “New Data on Islamic Textiles from the Geniza.” David Waines, ed., Patterns of Everyday Life. (Series: The Formation of the Classical Islamic World, 10). Aldershot, Hampshire: Ashgate Variorum, 2002.
[5] Stillman, 2002, pp. 205. “If a piece of cloth for a shawl or cloak had a single central colour with a different colour at each edge, it was called mutarraf--that is, like a horse whose head and tail are black and whose body is white, or vice versa.”
[6] Stillman, 1972, p. 42.
[7] Ellis, Marianne. Embroideries and Samplers from Islamic Egypt. University of Oxford, Ashmolean Museum: University of Oxford, 2001. Image 4, p. 15.
[8] Stillman, 1997, pp 38-39.
[9] The feather crown can be seen on peacocks on a silk woven fragment contemporary with the extant peacocks here. (Patricia Baker, Islamic Textiles. 1995, p 42).

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