29 March 2010

Medieval Islamic cloak-type wraps:Material Culture fourteen: A&S 50 Challenge

Medieval Islamic Cloak-type Wraps
Sayyeda Samia al-Kaslaania
Copyright March 2010, Julia May

Protecting one from the sun, the cold, and the eyes of the unknown, cloak-type wraps were, and continue to be, an important part of the material culture of the Middle East. Wraps are simply large rectangles of fabric draped and pinned to conceal the body, yet there were no fewer than ten different types of wraps used in the Fatimid period of Middle Eastern history.

Studying Fatimid clothing
Many sources aid modern researchers in the study of Fatimid period clothing in Cairo (969-1171 C.E.). Primary among them is a collection of hundreds of extant documents discovered outside Cairo in a geniza, or storehouse. Many of these documents are trade records and bridal trousseau lists which describe the colors, style, and adornment of clothing and household objects. Another significant research source is the large number of extant Fatimid fabrics now housed all over the world, owing to the dry climate of Egypt which preserves abandoned textiles. Additionally, there are secular illuminated manuscripts, the creation of which reached its height in the thirteenth century.

Figure 1 Women listening from the gallery. Image from the Maqāmāt al-Ḥarīrī. MS Arabe 5847, fol. 58v, detail. Bibliotheque Nationale, Paris. Note: borders and colors of the over-wraps.
There are, of course, limitations to the sources. First, the contemporary writers whose records exist in the Cairo Geniza inherently knew the differences between clothing types and therefore only recorded details which distinguished, say, two ridâ’ from each other, instead of a ridâ’ from a mulâ’a. While that information might give a baseline, it becomes muddled as writers from different generations would use different words to describe the same garments. Second, many of the extant fabrics known today were discovered by nineteenth century archeologists who would cut apart garments to keep only the repeat, decoration, or design. Further, the beautiful illuminated story books still in existence were not created in the Fatimid period, but some one hundred years later. And finally, Scholars over the last 70 years have used different standards of transliteration (for example, Koran and Qur’an) when looking at the same extant manuscripts.

Known elements of Fatimid costume
  • In one collection of extant Fatimid fabrics studied by Kühnel and Bellinger, the loom widths range from 0.665 meters to 0.992 meters. Items that don’t have both selvedges attached reach up to 1.016m (about 40 inches) along the weft.
  •          Linen was traded more than any other commodity in medieval Cairo markets. Among the fibers, wool production and usage follows next. And while sericulture was practiced in Fatimid Egypt, silk is used quite a bit less than wool. Cotton usage trails at a distant fourth (Goitein). 
  •            Fabrics were produced in a rainbow of colors at this time. Color names used include snow, pearl, cloud, silver, lead, soot, pepper, sky blue, turquoise, pistachio, emerald, pomegranate, pink, purple, violet, crimson, ruby, purple-brown, apricot, bitter orange, sandalwood, saffron, safflower, and sandgrouse, plus many more (Stillman 1972).
  •           In the Fatimid period, Muslims, Jews, and Christians lived, worked, and shopped side by side. They all spoke Arabic in daily interactions and dressed much the same as each other.
Figure 2 Two men talking. Image from Kalila wa Dimna, MS Arabe 3465, fol. 15v, detail. Bibliotheque Nationale, Paris. circa 1200 Syria. Note: two ways of wearing their wraps.

Fatimid period cloak-wraps
Of the eleven known Fatimid wraps, six have been fairly well identified by Yedida Stillman in her dissertation examining the bridal trousseaux found in the Cairo Geniza. The remaining five are still somewhat elusive. Unless otherwise noted, all references in this theme are to Stillman’s dissertation, listed below in the references section.

26 March 2010

Embroidered Fatimid Northshield-y griffin: Material Culture thirteen: A&S 50 Challenge

This medallion measures six inches across. The ground is linen (black warp and white weft) and the embroidery is worked in linen and silk-ivory (a blend of silk and wool). The design is based on an extant Fatimid ceramic bowl, luster-painted in one color. The bowl is housed in the Museum of Islamic Art, Cairo, item 14930 and was featured in Jenkins, Marilyn. "Muslim: An Early Fatimid Ceramist." The Metropolitan Museum of Art Bulletin, v. 26, no. 9 (May, 1968).

I was delighted to find the bowl as it neatly brought together three elements: the Fatimid period, a griffin (the mascot of Northshield), and it could be altered to echo the compass rose motif (also associated with Northshield). To emphasize the compass rose, I simplified the filler between the cardinal points, and highlighted the north indicator circle with the only white embroidery on the piece.

I wanted the griffin to be gold (a Northshield convention), and I selected colors from my stash that would accent it. I used stitches found in extant embroidered Fatimid pieces—stem stitch, split stitch, and chain stitch—that were best suited to the different thicknesses of the yarns I selected.

It was amazingly difficult to transfer the design onto this dark fabric. I ultimately scaled the design to six inches on the computer, printed it, taped the printout to a sunny window and pinned the fabric to the paper. I used a light colored fabric pencil to trace the general design, then pulled it down and filled in the details with chalk. Because of the nature of embroidery (essentially plunking the fabric every time the needle is drawn through, which causes the chalk to loosen and float away) I used a narrow needle and sewing thread the “draw” the design in running stitch over the chalk, and then covered the running stitch with the embroidery.

For more information on extant Medieval Islamic embroidery see:
Ellis, Marianne. Embroideries and Samplers from Islamic Egypt. University of Oxford, Ashmolean Museum: University of Oxford, 2001.

19 March 2010

A&S50 Challenge: Material Culture Twelve: European Medieval Hood

A&S50 Challenge: Material Culture Twelve: European Medieval Hood
Sayyeda Samia al-Kaslaania

This is a project I’ve been working on for a while with the intention of making houppelandes and cotehardies for myself and Oswald. I finally finished the hood for Oswald only to figure out that I never measured his head three years ago when drafting the pieces. Sigh. So I promptly gave that one away to someone who would love it. For the life of me I cannot remember who, and I never got a picture. It was royal purple (Medieval royal purple, as opposed to modern) and finished in blue edging.

I tried again! And promptly made another one too small for my love. This one traveled to Castel Rouge and was put in the Investiture basket of the new Baron and Baroness. The pattern came from the Honorable Lady Petranella when she helped me with fussy details of making houppelandes three years ago now. When searching for period images of hoods like these I see that Cynthia Virtue had the same idea about the pattern, so I’ve included Ms. Virtue’s link here:

It’s intended to be worn with 14th century clothing. Wool in the winter to conserve heat and shed snow and water, linen in the summer to protect from the sun.

This one is a lovely lightweight wool in a green herringbone weave. It is stitched with gold silk-wool blended yarn in a button-hole/blanket stitch to keep the seams flat. It took a drive to Winnipeg to complete. Both this and the purple one were cut from leftover yardage. Once I get one made for Oswald it will be trimmed with fur.

11 March 2010

From the archive: Hais (fruit and nut cabobs)

Hais (fruit and nut cabobs)
Sayyeda Samia al-Kaslaania
copyright Julia May 2010

Take fine dry bread, or biscuit, and grind up well. Take a ratl of this, and three quarters of a ratl of fresh or preserved dates with the stones removed, together with three uqiya of ground almonds and pistachios. Knead all together very well with the hands. Refine two uqiya of sesame-oil, and pour over, working with the hand until it is mixed in. Make into cabobs, and dust with fine-ground sugar. If desired, instead of sesame-oil use butter. This is excellent for travelers.
--al-Baghdadi, A Baghdad Cookery Book (1226 A.D./623 A.H.), A.J. Arberry, tr., Islamic Culture 1939.

I made this recipe a number of years ago for a showcase. I made notes more than redactions at that time, so I’ll expand on things. When reading this recipe the first thing that stands out is the measurements. They’re not what we expect, and it really alters how we read a recipe. So I did some digging and found these conversion notes:

1 ratl = 1 lb = 1 pint; 12 uqiya = 1 ratl; 10 dirham = 1 uqiya; 6 danaq = 1 dirham (information from Arberry's introduction to his translation of al-Baghdadi).

I made my own chart based on this information, noting that the recipe only calls for amounts of “uqiya” and “ratl”, which is 12:1. I then replaced quantities with something I was familiar with.

12 parts= 1 c
9 parts= ¾ c
3 parts= ¼ c
2 parts= 3 T

Take fine dry bread, or biscuit, and grind up well. Take [12 parts] of this, and [9 parts] of fresh or preserved dates with the stones removed, together with [3 parts] of ground almonds and pistachios. Knead all together very well with the hands. Refine [2 parts] of sesame-oil, and pour over, working with the hand until it is mixed in. Make into cabobs, and dust with fine-ground sugar.

Now that it’s easier to read, here are then things that stand out. Biscuits have more fat than bread. Fresh and preserved dates would have different liquid contents (though I’ve never seen a fresh date in Minnesota). Butter is solid at room temperature, while sesame oil is not. Note that in this cookbook “cabob” is a shape.

2 c bread crumbs
1 1/2 c dried dates
½ c almonds
½ c pistachios
6 T butter or plain sesame oil (not toasted)

Mincing dates is a pain, but the finer the better with this recipe. My little food processor was employed for the nuts to make them finer than store-bought. It’s important to note the difference between Asian toasted sesame oil and Mediterranean sesame oil. Not only are they night and day in color, but also in flavor. It is not an acceptable substitution.

No matter what I did these little guys were not “good for traveling”. They were tasty, but very crumbly. I would suggest starting with biscuits if doing this again to see if the extra fat helps make them firm up without getting greasy. I would also spend some time in the Mediterranean groceries asking about dates to find out which are stickier than others.