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PHOTO CREDIT: Above photo by John Rickman Photography, San Jose, California.

About Assuit

by Trish St. John

 

What is assuit? Well, to anyone who's ever seen it, it's the epitome of an exotic textile. It's shimmery and glittery, yet earthy and mysterious. Yes, mysterious.

Click on any photo below to see more detail on the beautiful assuit pieces displayed.

I get questioned so much about assuit: "What is it?" "Where does it come from?" "Why is it called THAT?" but mostly "How is it made?" So I decided to write this article to answer all your questions.

Assuit, also spelled...assuite, asyut, assyut, asyute, and even azute is so named for the Asyut region of Upper Egypt where it is made. It is also known as tulle-bi-talli, literally translated as "net with plating" (such as silver plated). It's really a form of embroidery that is accomplished with thin , flat strips of metal rather than with thread made of fiber. The metal strips are worked into hexagonal mesh fabric known as tulle (hence the arabic term "tulle-bi-talli"), that is made from fine, strong cotton fibers.

It is believed that some form of metal embroidery in Egypt dates back to the ancient dynasties. Related work is found throughout the Near, Middle, and Far East. It is unclear as to when the Asyut region specifically began producing the exquisite textiles. The type of tulle used became popular in Europe in the early 19th century and the motifs and designs are definitely influenced by early Copts.

I have often heard that it was a cottage industry for blind people as a sort of community / social system by which these handicapped people could support themselves. Evidently, the design would be planned and started by sighted people and the blind artisans could finish it by touch. To me this sounds plausible, but a little farfetched — however, at a Rakkasah festival a few years ago, an Egyptian gentlemen proudly told me that he was from an area in Egypt where he had seen them made. My first question was "Is it true that they are made by blind people?" and he replied "Yes!" Perhaps he was politely telling me what he thought I wanted to hear. What do you think?

Trish St. John

Viewed at a distance it is enchanting; it drapes and gleams like liquid silver. Viewed close up, the fabric is no less mysterious. One still squints and says "How is it made?" Like this: Thin metal strips of either nickel, silver, copper, or brass plated with some mixture of silver. They are about 1/8th" wide and are threaded into a wide, flat needle with a wide, flat eye. The strips are threaded into the mesh, crossed over, flattened crisply with the fingernails, cut, then flattened into a sort of packet stamped into/onto the fabric. Each bit is about 1/8" x 1/4" long and these oblong dots are worked into designs both geometric and figural. When finished, a huge roller is passed over the textile to flatten the metal down even more. Voila! Liquid Silver!

These textiles were sold as shawls to European tourists as they poured into Egypt in the early part of the 20th century, which accounts for their presence in antique shops in the U.S. and Europe. They lent themselves well to the exotic glamour of the Roaring Twenties and Thirties and were often made into garments. Traditionally worn by Egyptian women in various ways, it had always been highly favored by dancers. Samia Gamal is seen in an Egyptian musical of the late forties draped in assuit and surrounded by a bevy of assuit-clad beauties. Much earlier still, are photos from the 20's a la National Geographic that show unveiled Egyptian women in flowing assuit gallabeyas (dresses) and assuit quite simply draped over the head. Still today, Egyptian dancers wear both loose cut and form-fitting dresses to convey the ultimate Egyptian expression of dance costuming.

Trish St. John

 

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About the Author

Hello friends. I am Trish St. John, also known as Hanan. My love and passion for the beautiful antique textiles that we know as assuit has led me to write this article. You can contact me through my facebook profile.

In addition to being a collector of assuit and designer of garments made from it, I have been a performer of Middle Eastern dance for over two decades. It was early in my path of Middle Eastern dance study that my passion for beautiful assuit textile was sparked. My fascination with assuit and all aspects of costuming has been as enjoyable for me as the dance itself.

I began taking classes in what is now referred to as American style in the early craze for belly dancing. I had never even seen a belly dancer before my first class, but I was drawn to that first class like a date with destiny. It certainly was just such a date, because my connection to this dance has never ceased.

Trish St. John

Throughout the years, I have sought out many teachers, because I feel that it is important to learn from as many as possible and staying with them long enough to inculcate the best of what they have to offer for my personal learning and dancing style. I am privileged to have had many great teachers, notably Jamila and Suhaila Salimpour, Rhea of Greece, Aisha Ali, and Horacio Cifuentes, among others. I have had master classes and workshops whenever possible with Bobby Farah, Mahmoud Reda of Egypt, Faten Salama, Dahlena and others. Eventually, my emphasis focused upon Modern Egyptian and regional Egyptian styles, but I especially have enjoyed studying other North African styles, i.e. Tunisian, Algerian and Moroccan shikhatt and guedra. I studied Moroccan dance and music in Marrakech and filmed the Marrakech Folk Festival while I was there.

Early on I started performing in San Francisco area restaurants and nightclubs and count as my venues among others: El Monsour, the Marrakesh, Kan Zaman, the Northern California Renaissance Faire, the former Grapeleaf (now El Masri), and the wonderful Bagdad and Casbah clubs on Broadway in the fabulous and exciting heyday of live music clubs in San Francisco.

My hunt for beautiful assuit continues. I sell some and keep some for my personal collection. I make tribal fusion bras with both new and antique assuit, selling them on Ebay and through private commission. Feel free to contact me at raresilver [at] sbcglobal [dot] net.

I currently reside in Alameda, California and work as a massage therapist. I continue to take classes and perform on occasion to keep my inspiration going. My handsome son (shown in the photo to the right from many years ago) is now grown and has taken up my passion for world travel.

I hope you enjoy my articles as much as I enjoy bringing them to you!

Trish St. John and Travis

 

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