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Damascus Ma'loula


Homs Palmyra

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Damascene brocade. Damascene damask

Silk damask and gold brocade were and are the most costly of the traditional textiles produced in Damascus. After the collapse of the textile market in the mid-nine­teenth century, Damascus deliberately concentrated on the production of these luxury fabrics for a well-heeled local and European clientele. But despite many efforts and the introduction of Jacquard looms, the production of the beautiful fabrics with their delicate and complicated patterns has now almost vanished. Of the old looms only a handful are still in operation, most now lie unused as sad piles of timber.

There was nostalgia in the eyes and voice of the merchants and the old weaver of Nassan & Co. in Damascus when they showed us their brocades and explained the patterns with their romantic names: one pattern that is still sought-after is called "Queen Elizabeth" or "Lovebirds". According to the stories, Queen Elizabeth of England was asked at the time of her coronation what she wanted as a present from Syria. Her reply was silk brocade. When she was asked about the pattern, she is supposed to have drawn the "Lovebirds", which were then woven by the weavers. Also impressive are patterns such as the "Rose of Damascus", "Narcissi", in the silk damasks fine paisley patterns, the "Fighting Crusaders" and "Para­dise Lost" - the latter only exist as pattern samples kept with their punched cards in the hope that they may one day be ordered again by a customer. Nassau & Co. is a family business. During the Ottoman Empire and at the beginning of the century it was still a large factory and untaxed, with such a big turnover that the owners could afford the money necessary to spare their staff military service. Until around 1958 two workers operated each of the twenty or so looms, weaving the brocades in three, five or seven colours with the corresponding patterns. Today only two looms are left. In the past die making of brocade and damask was almost exclusively the preserve of Chris­tians, but gradually an increasing number of Kurdish weavers have been moving into this field. The cards for the few Jacquard looms still in operation continue to be made by Armenians. Until the 1960s tourists were still frequent customers, but now production is mostly for the local market, since damasks and brocades have become very popular as upholstery materials, and are hardly used at all for clothing. The goods for sale are accordingly sorted, above all by colours and patterns, and new ones to suit the wishes of the customers are designed to order. The new patterns are not, however, woven on the old looms oper­ated by hand, but on the electric looms. Nevertheless brocade is still a very costly textile and, like Syria's other traditional fabrics, it is coming under increasing pressure from the cheaper textiles made of artificial fibres. Among these other textiles no longer produced in Damascus is Damascene ikat. The introduction of artificial silk around 1930 caused the first setback for ikat cloth, then in 1947 the war in Palestine meant the loss of the traditional market for the material, since Damascene ikat had been bought mainly by Palestinians.

It is probably too late to increase the production of brocade and damask - and this is true also of other tradi­tional crafts. The old weavers are no longer working and there is no new generation to follow them. So these precious fabrics seem destined for a marginal existence, appreciated by only a few and by foreigners. Some of the merchants are less sentimental. Some people die at the right time, said one of them, perhaps the weaver will die when nobody wants his textiles any more. Of course this is very sad, for the silk will die with him.

The old weaver, bent over his loom with tired eyes, concentrating hard, paused in his work to show us with a smile the damask he was weaving. Presumably lie never possessed a piece of this cloth himself. The fine silk damask with its shimmering colours was exquisitely beautiful. We were allowed to take a pattern strip with us - we chose "Paradise Lost" in blue.

Wajdy moustapha

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Textile Stories

    The production of fabrics  The twister



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