Textile manufacturing is the oldest handicraft industry in Syria. Its future rests in blending modern design with traditional manufacturing techniques.
Photos Adel Samara
In a windowless room lit up by three ageing neon lights, a small ventilator fan struggles to do much more that let out a painful drone. Despite the less than ideal work conditions, 33-year-old Tarek Ghrawi appears more than comfortable in his surroundings. Nothing in this workshop is going to change soon.
“If you don’t love this job, you can’t do it,” Ghrawi says. “Actually, sometimes on Friday I find myself wishing I could go to work.”
Perched above the stalls of Souk Al-Khayatin (The Tailors’ Souk), not far from the Umayyad Mosque in the Old City of Damascus, Ghrawi spends up to 10 hours a day preparing the designs for what will eventually be countless metres of Damascene aghabani, a fabric which traditionally features silk embroidery on cotton or linen. Using a collection of handmade wooden stamps dipped in a zinc and starch concoction, Ghrawi stamps out designs and patterns which are then embroidered onto the material.
“No machine can do the stamping,” Ghrawi says, proudly displaying a crimson-coloured tablecloth embellished with intricate embroidery. “There was someone here doing my job 300 years ago and, inshallah, there will be someone else here in 300 years doing it as well.”
Down the road, at the Azem School for Oriental Crafts, Ghrawi’s passion and pride is echoed by the elder trader Marouf Khoury. As he rolls out a sample of brocade, the glitter in his eyes is matched by the shine of the 21-carat gold slithers woven through the white fabric. The design is called ‘lovebirds’ and was presented to Queen Elizabeth by the Syrian government as a coronation gift.
“People use brocade as a sign of wealth, to show off their rank,” Khoury said. “It’s a material for special occasions now, not for everyday events.”
Textile manufacturing is one of the oldest industries in Syria. It began more than 4,000 years ago, with surviving Sumerian texts mentioning materials being exported from Ebla, an ancient city located some 55km from Aleppo. The country’s great souks rose around the textile trade and both Damascus and Aleppo were important stops on the Silk Road linking China with Europe.
The past three decades, however, have witnessed a steady decline in purchases of traditional outfits by the general public, which has dealt a heavy blow to the local handicraft textile industry. As younger generations have increasingly gravitated towards more Western-style fashion, the clothes worn by their forefathers have now become the exception, rather than the rule.
“There are some months when we do not sell any outfits,” Izzat Jameel al-Nukta, owner of a small textile stall in Souk Al-Khayatin, said. “Even when people buy our clothes, they usually use them for parties, plays or as uniforms at restaurants, not because they want to wear them. Unfortunately, I don’t think there is much future in this business. It has been a family tradition for a long time, but I doubt my son will be able to continue with it.”
As if to prove his point, a pair of middle-aged women approach Nukta to enquire about a child-sized ensemble comprised of a black and gold-striped silk vest, white cotton shirt, and loose dark trousers. Rather than hinting at a fashion comeback, the motives behind the purchase seem to confirm Nukta’s gloomy forecast regarding the future of his trade.
“I want my son to feel special,” explains one of the women. “Nobody else is dressed like this these days, so he will stand out and be unique.”
Besides a shift in the public’s stylistic preferences, traditional textiles also face tough competition from modern, mass-produced materials.
“There used to be 10 looms in this courtyard alone, producing one metre of silk every seven hours,” Khoury said, as he waved a hand over the now-empty space. “These days, the looms just cannot compete with the factories.”
Indeed, of the four main types of textiles Damascus is famous for – aghabani, saia, damask and brocade – only brocade is still made by hand.
Old ways, new products
Despite the seemingly somber mood among traditional textile manufacturers and traders, a number of local producers are determined to ensure their craft will survive. The key, they say, is to review their target markets and combine old traditions with modern products.
“We are now trying to alter our focus and concentrate on other types of items like ties and scarves,” Khoury said. “These are quite popular with tourists. In some cases, consumers prefer to make their own clothes out of our materials so we simply provide them with the cloth and they can use it as they like.”
One craftsman who seems to understand the need to modernise without forgetting what has come before is Kinan Tafish, the last remaining weaver in Syria who still makes use of a loom to weave brocade. In a far corner of the Damascus Arts and Crafts Souk, surrounded by colourful scarves, shawls, ties and pillow cases, Tafish handles the hordes of tourists that visit the Ahmad Chkaki Brocade Store with the same ease as he operates his wooden machinery.
“The majority of our customers are tourists, so we have to adapt,” he said, before breaking off to respond to a client’s query in Spanish. “I’ve had to learn some key words and how to discuss prices in French, English, Italian and Spanish.”
Tafish is intent on preserving the historical traditions of his craft.
“I’ve been working here for 10 years and I’m trying very hard to find someone I can train to use the loom so that they can continue this culture, but it’s not easy,” he said.
Alongside those who have sought out innovative ways to use traditional materials, are those who are looking further afield.
“We have found exporting our silk to be a profitable venture,” Haddad said. “We regularly send large quantities of our textiles to factories in Europe and the Far East. Unfortunately, selling a few metres of textiles to local customers does not put food on the table. It’s thanks to exports that I can continue my job.”
I wrote this article together with Swiss journalist Valere de Riedmatten for Syria Today magazine.
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Four main types of silk-based textiles have traditionally been produced in Damascus. These include:
Damask: A reversible figured fabric made from cotton and silk with a pattern formed by weaving.
Brocade: The only remaining pure silk material made by hand in Damascus. The name comes from the Italian broccato, which means embossed cloth. In Syria, the material is known for its elaborate designs, with lovebirds being a popular choice.
Aghabani: Cotton or linen material with silk or fake silk embroidery, generally sold as tablecloths.
Saia: A mix of cotton and artificial silk. This fabric is usually striped and often used to make pyjamas.