Blog 35 Tulle-bi-telli: The Shimmering Fabric of Assuit.
Tulle-bi-telle: The Shimmering Fabric of Assuit.
As a textile designer I am always on the look-out for unusual fabrics and few years ago, I came across one such piece. To be exact, it was a shawl rather than just a length of fabric and which I had often seen in Art Deco fashion collections or in the glamorous scenes from the old movies; Cecil B DeMille’s extravagant productions of “Samson and Delilah” and “Cleopatra”, to name but two. The fabric in the shawl we have come to know as Tulle-bi-telli or Assuit (Asyut). Loosly translated, Tulle-bi-telle means “coated tulle or net” because of its shimmering appearance and Assuit refers to the town of Asyut, an area in Upper Egypt which made these shawls. For a while, I had no idea what I would do with the shawl except get it out every now and again and admire its beauty. In the end, I took the plunge and found a dressmaker who could make it into a stunning dress which I will treasure forever. The dressmaker was sympathetic; such a fabric must not be butchered and it is not easy to work with. It’s beauty lies not only in the shimmer it creates but in the drape due to the heaviness of it. We cut a slit in the top and created a classic cowl neckline – et voila, along with a string of pearls, I was transported back into another era.
So what exactly is Assuit or Tulle-bi telli? The fabric is essentially a shawl, 2mtres x 1mtre wide. The base cloth is a net (tulle) on which a design of beaten metal is sewn into the holes to form a design. Because of the net, the designs are almost always geometric. The art of decorating a type of net with beaten metal is not new. Examples of it were found in the tombs of the Pharoahs and in most cases the metallic thread was gold. It has also been popular through the ages as shown in portraits of royalty from the 18th and 19th centuries. In parts of Turkey, they still embroider with metallic thread.
With Tulle-bi-telli, small strips of silver-coated metal, about 45 cm long and just under 1/2 cm wide, are sewn through the holes of the net and which aids in creating the design. With each “stitch”, the strip is bent down on itself with the fingernail to keep it in place. When the shawl is complete, the fabric is passed through rollers to ensure it is perfectly flat. The finished product gives such a beautiful shimmer which looks as if the entire fabric is covered with metal thread. The usual tulle colour is a white/ivory but quite often the fabric can be dyed, usually black which also has its own unique beauty as the metal design is enhanced against the black background.
In his book, “Striking Cabbies of Cairo and Other Stories: The Crafts and Guilds in Egypt 1863-1914” John T. Chalcraft states that this trade relied on the cheapness and availability of female labour and the women worked on small returns because wages were considered only as a means of supplementing the household income. The geographical dispersment of the villages around the town of Asyut also meant that the women were paid below subsistence rates. Then, as now in many parts of the world, these women were easy targets for exploitation. Fabric merchants in Asyut distributed white tulle and tulle thread via intermediaries to the workers in the surrounding villages. When the finished shawl was completed, it was taken back to the merchants by the workers themselves in order to be paid. The shawl was paid by weight. (2 piastres for a heavier one and 1 piastre for a lighter weight) Although the shawls compact to a small size and can be kept in a small cloth bag, as my own is, they are quite heavy – 1 1/2 kilos on average. The cheap machine-made thread was imported from France or Germany but the cotton cloth was either spun and dyed partly by locals or imported from cities in Europe such as Manchester. Competition with machine -made cloth had yet to effect this production.
Assuit shawls were very much in demand in Cairo and according to surveys taken in the mid 1920’s, the output was greater between 1908 and 1912. In 1897, Egypt boasted over 9,000 tailors but by 1917, that figure had reached 29,000 comprising tailors, clothiers and costumers. Much of the increase was probably in part due to disruptions in Europe during the Great War and to the European fashions of Upper-class Europeans favouring flowing robes and turbans. Tulle-bi-telli lends itself particularly well to the style and fashions of Art Deco and was very much in demand. As with the Delphos dress created by Mariano Fortuny, the rich and the famous vied with each other to wear clothing made from one or more of these shawls. With the advent of the film industry, movie moguls such as Cecil B. Demille took to the exoticism of the East for their settings. Belly dancers such as Taheya Carioca and Samira Gamal are seen weaving their magic on the big screen whilst wearing Tulle-bi-telli, as is Hedy Lamarr in Samson and Delilah. Even Rudolf Valentino wears assuit in one of his films. Much later, the great couture houses such as Dior and Jean-Paul Gaultier reworked the styles but the fabric always remained true to it’s original beauty.
In Egypt, it was customary for every bride in the Saidi region, to be presented with a shawl prior to her marriage by either her own family or the groom’s. Usually this was used as it was originally intended – as a shawl, or made into a galabeya.
Tulle-bi-telli is still made in Egypt today, but in Suhag and not in Asyut. Much of it ends up in the tourist shops in Cairo. Today’s fabric is much coarser than the antique cloth which is soft and slightly stretchy. Artisans say the old technique is much more time-consuming with the soft tulle as the holes are smaller and it takes longer to pass the thread through the holes.
And so, I ponder when I will next wear my exotic Tulle-bi-telli. Perhaps the Orient Express – or The Pera Palace Hotel in Istanbul. Until then, it remains folded in its little bag, a reminder that we can all dream big.
“The Embroiderer” is a beautifully written novel spanning the 19th and 20th centuries, set against the backdrop of the Greek War of Independence. It was published on 5th November 2014 and is available to buy in paperback and as an ebook.