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Gilded Serpent Presents..
Lace and My Muses Part 1:
Egyptian Mummy Lace
or "Assiut Cloth"

by Najia Marlyz
June 12, 2004

"What has lace got to do with dancing?"  My student asked, looking up at the handmade bobbin lace collar of silk I have framed and hung above my mirrors in the dance studio.  Since middle of the '90s, when I first conceived of the idea of creating a small personal art museum from my collections, I have had framed and hung numerous pieces of handcraft to display alongside graphic artworks throughout my entire home.  It never occurred to me that it might seem to some students a curious choice to combine with dance-especially Belly dance!  I think that my student was hoping to lure me into telling her another of my infamous stories about the history of belly dance as it developed here in the San Francisco Bay Area during the late '60s and early '70s, but moreover, she was genuinely perplexed by my choice of displaying the framed antique lace piece inside my home dance studio.

My dancing has always been surrounded and enhanced by artistic handcraft in general-and the artistry of antique lace and other interesting textile arts in particular.  Combining the movement arts with more tactile arts always seemed logical to me because I think of dancing as a classical and somewhat antique art in some forms, as are handcrafts and other artistries of antiquity.

"I'm glad that you asked!" I answered her.  I fastened around my hips a white Asiutte cloth encrusted with gold knots throughout, forming pictographs of falcons, pyramids, crosses, and diamond shaped designs.  "I'll bet you didn't know that this Egyptian antique cloth is an early lace technique that some call sprang!" I laughed, showing her the ends of the piece with its stately rows of little golden falcons formed by the flattened knots embedded in a white ground of twisted net. Even today, Egyptians have begun to produce these pieces once again that used to originate mostly in a village named Asiutte, Egypt.  However, these new pieces they are producing these days do not have the softness of those older versions mainly because the ground net of the newer ones is produced by machine.  Machine-made netting, though it softens somewhat with repeated washing, will never equal the fine, soft quality of the hand made pieces that mostly has reached us dancers today after it has spent more than a lifetime as great-grandma's precious shawl for parties. Some of the handmade Assiut fabrics have survived to revel in a subsequent reincarnation as fabric for use in decorating Belly dance costuming in a new and quite different millennium.

The newer pieces have less weight because they contain less silver or gold knots to form the designs and the designs are more sparse and to my taste, weaker.  The knotting technique is laborious and time consuming, and the silver and gold flat tapes are heavy and difficult to obtain.  Once I was going to Paris directly after Cairo, and a costumer in Cairo asked me to purchase for him some rolls of the tape (a flat metal thread) from Paris and to mail the rolls to him for use in producing some new "Asiutte" pieces because the tape is quite expensive in Egypt and is so difficult for him to import to Egypt.  Well, it isn't cheap in Paris either!  There is a silver tape and a "German silver" tape.  To my way of thinking, for use in dance costuming, German silver tape is preferable to the tapes with a higher, and more pure, silver content because the German silver tarnishes less easily. However, being the crow attracted to bright and shining objects that I am, I prefer the heavier pieces laden with silver knots and have added one or two to my collection.

Only a few of us dancers have felt the need to know much about textiles, especially the hand-made variety.  However, I was fortunate and feel honored to have been closely associated with two highly unique people in Berkeley who not only knew about handcrafted fabrics but also became absolute experts in the making and care of antique and modern lace!  (They began a retail establishment for teaching artistic textile crafts and selling both supplies and vintage pieces of handwork.  The current store in Berkeley is called "Lacis".)  Because they mentored and befriended me, I think of them both fondly as my personal muses who have added immeasurably to my appreciation for many of the vintage arts. They were patient enough not only to teach me to appreciate them, but also how to revitalize and care for my pieces of Assiut and other textiles.

The first and foremost caveat is to keep Assiut cloth and other vintage fabrics clean and the second is to repair them promptly with 100% cotton thread if they meet with any unfortunate snags.

I have spoken with many dancers, otherwise prizing their possession of a hunk of tattered and dirty Asiutte cloth, who never dreamed of simply washing it because they feared it would fall apart.  Actually, the contrary is true, unless you have let them get too filthy.

All fabrics made of natural fibers are attacked by microscopic pests called "dust mites." The mites will eat away at it with glee as long as they are allowed to do so undisturbed by the horror of soap and water -- or even a common detergent and water.

It is not necessary to wash Asiutte cloth in cold water using only "Woolite", as some believe; it works just as well to wash the fabric (by hand, of course) in warm water and a little detergent. Surprisingly enough, one may whiten the white pieces without weakening the fabric significantly by soaking them in a solution of bleach and water for 3-5 minutes.

After washing and/or soaking your treasured Assiut or Mummy Lace (one of its names), do not "wring it out".  Instead, roll it up in a large terry-cloth towel or two and press the excess water out of it.  Next, spread dry terry cloth towels on a flat surface. (I like to do this outdoors to freshen the scent of the fabric.) Reshape your piece to its proper size without pulling tightly; just coax it to open the natural holes so that the "sprang ground" from which the fabric is made opens. (Sometimes, sprang is referred to as "tulle" by the Egyptians, and usually referred to as tulle in Europe and America, when it is machine-made netting).

In their 1973 book, "Bobbin Lace: Form by the Twisting of Cords" by Kaethe and Jules Kliot, the authors have written about the historical origins of bobbin lace as follows:

Tahiya Carioca & Fairuz (last name? not the blond Lebanese singer)

"In ancient Egypt, slaves executed what is now called Mummy lace by a technique now known as sprang.  Threads supported at both top and bottom, were twisted together, forming a twined mesh symmetrical about the center.  Without a rigid frame, short lengths of thread supported only at one end, such as the hanging warp threads of a woven fabric could be similarly manipulated to form braids.  Handles, which acted as weights supported by the free ends of these threads, simplified the plaiting process.  The freedom to manipulate these thread by these handles, or bobbins, was eventually to be explored and refined into what is now called bobbin lace.  Although evidence of bone bobbins has been found in ancient Rome, this textile form lay dormant for thousands of years, not to surface again until the fifteenth century."

Is that more than you ever wanted to know about the technique of making Bobbin Lace?  Well, then, perhaps you understand now why people's eyes glaze over when we dancers discuss choreography and dance technique!

Nonetheless, I find it fascinating that these fine fabrics, which were so expensive to produce and so prized by the crown heads of Europe, found their way into the costuming of the Egyptian Belly dancer even before they clothed the royalty of Europe.

 The lace made by the sprang technique of twisting threads is most frequently seen in costumes worn for dancing in the old black and white movies from Egypt, whenever "Beledi" (or country) dance scenarios are depicted.

Because of my Berkeley muses and others who were attempting to revive many of the handcraft arts in and around the bay area of San Francisco during the two decades of the sixties and seventies, my dance was included in an opening for an exhibit of textile arts displayed at the Transamerica Building in downtown San Francisco where huge artworks of modern-day rope networks made by the sprang technique were fastened high up and around the base of the tower.  I danced there beneath the sunlight that was filtered by the nets and enjoyed catching the eye of the local business people--and a few tourists, too.

Traditional designs used in Asiutte fabrics usually concentrate on geometrical shapes repeated in various sizes throughout the entire piece, and because the work was often produced in an Egyptian village named Asiutte by Coptic people, many of the pieces contain Coptic crosses and depictions of people, animals, trees, and buildings that would have been unacceptable to include under the restrictions of the newer, younger religion of Islam in which it is forbidden to depict actual works of God.  

Najia dancing for textile exhibit at Transamerican Building
in San Francisco
However, many, or most of these lovely and simplistically designed pieces of handcraft purposely include errors in their design so as not to offend by "attempting to imitate God's works."

If you would like to seek further information about sprang and other lacemaking techniques, you may be able to locate the informative instructional book by the authors whom I mentioned earlier. If it is not available in your local library, you can click on: where you may find many books and articles about sprang and other types of lace, as well as other intricate handwork with threads. 

In part two of "Lace and my Muses", I will show you how aging handmade lace and its modern machined versions were utilized for our dance on the stages of the past and how they are currently being used in costuming for Belly dance worldwide.

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