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The Motifs of Palestinian Embroidery

Happy World Embroidery Day! On this lovely occasion that celebrates this craft heritage worldwide, we want to shed light on what makes the Palestinian embroidery so special: its motifs.

Traditional Palestinian embroidery is known for its striking richness of cross-stitch – a mesmarising concoction of shapes and colors that lavishly decorates the surface of fabric. It is a sort of ancient graphic design where the embroiderers carefully arrange and combine the intricate shapes and colors of motifs, and position these cross-stitch patterns on the chest panel, sleeves and skirts of traditional dresses in harmony.

Many embroidery motifs illustrate the beautiful natural environment of Palestine, such as Cypress, Date Palm, and Orange Blossoms, while others are everyday objects from the lives of Palestinians, like Kohl Holder and Amulet, or Chicken Feet and Feathers.  There are also motifs that are derived from cultural or historical roots, such as the Canaanite Star, the Pasha’s Tent and the Road to Egypt.  

Larger-sized motifs are often used as the main building blocks of design while smaller ones are placed on borders or applied as fillers. While the exact number of Palestinian embroidery motifs remains unknown, one can safely estimate that they are in the hundreds, giving the hand embroiderers infinite possibilities of combinations to design.

Did you know Palestinian embroidery motifs are also like a language with unique regional dialects? For example, the popular Cypress motif shows up in different shapes in multiple regions of Palestine. 

palestinian embroidery motif
Close-up of Shawl - Nature by Sulafa Embroidery Center that features the Gaza variation of Cypress (left), Grape Vine (center), and Feathers (right) as the main motifs.
palestinian embroidery pattern
Close-up of Cushion Cover by Surif Women’s Cooperative, featuring the Hebron variation of Cypress (right), Tiles of Bethlehem (center), and Star (right), also known as Moon.  The borders are embroidered with 2 different styles of Saw motifs.

Sometimes, the same motif would come under different names as well, like how the variation of Canaanite Star is also known as the Bethlehem Moon.

Close-up of Sachets by Surif Women’s Cooperative with Canaanite Star motif.  Its variation is also known as Bethlehem Moon.

Today, such traditional motifs are very much alive in Palestine’s popular handicrafts, where artisans show off their taste, creativity, and add a personal touch in arranging and combining the motifs to create spectacular embroidery patterns.

Here are some exquisite examples by Sunbula’s partner artisans who continue to enliven traditional Palestinian embroidery through their beautiful crafts:

palestine embroidery motif
Close-up of Summer Handbag by Idna Ladies’ Association, featuring Tiles of Bethlehem (top left), Snake and the Serpent (top right), and Feather and Moon (bottom center).


Palestinian cross stitch
Close-up of Make-up Purse by Melkite Pastoral Center, with Date Palms (right) and Cow’s Eyes (left) and Saw on the borders.


Traditional Palestinian embroidery
Close-up of Bashmir Purse by Haneen Project, with Walls of Jerusalem (right) used as the border, and the triangular-shaped Amulet (center) and circular Tears (left) motifs.  

For further reading, check out our book: Embroidering a Life: Palestinian Women and Embroidery.