Reasons to stitch#2: learning about other cultures

Reason #2

This week I suggest that through embroidery we can learn about different cultures. This revelation came to me during a six week course (2 hours a week) in Iranian embroidery, at my local community centre.

An introduction to Akhtar and Iranian embroidery

I enrolled in the course because I wanted to replicate the beautiful paisley design which illustrated the pamphlet advertising the course and to meet fellow stitchers in my local community. I had no idea about Iranian embroidery and ashamed to say even less idea about Iranian culture.

Akhtar patiently teaching us the “alphabet”

Domestic embroideries

The course was led by Akhtar Esmailzadeh an expert embroiderer in any culture. Akhtar came to Australia from the Kerman Province of Iran. On our arrival to the first class Akhtar  showed us a beautiful display of domestic embroidered from her personal collection including table cloths, bedspreads, pillows, book covers and prayer mats. These were examples of domestic ware made by women young and old. The women would traditionally spin the wool and thread, then weave and dye the fabric they embroidered. You can imagine how precious and personal these pieces of fabric are to the women who make them or receive them as gifts from family and friends.

Akhtar described how particular cloths were folded for use in the public baths. As she demonstrates the folding of the cloth her eyes shone with the memories of women friends and family enjoying the luxury of the communal baths and servants holding the folded cloth ready for drying.

The ABC of stitchesRed31.12.15

During the course Akhtar demonstrated what she call the Iranian embroidery alphabet. 12 stitches which are the essentials of Iranian embroidery. We were assured us that once we mastered these 12 stitches we could tackle any design. While Akhtar demonstrated each stitch it all looked achievable but mastering them was extremely challenging. Akhtar corrected my stitching technique by pointing out that I pushed my needle through and up the cloth. The Iranian way is to stitch into the surface of the cloth. This tip helped and improved my stitching but I was still disappointed by my efforts. I had to remind myself not to expect to be an expert in 6 lessons!

Persian motifs

Recurring images in Irani embroidery are miniature flowers, leaves, the all important paisley. The paisley design is known in Iran as the Botta, or Boteh motif and symbolises the Cypress tree.

The Cypress tree

The Cypress tree

This motif is particularly significant to the Zoroastrian faith. After the Muslim invasion of Iran in the seventh century the paisley motif became the symbol for the strength and longevity of Persian culture. The cypress tree like the people of Persia bend rather than snap in bad weather, while the roots hold firm in the soil.

In the tenth century the Zoroastrians refugees known as Parsis fled to India to avoid persecution, taking with them embroidery skills and knowledge including the Butteh motif.

When the British East India Company began to import materials from India the Butteh motif was popular and later renamed paisley after the Scottish town of Paisley where the fabric was printed.

What I learnt

  • Enough to be curious about Iran and its culture past and present


    The Boteh or paisley motif being stitched

  • Embroideries tell a story of the women who made them and the culture in which they live
  • Colours are an important part of the Iranian tradition. Cloth designed for men are always white background while women use red cloth. Green, is used for prayer mats.

The next time I meet an Iranian women I will also have lots to ask her including:

  • Red

    Tiny embroidered birds sit along the border of this exquisite shawl.

    Do you embroider?

  • What is the embroidery tradition in your part of Iran?

I hope you get a chance to learn about different cultures in your local community. Check with your local council and suggest they offer a course. You may even have the skills to offer to run one. Like me I’m sure you’ll learn a lot!

Happy stitching!








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