talli craft uae irthi council
Emirati artisans create fashionable lace using the craft of talli on a cylindrical pillow, supported by a conical metal stand. Image Credit: Supplied/Irthi Contemporary Crafts Council

From the ancient Silk Route travelled a craft that quickly became part of the UAE’s cultural fabric – quite literally. Emirati women in traditional trousers (sirwal) and robes (kandurah) adorned their hems with fashionable braided lace made from cotton, silk, gold and silver strips. At other times, they pierced the metal strips through sheer fabric of the head veil (sheilah) and flattened them like stars pressed into the night sky.

But the craft of talli was more than a fashion statement. Talli meant that the housewife could wear wealth wherever she went, and melt down the precious metals for sale whenever she needed. Today, talli looks a little different, kept alive by women who continue to keenly practise the art form fuelled by passion and memories.

talli craft uae irthi council
Talli artisan Fatima Ali Al Naqbi, with the Irthi Contemporary Crafts Council. Image Credit: Supplied/Irthi Contemporary Crafts Council

We speak to Fatima Ali Al Naqbi, a 70-year-old Emirati artisan based in Dibba Al Hisn, Sharjah, who has over six decades of talli experience. Al Naqbi creates commissioned pieces with the Bidwa Social Development Programme centre under the Irthi Contemporary Crafts Council.

Offering academic insight is Islamic art curator and author Dr Reem Tariq El Mutwalli, who founded a digital archive for historical Arab dresses called The Zay Initiative. Dr El Mutwalli focuses on documenting and preserving the intimate link between Emirati women and their traditional garb for future generations, including the craft of talli, through the Initiative’s website.

Multicultural origins

1. What is talli in its essence?

Dr El Mutwalli: Talli is a traditional craft of the region, carried from mother to daughter. The term is used both for the technique as well as the metal strips used; it’s interchangeable.

The metal wire can be used in two formats: It could be flattened to create a very thin, 3mm-wide strip and painted in silver or gold to pierce fabric to create small symbols like stars or in running stitches. This fabric is then used as the head veil.

The other talli format used in the UAE is braided with cotton or silk threads, on an apparatus called the kajoojah (a cone-shaped metal stand for talli making), to create cords of different designs – there are over 40 with their own names. These cords are then taken and stitched to the neckline and cuffs of women’s garments.

You see how the women sit down to braid a cord, which is then applied to an article of clothing; so I wouldn’t call it an embroidery technique but a craft.

2. What is talli’s connection to the UAE?

Dr El Mutwalli: The craft in itself is not unique to the UAE, and it’s been practised by many cultures – from China all the way to Europe. Each culture developed it and worked on it in their own way.

For example, you have tur bi telli, which means talli on netting. It’s a very famous craft practised in Egypt that became popular in the 1920s. They take netting and weave into it metallic straws that were sometimes dipped in silver or gold. Women wore them as shawls, dresses, and it was even part of the flapper dresses in the Western world.

Certain tribes in China like the Miao are also very famous for working with talli.

The word talli is thought to originate from two different sources: it could be from the Arabic word tal’a, meaning to coat something, because the wire was coated in silver or gold. That term went from Egypt to Turkey, and the Turks pronounced it as talli. It spread through the Ottoman Empire and into Iran, into India.

Others believe talli comes from the Sanskrit word tola, a unit of weight used to measure metals in India. In fact, most of the silver- or gold-coated strips of value used to come from Gujarat.

Artisan Al Naqbi: I started making talli when I was nine years old, and I’m about to be 70 now. When I first saw my friends doing it, I also wanted to develop my skills and learn it. I told my mother, but she did not agree with me. However, I brought the tools and started making talli myself. When we started out, the silver khous (strips) we used were imported from India.

3. How do the crafts of Zardozi and Mukaish that are prevalent in India relate to talli? What can they tell us about talli's possible origins?

Dr El Mutwalli: Ottoman, Iranian and Mughal courts were very much related and influenced by one another, and it is thought that the crafters and their descendants in all three shared some connections as they tended to move from one patronage to the other as one rose to power.

The Turkish terms tal or talli and sarma are known to indicate the same style of work. The Iranian term zardozi is more general and includes raised metal coil embroidery with other forms of metallic or bead work. Mukaish or Muqayyash (embroidery with metal strands used to pierce sheer fabric and draw dotted motifs), is surely more directly related to talli.

There is a very strong link to India, after all the first examples (from pre- and post-oil periods in recent history) were imported from India and much more continues to be imported from there to date.

4. If talli is not indigenous to the UAE, how did it become part of the country’s heritage?

Dr El Mutwalli: I believe talli was brought to the UAE through merchants as they traded with the Indian Subcontinent as well as the Arabian Gulf. And eventually it became part and parcel of the cultural heritage of the area… we’re talking pre-oil. We don’t have the historical records to validate the exact year or time period.

The Arab world as a whole has always been a constant point of contact as a trade route on the Silk Road. Exchanges of techniques, materials and influences have always cross-pollinated each other. So it’s not a one-way influence.

I came across talli when I first arrived as a child, to the UAE, in 1968….

Woven in female companionship

talli craft uae irthi council
Talli is sometimes woven in the company of female relatives and friends and other times practised alone. Image Credit: Supplied/Irthi Contemporary Crafts Council

5. Describe a talli making session. Is it always a community affair?

Dr El Mutwalli: Some women sit in the afternoon or evening, when they’re free, to create talli. Or they would gather in the mornings to meet with friends and family, female company, to work on it. It depends, because some of them did it for pleasure and others as a source of income.

Artisan Al Naqbi: I used to use a metal oil container as the kajoojah (unavailable then) for the mousadah (a cylindrical pillow, on which talli is braided) in the majlis. I practised talli until I got married, then I worked with my mother-in-law.

The first time, she made me a beit (cuff) of Sayr Yaay (a basic talli weave, meaning ‘back and forth’ in the Emirati dialect) which consists of 20 khous (straws). I also have a lot of talli dresses that are made by my mother and my sister.

talli irthi council
'Sayr Yaay' talli pattern Image Credit: Supplied/Irthi Contemporary Crafts Council

6. What kind of threads are used? Does it depend on the pattern chosen by the artisan?

Dr El Mutwalli: Traditionally, women used the silver straw and combined it with a cotton thread, in the purest of white colour. When other colours became available, like green, red and black, the women started using them. All of these were imported.

There are a number of spools that are used to create these braids, and for each design, you will need a certain set of cotton spools, a set of silver strip spools and so on. Depending on how intricate the design is going to be, the number of spools used will increase. Talli Fatlah is a basic running stitch – the simplest format – where cotton and silk threads are braided with one spool of silver strip.

Artisan Al Naqbi: My favourite pattern is red and white talli Bu-Khousa (single strand). There are so many types. When we see one, we remember how it’s done then make it.

talli craft uae irthi council
An artisan holds 'Sayr Yaay' talli embellished with pearls, while she wears 'Bu-Khousa' talli on her sleeve cuff. Image Credit: Supplied/Irthi Contemporary Crafts Council

7. How long does it take to weave one metre of talli?

Artisan Al Naqbi: In one day, I make one metre: It is two cycles on the kajoojah that makes one metre. I work from 8am to 1pm, take a break, and then work from 3 to 4pm. If I’m not able to work in the afternoon, then I do it in the evening after sunset, from 9 to 10pm after the Isha prayers.

The longest talli I made was 50 metres long, and it took me two months.

8. Does the craft look any different today?

Dr El Mutwalli: Today silver strip is very expensive, so it’s hardly used. It takes a long time to order. What you get in the market now, instead, is something that was brought in in the 1980s. This was when the country opened up to the world due to oil wealth and imports began to enter from Japan.

The Japanese tinsel (strips of shiny metal foil) became very popular, and it came in many different colours. So today you see talli in green, red, multiple of colours, and even in rainbow or multi-coloured tinsel. It’s no longer silver, no longer metal. Tinsel is much lighter and thinner.

Talli as savings worn on the body

9. Why did the women make talli?

Dr El Mutwalli: Creating these cords was something that women would do to participate in a socially interactive experience.

They could compete with each other, show off their skills, express their individuality and at the same time, it gave them the opportunity to have some sort of an income, since some excelled in it more than others and produced it for the surrounding community. It was a form of empowerment, too. There are many layers to talli, not just the fact that it’s a craft.

The strips used in the braiding was generally metal coated in silver or gold, so if you burned the fabric, the silver would melt and it could be collected. The women would then sell the silver, when they were in need.

It is a form of ‘zina wa khazinah’, an Arabic saying. Zina means beauty and khazinah means wealth or savings. The women would wear something that’s beautiful, but that very beautiful adornment could also be used to help a member of the family in need or when a situation arises. It was a very clever way of carrying your wealth on your body.

10. What does the craft of talli mean for you and your family?

Artisan Al Naqbi: Talli means a lot to me. We adorn our garments, kandurahs and other traditional dresses with it. Besides, when you make talli with your hands, it feels different and more valuable. You feel connected to it. The dresses are used on all occasions; Eid, engagements, weddings and social gatherings.

I enjoy it so much because it’s my passion and hobby, and if I did not like talli, I would not be making it.

talli craft uae irthi council
Today talli artisans like Al Naqbi create commissioned pieces with non-profit organisations and programmes that empower them and their craft. Image Credit: Supplied/Irthi Contemporary Crafts Council

11. Where can we find talli today?

Dr El Mutwalli: You can go to the market and buy commercially made ones, the readymade braids, which can come from as far as South Korea. You can also place orders with the artisans, but it takes a long time to source the silver strips.

Talli is used less these days because traditional clothing is probably worn less or reserved mainly for specific occasions. Back then, it was used on a daily basis. Now people will argue this, since there are those who continue to dress in traditional garments.

Having said that, you also have many young UAE designers who are trying to incorporate traditional elements into their contemporary designs. Then you have societal and governmental initiatives that are trying to sustain these traditional crafts, encouraging the society to continue to apply them to their daily clothing.

Artisan Al Naqbi: I joined Irthi when I was 65 years old. I wish that young girls and women of all age groups would learn this craft because our generation will not live forever. The next generation should take our knowledge and pass it down to the one after. This heritage craft should never be forgotten.