Tunisian Rugs and Textiles, Part 2: The Pieces Brought In

Dear folks –

This is part 2 of a Rug and Textile Appreciation Morning on Tunisian Rugs and Textiles, given by Bill and Sondra Bechhoefer at The Textile Museum, here in Washington, D.C. on March 28, 2009.

The first part of this program was a Powerpoint-assisted lecture and, if you have not seen that, it might be particularly advisable in this case, given that Tunisian textiles are not encountered that frequently, and the Bechhoefers provide a useful introduction to them, rooted in their own experiences living in Tunisia in the late 196os.  To go to the lecture, use this link:


The Bechhoefers had brought some of their own collection to be seen and examined “in the fabric.”  All of their “brought in” pieces were treated in the lecture, so further descriptions of them, here, will often be brief.

The pieces were treated as they were arrayed on the display board in the front of the Myers Room, and so do not follow the sequence of the lecture.

In fact, Bill began with a red shawl treated near the lecture’s end.


It is from Ksar Essouf, near Mahdia, and is similar to pieces woven in El Djem.

Here, again, are some closer details of it.


The piece is silk on wool and is about 5 meters long.  You will recall that some see the round designs as “oil lamps,” inspired by Roman oil lamps that would have been in the area.


The next item was a shawl from the eastern island of Djerba.  This piece was thought to be a Jewish wedding shawl.  It is raw silk, with silk and gold embroidery.


Some closer details of the piece above.


The shadowy figures in the dark area above get a little clearer.


As do the color usages in the lighter ones.




A third Bechhoefer weaving was the one below.  This “tajira” is similar to one of two headcovers shown in the lecture, woven in Matmata in the south. 


Here are closer looks at one corner and at its field.



The orange/yellow spots are the result of tie-dying with henna.  Many of us are fearful of bright oranges, but, for me, in this piece, regardless of their source, the orange highlights function positively, giving a pleasing, electric character to its aesthetics.

The next Bechhoefer piece was this “bakhnug” shawl from Toujane, in the Matmata region.


 If you watch these blog posts, you will likely remember seeing this piece before. 

The Bechhoefers loaned it to Jeff Krauss and me when we were working on our RTAM on “Blue.”  There, it was noted that such pieces are woven cotton on wool, but white on white, and the intricate designs that are woven into them 


only become visible after  dyeing  (here with indigo) because wool and cotton take in the dye to markedly different degrees and the cotton areas remain nearly “white.”


I used images of it again in my recent post on “Easy to Weave; Hard to Weave,”


as an example of something woven in one color that is likely not easy to weave, since there is no color difference (only texture) to help guide one’s weaving actions while drawing these small-scale intricate designs.

To me, this is an impressive, stately piece of weaving.

The next textile treated in the room was this shawl from the Sahel area of central Tunisia, probably from El Djem.


More intricate patterning and orange henna highlights.

Here is a closer corner of this weaving.


And a closer detail of its field.


 A sixth brought-in textile was this colorfully playful Gafsa end panel from a longer blanket, or “huli.”


Bill suggested in his lecture that older pieces of this type have a softer palette.  Brighter colors and some visible color transfer suggest that this one is somewhat younger; the newest examples are much brighter than this.

The color combinations often used in Tunisian pieces are not those that many of us would put together ourselves.


A bright orange with maroon and pink would seem to tax the notion of analogous color usage a bit.  On the other hand, some 13th century Anatolian rugs use oranges and color combinations most collectors of today would reject.


Note that the use of dovetailed tapestry makes it possible to draw with long vertical color changes.


I don’t think you can claim, legitimately, that these Gafsa klims are not “happy rugs.”

The next piece was produced in Oudref, in the south, but the “mergoum” technique also influenced Kairouan production, as well as other regions.  In his lecture Bill noted that in the 17th century, Tripolitanian Berbers brought more complex and fine geometries to this part of Tunisia.


This piece was made using weft substitution.


Bill noted that they are made from the back, and I think these are like the Moroccan pieces woven in weft substitution in which it is at least remarkable, if not mysterious, how the weavers know what they are doing when they can’t see the design at all.


But it’s clear that they have assured indicators that they follow because they produce these fine, intricate designs with great precision.


The next textile was a grain sack from Medenine.




Note the inclusion of whimsical detail.


The next textile was the one below.  It’s origins are not entirely clear, but it is similar to other klim-mergoum carpets associated with Sfax.  The dealer who sold it to the Bechhoefers described it as “nomadic.”






The handle is very stiff, with a feeling like canvas.  The dealer suggested that it would resist the bite of scorpions when put on the ground in a tent.






The last textile was brought in by a member of the audience and is shown below.


It is a very fine “baknug” from Chenini, and represents some of the best weaving in Tunisia.


Like other pieces from the region is is woven in white cotton on white wool, and subsequently dyed red.  The wool ground takes the dye more thoroughly than the cotton, resulting in the contrast.



Wool for these pieces is local and hand-spun, with natural dye — probably madder.


The extraordinary skill of the weaver and the quality of the overall composition make this piece exemplary.








 The session came to an end, and participants moved to the front of the room.








Sometimes there are impromptu mini-show-and-tell events in the room after these programs. 

One lady had brought an embroidered dress that she did not bring out during the program because she did not know whether it was Tunisian.


 Those sitting near her encouraged her to bring it out.  She did and began to point out its features.


I asked her to hold up her dress so I could “take” it.  She got brave and stood on a chair and held it up to make sure I got it full length.


Now I tried for some closer detail.


And even closer.


I don’t think it was decided where it was from, but it was a nice dress (there are embroidered Palestinian dresses that seem similar, but the color palette may have been “off” for that).

I want to thank Bill and Sondra for permitting me to fashion a virtual version of their interesting RTAM program.  Bill gave me a copy of his Powerpoint document and that helped immensely.  They both did important editorial work after to save me from myself.

This has been an especially enjoyable session to work on.  I hope you have enjoyed it, too.


R. John Howe

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