Although goldwork embroidery is traditionally associated with European, Scandinavian and North American culture, its influence is still seen today across much of the Sahara and deeper into the African continent. The art of metal thread embroidery was exported from Spain by the Moors and became a mainstay of decorative costume, particularly for wedding ceremonies. This tradition still thrives today. Nowhere is the importance and influence of goldwork embroidery better seen than in Tunisia.
Tunis and the fertile Tunisian Sahel have a rich tradition for creating stiff heavy marriage garments for brides. These garments are usually covered in metal thread embroidery and play an integral part in the marriage ceremony itself. The bride appears in public for the first time on the third day of the ceremony with a powdered white face, clad in layers of heavy fabric embellished with intricate goldwork embroidery. The delicate embroidery on the trousseau is only displayed to a select, invited audience and is an integral part of the ceremony in which the bride prays for blessings for both herself and her marriage.
Throughout Tunisia goldwork and silver thread embroidery is the preferred decoration for all garments intended to be worn for ceremonial occasions like marriage and circumcision. Tunis work uses metallic strips with motifs of flowers and birds. Hammamet, Nabuel and Mahdia metal thread embroidery uses much denser amounts of goldwork with the metallic ribbon embroidered into patterns of concentric squares and circles. The geometric motifs usually depict pre-Islamic motifs like fish, the vase and the bride with uplifted hands. At El Jem and Jembiana and in the winter skirts of Mahdia, free-form goldthread embroidery with motifs of flowers, birds, fish and a stylized bride are now commonly seen.
In Sfax and Sousse bridal costumes are also heavily embroidered with metal thread and sequins, and are applied to the bride’s coif and to young boys’ circumcision robes. Much of the delicate work was traditionally done by the bride-to-be herself, though nowadays it’s much more common for the work to be commissioned and created by professional embroiderers. Most goldwork-covered garments are generally hired these days, though some families have managed to retain some of their ancient wedding garments, and use them purely for ceremonial purposes.