North African goldwork embroidery is rightly praised for its excellence and finesse. The art of metal thread embroidery was exported from Spain by the Moors and spread through the Sahara to the majority of North Africa, becoming a mainstay of decorative costume, particularly for wedding ceremonies and military ornamentation. This tradition still thrives today, though the quality of the goldwork is now inferior and mass-produced .Considering the delicacy and detail involved in some artefacts now on display from the 1940s and 50s, it’s hard to believe these pieces were created with nothing but the most basic tools.
Perhaps the greatest masters of the art of North African goldwork embroidery were the craftsmen of Morocco. T he most talented metal thread artists of the time, were Jewish jewellers. They were renowned for their embroidery work on both leather and velvet. Most of the pieces were created for either horse trappings or military accoutrements. The Jewish jewellers also made their own golden and silver thread and sequins. Most of these craftsmen left Morocco in the 1950s to return to the newly-formed state of Israel. Since that time the quality of the metal thread work has deteriorated and now only cheaper and less satisfactory pieces are manufactured.
Couching was the commonest stitch used by the Jewish craftsmen. Metal threads or strips were laid on the ground cloth, and couched down in matching or contrasting colours. To add bulk, metal thread was sometimes laid over a base of cotton threads, or even wrapped around a cardboard shape before sewing down. Buttonhole stitching was also commonly used by the Jewish craftsmen. This was similar to blanket stitching, except that the stitches were sewn together in small areas. A series of stitches were then sewn round the edges of the cloth to complete the decorative effect. Each stitch linked through the previous one, forming a built-up line of thread that prevented the fabric from fraying and deteriorating. The majority of the goldwork pieces of the period were brightly coloured and dyed using traditional herbs and spices like turmeric, paprika and saffron.