19th Century, Textiles & Costume

The Turkish tea robe at the Honolulu Museum of Art

A bit back I showed you a taster of the lovely textiles that I was lucky enough to see in the textile store at the Honolulu Museum of Art, and promised to show more images and tell you about them.

Today, let’s look at an intriguing garment made in Turkey:

Robe, late 19th century, Turkish, Honolulu Museum of Art

This garment is a robe of silk velvet in a rich burgundy red, heavily ornamented with scrolling florals in gold.  The gold is still bright and untarnished, indicating that it is real gold, probably made by  rolling or wrapping thread in tissue-thin gold leaf.

The ornamentation is made in the most intriguing way.  First, paper models in the desired shapes were cut out.  Then, gold thread was wrapped around the paper shapes, completely covering the paper.  Then, the gold-wrapped shapes were sewed down to the garment.

Detail of the gold-wrapped shapes

Some of the larger flowers must have been padded before wrapping, and are further highlighted by outlines in coiled gold wire, with details are picked out with knots coiled gold.

Gold detailing on the robe

The overall effect is of elaborate, sumptuous satin-stitch embroidery: the work of an incredibly skilled embroiderer.  However, gold thread cannot be applied in a satin stitch as pulling the thread through the fabric would rip the gold covering off, so instead gold thread is applied through couching, where the thread is coiled on top of the fabric and stitched over to hold it on.  The technique used on this garment, where thread is wrapped around shapes, gives the same effect as satin stitch, but wouldn’t require the skill or time of either satin stitch or couching.  It’s a very novel and time saving technique.

The elaborate gold ornamentation

The only information about this robe on the storage label was that it was made in Turkey, but based on the techniques and the materials used I suspect it is late 19th century, or even early 20th, and that it was either made for the export or tourist markets.  It has been very slightly altered: A frill of lace has been tacked around the collar, hiding the original line of beadwork that ornamented the collar.

The lace frill and the original beading

Based on this and mentions I have read of Turkish tea robes, I suspect this was worn as a tea gown by a woman in the West.  What exactly its use would have been in Turkey (or, the Ottoman Empire, as it was at the time) I do not know.

I hope you’ve enjoyed a little peek at this garment.  If you know more about what it would have been, or about the wrapping technique used, please do share!


  1. By wrapping the threads around the paper, they hid half of the gold between the fabric and the paper. Never to be seen. Makes the cheapskate in me cringe at the waste!

    • Thanks Karen.

      I’m not sure which wrapping of the threads you are referring to (wrapping them in gold, couching, or the coiled metal), but none of the stitches on this robe were bullion stitch – that’s one I recognise and know the name of. Wrapping the thread in gold leaf to create gold thread is the traditional method for creating thread-of-gold (as opposed to gold-coloured thread, which can be sewn through the fabric). Couching is the name for laying metal thread (or other yarns) on a fabric and stitching them down. You can see an example here: the bamboo in the bottom left corner is created with couching. The coiled metal which looks most like bullion stitch actually is coiled metal wires – they look like tiny springs, or long corkscrew curls. These coiled metal wires are used frequently as ornamentation on Indian and Middle Eastern textiles, but I don’t know the exact name.

  2. karenb says

    I suppose that this garment was never to be washed? Just dabbed at if tea or whatever was spilt on it?
    I dont like it much but the gold wrapping technique is interesting.
    Looks too much like a curtain or chair covering.


  3. How funny that you should post this at this time – I’m going on a goldwork course on Sunday! I’ve read about/seen card templates in goldwork, but haven’t read about it done in this particular way (ie, wrapping, then stitching down) – very interesting!

    Thanks, as always, for sharing all the details!

  4. Wow, the embroidery details are amazing! I didn’t know real gold could be used like that–fascinating. I’m guessing it’s a fairly heavy garment…?

    • Amazingly, it really wasn’t that bad. I guess I was comparing it to the usual Victorian garment though – and it was only one layer, straight down to the floor, no train, so there wasn’t that much fabric.

  5. In my youth I dreamed of dressing like this – Another fascinating insight from you on technique, thank you. The beading detail is reminiscent of the elaborate bead work that modern Turkish countrywomen adorn their head scarves with and sell to tourists.

  6. esbirky.czIt’s truly fascinating. And yes, I guess that it was never meant to be washed.
    Interestingly… I wonder if the same technique was used on these shoes:
    Or any other shoes decorated this way. The threads on this one are worn off in some places, and the embroidery is clearly padded in some way, though I don’t know if it’s done like this.

    • Oooh…what pretty shoes! I can’t quite tell if the embroidery/ornamentation on those is wrapped or sewn over padding, but it does look like a higher quality/more labour intensive cousin of the stuff on the robe.

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