Tuesday, December 2, 2014


 Assiut Queen Dawn Devine aka Davina: Photo by Alisha Westerfield

Quite a few dancers can brag about having a career  that spans a quarter of a century, but not that many of them can also claim concurrent and wildly  successful careers  as costumers,  art historians and  authors! The multi-talented  Davina, aka Dawn Devine  can…only thing is, she doesn’t gloat about it, she’s  much too  nice – and busy- for that sort of thing. Easy-going, sweet and funny, Davina is so understated about her vast accomplishments, that even if you know her, they might surprise you!

Dawn has so many college degrees, they practically form their own alphabet, and in addition to performing and teaching belly dancing and costuming classes throughout the USA, she also has numerous museums show credits.  She is an expert on antique textiles  (especially Assiut, but more on that in a minute!)  Victorian clothing, and vintage couture, with many lecturing engagements under her tasseled hip belt.  She also   a slew of informative, instructional   costuming books to her credit, including Embellished Bras, Costuming from the Hip, From Turban to Toe Ring, Bedlah, Baubles and Beads and Style File.

Rayah wears a vintage assiut shawl from the collection of Judeen Esau.  This gorgeous piece has a rich blue groundcloth and a golden hue to the metal.  Photo by Alisha Westerfeld
 As anyone who knows her can attest, Dawn is a walking encyclopedia on anything concerning belly dance costuming, but her favorite subject, and most enduring obsession is Assiut, the gorgeous traditional net and metal fabric named for the    Egyptian city of the same name.  All belly dancers, no matter what their preferred style, are in love with Assiut.  Spotting a vintage piece of Assiut on eBay causes dancers to bid like maniacs, eager to  part with their rent money. Merely mentioning it  on social media causes comments like “I’m drooling all over my keyboard!”  And in real life, a shawl of vintage Assuit at a flea market has been known to induce catfights.

 Davina’s  own Assiut mania began this way:

My love story began in a crowded antique store, filled with dusty cases holding tumults of vintage items. I turned and looked across a crowded room and my life changed.  In an instant the rest of the world disappeared and I only had eyes for one thing. My love story began in a crowded antique store, filled with dusty cases holding tumults of vintage items.  There were jewelry pieces and objects d’art. There were trinkets and baubles, the day-to-day objects that populated the lives of our ancestors, 60, 80, 100 years ago.  But there, draped gently over the edge of a photo frame, and laid delicately across a shelf was my beauty.  She was creamy and soft, with pewter-toned metal stitches.  It was Assiut, and it was going to be mine!”
                        1920's French silent screen actress Stacia Napierkowska in Assiut

 Since that fateful moment, she’s been hooked on Assiut, also known as tulle bi telli.  It became a hobby, moved into a personal mania phase, and then, it took over her life! Now, she’s spreading the love- and her vast knowledge.

Davina’s latest book, done with  photographer and belly dancer Alisha Westerfield,  The Cloth of Egypt: All About Assiut was just published.  The book is gigantic, highly informative, impeccably researched, and loaded with incredible  vintage photos of Assuit, as well as step-by-step instructions  for fabricating costumes.

Even before the book was a glimmer in her eye, Davina   spent years researching Assuit, not to mention fabricating high-end, custom-made costumes for herself and many other dancers.

She says,

“I committed myself to a massive interdisciplinary research project with one simple mission, find out everything there is to know about the cloth we call Assiut or tulle bi telli.  The result of years of research, months of writing, crafting hundreds of costumes, dozens of photo shoots, is my new book “The Cloth of Egypt: All About Assiut.” 

 In honor of the book’s publication, Davina has  complied a list of facts on Assiut exclusively for this blog, here it is:

1 - Assiut is made from cotton.  Frequently, antique Assiut is labeled as silk, linen, or a blend, but the truth is that vintage Assiut cloth is made from finely spun, high-twist Egyptian cotton.  

2 - Assiut can be spelled in a myriad of ways.  Arabic cannot be easily translated, so rather, it’s transliterated by ear from spoken Arabic to written English, with British and Americans sounding out the words and writing them down phonetically.  This leads to more than 50 spelling variations.

3 - Most people know that the phrase tulle bi telli means “mesh with metal”... but few know that this is a marriage of three languages.  Tulle is from the name of the lace-making capital of France.  Telli is from Turkish word Tel, which means metal.  Bi is “with” in Arabic. 

4 - Assiut is a single-stitch embroidery technique.  The stitch is made with flattened metal wire called plate, and the stitch is made using a blunt tipped double-eyed needle. 

5 – Antique Assiut cloth was made by the thousands of yards and was considered the essential souvenir for travelers down the Nile during the British occupation of Egypt.  British, American, Russian, French, And Italian women all collected and coveted Assiut cloth for it’s supple drape and metallic gleam. 

6 - Vintage Assiut pieces come in three sizes.  Scarves, narrow enough to wrap around the neck, head or hat to keep flies, gnats and mosquitos off of the face.  Shawl sizes, which were designed to be worn as wraps about the shoulder, were wide enough to envelop the body, but short enough to be easily handled by the wearer.  Opera wrap or piano shawl size, which was the longest and widest, designed to fit over a grand piano, or to wrap around the body, and still have enough left to elegantly drag along the ground, a shimmering train of exotic abundance.

7 - Modern Assiut should be pounded or rolled to press down the individual stitches.   Machine wash on gentle and tumble dry low in a mesh lingerie bag to keep the stitches from catching, and pulling.  Vintage Assiut should always be hand washed and dried as flat as possible.

8 - Assiut is associated with weddings in Upper Egypt. Some of the most popular motifs are directly related to wedding symbology. Camel figures with plants, stars, or even stylized men, represent the groom.  The female figures, often holding hands, or with arms raised, represent the bride and her bridal party.  Other common images that appear in Assiut wedding shawls include combs, for preparing the brides hair, perfume bottles for anointing her body, and diamonds, protective shapes with talismanic properties to protect the bride on her special day.


Purchase a copy of “The Cloth Of Egypt: All About Assiut” here:

The book's cover: I'm wearing an Assiut bra made by Davina & a pre-1919 white Assiut shawl
Photo by Alisha Westerfield

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