The women of Gabes were known for their elaborate and colorful costume, which was considered a trend-setter for women’s dress all over southern Tunisia. In fact, a local adage said, “Let us dress as the women from Gabes.”
The têrf was the most striking element of the Gabes outfit. Têrfs were a thick, pinkish-red rectangular kerchief or shawl woven from silk and wool threads. Worn over an inner head scarf (mhrma), the têrf covered the woman’s head, shoulders, and upper back. The leading edge of the têrf, which framed the wearer’s face, was embroidered with colorful silk threads. A series of appended silk pom-poms (nuwar) were centered so that they stood right above the women’s forehead, accenting their fringed hair arranged in bangs (qêssa). Tassels decorated the corners.
Only married women from Gabes, both Jewish and Muslim, wore têrfs. The garment was sewn for a bride as part of her dowry and was considered highly valuable; most women owned only one or two. The têrf was worn only on festivals and special occasions and only in winter. For everyday use during the winter, women wore heavy wool shawls in white or black (bakhnūk). In summer they covered themselves with a light, striped cotton and silk shawl.
These shawls were a joint product of Muslim and Jewish women. Muslim women did the weaving, and Jewish women, who were taught to embroider from a very early age, embellished the material. It is most probable that both dyed the textiles.
The embroidery depicts a number of motifs, such as birds (‘asfur), fish (huta), flowers, talismanic hands (hamsa), and branched candelabra (menorot). On têrf worn by non-Jews, human figures and scorpions can also be seen. Many of these motifs carry amuletic significance, invoking protection, good fortune, and fertility, all adding up to the hope for a joyous and successful married life.
See photo from the archive.
From the Israel Museum publications:
Juhasz, Esther (ed.), The Jewish Wardrobe from the Collection of The Israel Museum, Jerusalem, 5 Continents Editions, Milan and The Israel Museum, Jerusalem, 2012