ʿATTĀBĪ, one of many names for cloth used by medieval Islamic writers. The specific qualities of ʿattābī are not entirely clear from these references, although a general picture of the textile can be deduced from the few concrete phrases occurring in the texts. The word has passed into a number of European languages as a name for cloth, sometimes general and sometimes quite precise: attabi in Spanish; tabis in French; tabì in Italian; tabyn in Dutch; and tabby in English. In 17th and 18th century England, tabby, or taby, was understood as being a substantial silk fabric with a watered, moiré-like finish. Dr. Johnson’s Dictionary of 1755 not only defines tabby as “a kind of waved silk” but notes that cats with brindled markings on the fur are, by extension, tabby-cats.
In contemporary textile terminology, tabby is a description of a cloth structure formed by the simplest of weaving techniques, one warp thread passed alternatingly over and under one weft thread in succession. The usual synonym for tabby is now plain-weave, although when and where this usage first occurred has not been firmly established. Irene Emery has pointed to a glossary definition of tabby, in Luther Hooper’s Handloom Weaving of 1910, as “plain weaving,” that appears to be among the earliest recorded uses of the term. She further notes that in modern textile terminology, tabby is usually accompanied by at least a parenthetical reference to plain weave while the opposite is not generally the case.
To medieval Islamic writers, however, ʿattābī was anything but plain. For Ebn Jobayr, in the late twelfth-century account of his pilgrimage to Mecca, the reḥla, ʿattābī was woven of silk or cotton and in various colors. For Ḡarnāṭī, writing in the Toḥfat al-albāb, slightly earlier in the same century, ʿattābī was “. . . striped cloth (moḵaṭṭaṭ) with black and white in regular stripes (ḵoṭūṭ) . . . of ibrism-silk . . .” Abu’l-Qāsem , at the beginning of the fourteenth century, speaks of a kind of ʿattābī, ʿattābī dabīkī, as having borders embroidered with gold. That stripes were typical of some kinds of ʿattābī is shown by a reference to the quality of ʿattābī lying in the fineness of the threads in the stripe. Dozy has described ʿattābī as being a sort of heavy silk taffeta with a watered effect. Le Strange provides the fullest explanation for the name: A district of Baghdad just west of the Round City was named after ʿAttāb, a companion of the prophet and governor of Mecca, because his descendants, ʿAttābīyīn, later settled there. Fabrics woven in ʿAttābīya naturally came to be called ʿattābī, especially striped and watered ones. Serjeant’s collected references suggest that ʿattābī was also produced all over Iran, in Isfahan, Kermān, Nīšāpūr, Hamadān, and Tabrīz; as well as in Antioch and possibly Damascus; and also in great quantities in Almeria. Finally, ʿattābī figured in the extensive cloth-trade of medieval Islam, for Ebn Esfandīār, on the basis of a tenth-century reference, says that priceless ʿattābī was exported to Ṭabarestān, whence it was then traded “. . . to the most distant countries in the earth.”
See also Textiles.
R. P. A. Dozy, Dictionnaire détaillé des noms des vêtements chez les Arabes, Amsterdam, 1845, p. 110.
Idem, Supplement aux dictionnaires arabes, Leiden, 1881, II, p. 93.
G. Le Strange, Baghdad During the Abbasid Caliphate, Oxford, 1900, pp. 137-38 and passim.
EI1 I, p. 513.
C. J. Lamm, Cotton in Medieval Textiles of the Near East, Paris, 1937, pp. 123, 210, 219.
R. B. Serjeant, “Material for a History of Islamic Textiles up to the Mongol Conquest,” ArsIslamica 9, pp. 81-82; 10, pp. 99-100; 11-12, pp. 102, 107-08, 116, 138; 13-l4, p. 111; 15-16, pp. 33-34, 66.
CIETA, Fabrics: A Vocabulary of Technical Terms: English, French, Italian, Lyon, 1959, p. 30.
I. Emery, The Primary Structure of Fabrics: An Illustrated Classification, Washington, D.C., 1966 and 1980, pp. 76, 85-86.
M. Lombard, Les textiles dans le monde musulman du VIIeau XIIesiècle, Paris, 1978, pp. 246-47.
M. Hardingham, Illustrated Dictionary of Fabrics, London, 1978, pp. 148-49, with the clearest technical diagram of tabby.
D. K. Burnham, Warp and Weft: A Textile Terminology, Toronto, 1980, p. 139 and frontispiece illustration of tabby.
Originally Published: December 15, 1987
Last Updated: August 17, 2011
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Vol. III, Fasc.1, p. 20