Embroidery and the White Sisters

Photograph of the White Sisters teaching lace making, Burkina Faso, 1930. Photograph of the White Sisters teaching lace making, Burkina Faso, 1930.

A feature of nineteenth and early twentieth century embroidery in North Africa was the influence of various Christian missionaries from Europe and America. In particular Catholic missionaries were active in North Africa, notably in French colonised Morocco, Algeria and Tunisia, and in the Italian colony of Libya.

A group that was very active were the White Sisters, who belong to the Missionary Sisters of Our Lady of Africa, founded by archbishop Charles Lavigerie in Algeria in the late nineteenth century. The sisters were known for donning the traditional white sefsari, hence their name. The White Sisters had the initial goal of evangelising the African continent, specifically North African muslims. The order came, for example, to Tunisia in 1937. Its primary apostolate, the Maison d’Études ('House of Studies') in Tunis, was opened to the public in 1957, one year after Tunisia’s independence from French colonization.

One subject that the Sisters taught local girls was how to embroider in the West European manner. Many of the items were sold to support the activities of the missionary schools. The activities of such schools are regarded in different ways. Some regard it as an example of colonial exploitation at a level near to slavery. Other people regard it as an example of giving an imported skill to girls and women, many of whom had already learnt to embroidery at home, but in the local styles, so reinforcing the idea that imported foreign styles are superior to local forms. There is yet another group who regard the fact that girls were educated and taught a skill, no matter in what form, was a plus for the girl in question.

The Sisters' initiative, however, was not new in North Africa. As noted elsewhere, a feature of the Maghreb is the existence of special schools for girls who would later become both domestic and professional producers of embroidery. Algeria was certainly not different. There is an early reference, albeit indirect, to such schools in a description of Algiers in the late sixteenth century by the priest and ex-captive, Antonio de Sosa. It should be noted, however, that Sosa could be fiercely anti-Algerian, due to his experiences, and biased because the book was written with the aim of deliberately impressing Philip II, the Spanish king. As a result, the following description by Sosa of the quality of Algerian embroidery should not be taken as fact. Nevertheless it is still interesting because of his reference to embroidery schools.

"Few women know how to work on silk [embroidery], unless it be some renegade [Christian turned Muslim] or Morisca from Spain who learned it in her homeland, or daughters born of these women, whose mothers have taught them the skill. In all, there is no lack of public teachers for Moorish women, but the subjects taught are very limited and rudimentary. The women have small will to learn and their mothers even less to pressure them to learn. This is why female Christian captives are so prized, especially those who work with their hands" (Garcés and Wilson 2011:203).

Such local schools were also in operation in Morocco and Tunisia at the same time and continued to be run well into the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. During the nineteenth century there is more evidence to indicate that embroidery schools were run both by local Arab women as well as foreign groups.

Digital source of illustration (retrieved 16 June 2016).


Last modified on Monday, 17 April 2017 13:49