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Mother-of-pearl is valued for its attractive shine and protective properties.  In the Western Desert of Egypt, the women of Siwa Oasis use mother-of-pearl buttons called Tutintfukt in their embroidery. The Jenny Balfour-Paul Collection at the Pitt Rivers Museum includes many such beautifully decorated pieces.

The sun is a common motif in Siwan embroidery with Tutintfukt meaning “eye of the sun” being deliberately chosen for their iridescence. This capability to both absorb and reflect the sun’s rays is said to create a barrier of protective light over the wearer. Buttons are often arranged in sunburst patterns or clustered in groups of 3, 5 and 7 which are considered auspicious numbers.

The community have retained their traditional methods of embroidery due to Siwa’s remote location, flanked on all sides by desert. Nevertheless, the mother-of-pearl used has travelled great distances to reach them, from as far as the Arabian Sea and Indian Ocean. Shells are traded by merchants along Trans-Saharan trade routes and later crafted into buttons by artisans.

Buttons are especially stitched into bridal clothes and wedding items such as the basket above. Mothers begin to collect materials for their daughter’s bridal outfit on her third birthday. Every button is checked meticulously during the selection process. Buttons must be bright white and free of blemishes or decolourisation. More recently, plastic buttons and sequins are also used as they are more readily available.

Louise Thandiwe Wilson, Multaka-Oxford Collections Officer 

Image: Wedding basket, woven palm leaf decorated with mother-of-pearl buttons, red leather and silk tassels (2018.37.63 ©Pitt Rivers Museum, Jenny Balfour-Paul Collection)

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