Just after our 2007 trip to Egypt I wrote in this blog about The Tentmakers , all men, who make appliqued fabric wall hangings tradionally used to line tents, and today still provide gorgeous wall hangings as backdrops to festive events.
At the top, Ashraf is shown sewing in the traditional sewing position, which for various reasons I would find impossibly uncomfortable, and so would most needleworkers I know. Small fabric shapes are cut out with gigantic scissors (usually 12″ blades) and rapidly sewn to the backing fabric by hand, as shown. In the lower pics, at left is a tent selling printed fabrics, and the lower right shows how genuine hand made hangings were used at the campsite in The White Desert where we spent a night.
It’s an ancient craft, going back over 800 years. But the craft and ancient heritage is largely unappreciated in Egypt itself, where people get the same visual effect from cheaper printed fabric featuring traditional designs. The tentmakers are thus heavily dependent on tourism, where visitors to the city inevitably marvel at the work and take away as much of it as they can afford – we certainly did ! – that is IF they have heard of it and know where to find this one street in the old Islamic quarter of Cairo. It’s not usually publicsed by hotels or tour operators. We were taken there by friend Jenny Bowker who, during the time her husband served as Australia’s ambassador to Egypt, must have personally taken hundreds, perhaps thousands, of visitors there, and that she had become very good friends with these people was highly eveident. Without her we would not have been shown this large important commission in progress:
Jenny is pictured holding and looking at one of the set of ninety nine, that’s 99, 1.5m long wall hangings, of widths varying from 3-5m, and that’s a huge amount of fabric and work! I don’t remember which number they said this one was …. When finished the set of hangings was destined to be installed in a large building in another middle eastern country. At top left is a portion of one hanging turned to show the back – the fabric is appliqued directly to canvas, perhaps a sail weight, and the needle picks up just a few of the threads with each stitch. At right the owner of the workshop and showroom is holding one of the many cartoons from which the shapes were meticulously drawn onto the fabric, and for which every small piece of fabric was cut. It would have been very important to get the symbols and heiroglyphics exactly right on these hangings.
There’s currently a fundraising campaign to support the maker of a full length documentary on the tentmakers and their craft. The purpose is to broaden the knowledge of this work within and outside of Egypt. Since leaving Egypt, Jenny herself has taken collections of the tentmakers work usually accompanied by one or two of the craftsmen themselves, to quilt, textile and fibre art exhibitions and galleries in Australia, UK, europe and north america. Textile lovers have become enthusiastic fans and collectors – but a documentary dvd will be another valuable tool in publicising this wonderful traditional textile art. With the political instability of the past couple of years these people are hurting more than ever as tourists stay away from Egypt. But nothing stays the same for ever, and it is hoped that as conditions improve, more people will know in advance of one place they really should visit when in Cairo. If you want to know how you can help, visit the Facebook page for The Tentmakers of Chareh El-Kiahmiah where you can always see lovely pics and comments, sign up for a newsletter each month, and make a financial donation to help the film project on its way.