The Tentmakers of Old Cairo

Khan Khayamiya – the Market of the Tentmakers – stretches opposite Bab Zuweilah in the heart of Old Islamic Cairo. This is the only remaining place in Old Cairo that still has a covering over the street. The sun slants in dusty fingers through the openings in the roof. An occasional donkey cart or truck forces it way through, and good natured people step aside to make room in the narrow street. Brightly coloured hangings cover the walls and hang outside the doors, and stitchers sit and sew in every shop.

Tentmaker work is brilliantly coloured appliqué, and it is usually men who make it. The name comes from the fact that the work used to line tents or screens covered in appliqué that could line a whole street, or define an area for a Ramadan feeding table, a wedding, a henna party, or a funeral. It was never intended to be fine and beautiful work.

The designs are intricate and beautiful. Some are designed on paper-fold principles, others derived from Mosque floors or door decorations, or from wall panels in Pharaonic tombs. Some are based on Koranic calligraphy.

There has been little effort in Egypt to keep this work and preserve it. The art is dying. Its connection with funerals deems it unlucky to put inside a house. The work is seen as the work of labourers, and is not admired or respected. Imitation printed fabric is made now printed in Egypt on long-lasting synthetic fabric to replace work made by the Tentmakers. There were about 255 excellent stitchers when I visited in 1979. There are now perhaps only about 45 of the master stitchers left, and while many work in the back streets they are rarely doing their own design work.

Since 2007 I have worked with the tentmakers to get their work out into the wider world and to show people what magnificent work they do. We have had exhibitions of their work in Melbourne, Australia, St Marie Aux Mines in Alsace, France, Arancena in Spain, The Festival of Quilts in Birmingham, UK and most recently - the University of Durham, in the UK. All have sold out, and in every place they have had rave responses.

We need sponsorship to run these as the men have little in savings, especially after the revolution. The costs are quite high – air fares, accommodation near the venue, and something towards food while they work. The combination of a demonstration of what they do and the spectacular displays pull large crowds.

If the tentmakers did their own selection there would be heavy pressure put on them from their own families to take just family work. I have always thought it important that the assistance for the street is impartial, and I try to take work from every shop.  and I usually pay my own way – first to help to select the work in Egypt, then to fly to wherever the show is to help the men with the setup and their English.

If you visit Cairo please go and meet my friends. I can think of few things better than to sit in one of these shops watching the world go by and sipping hot hibiscus tea, watching the flying fingers stitching down bright colours on a soft cotton ground.

Click here for a map to help you to find the tentmakers if you go to Cairo.

Jenny Bowker -, 0432610607