The Appliqu on Kheiymiya Street in Cairo, Egypt

The Appliqu on Kheiymiya Street

Mohamed Kamel Youssef, an Applique shop owner

The Appliqu craft in Egypt has a venerable history. It was brought to Egypt centuries ago and today is practiced by the tentmakers found on Kheiymiya Street, south of Bab Zweila in Cairo. They skillfully work their traditionally practiced craft, inspirited by the appliqu work that once decorated the interiors of nomadic Arabic tents. Today these craftsmen understand the decline in demand for tents in the modern Arab world, so instead, they use their skills more for household decorative items. The colors they use are brilliant and the Islamic, pharaonic and other motifs make them ideal souvenirs to take home.

Appliqu is a French word, which was brought to Egypt when Napoleon conquered Egypt in the 18th century. Basically, it employs the use of patches of colored fabrics sewn over a background fabric to produce designs and scenes. This form of craft is distinct from what is known as patch work, which is usually used to repair a damaged fabric by superimposing pieces over ruined areas.

Making Egyptian Appliqu on Kheiymiya Street

The Appliqu craft has been battling to survive in most of the neighboring Arab countries. Many have lost their ancestral taste for designing and they often commission Egyptians to make and export household items for them. Most of the craftsmen in Egypt are located on Kheiymiya Street, which was built in 1650, though Bab Zweila was built by the Fatimids in 1092. During the Ottoman period, the doors were called Bab El-Metwalli, after a local saint known for his healing powers. It is known as the citys only surviving covered market, and it is one of those streets that are so very interesting to take a walk down its narrow alley that has shops on either of its sides. In the shop windows are displayed the handmade cotton appliqu work, from pillow cases to bedspreads, with cushions, quilts and, of course, tents.

Making Egyptian Appliqu on Kheiymiya Street

This is my grandfathers craft, I inherited it from him, said Mohamed Kamel Youssef, a tentmaker. I started learning appliqu work at the age of 12. It was a hard task to learn in the beginning but within a couple of months one can become a professional, he added.

While the actual work is not difficult to learn, one must first have a talent for drawing and design. The hard part is creating new designs. Then you have to draw these designs you created on the fabric. The artist makes tiny holes on the outline of the design, or he draws around the pattern with a piece of charcoal. Next you cut out the patterns in different colors and stitch them creating the adorable pieces around you", states Youssef, as he points out the fabrics hanging about his shop.

Making Egyptian Appliqu on Kheiymiya Street

Most of the designs have an Islamic motif, inspired from the mosaics that decorate the mosques around us, yet we still try to mix tastes. The tourists that come usually ask for Pharaonic, birds, peasants and folkloric designs. Thats why we have to invent new styles to keep our craft alive.

The current economic recession has badly affected the craftsmen of Kheiymiya. We are starting to become extinct. We are the only ones left who practice this craft, said Youssef. There is a lack of demand in modern Egypt for such work. The Egyptians no longer decorate their homes with these fabrics. They now prefer to decorate in a Western fashion.

The country doesnt encourage this kind of craft. For example, any tourism program includes a visit to Khan el-Khalili, but none of them come to Bab Zweila. When you think about it, you realize that the foreigners are the ones who really appreciate the work, not the Egyptians, added Youssef. Actually, visiting the street of the tentmakers is an interesting walk. If one is not opposed to a little exercise, walking from the Khan el-Khalili to the Citadel leads past these shops, and others, providing tourists with a nice journey through Islamic Cairo.

See Also:

Return to Shopping in Egypt

last updated: June 8th, 2011