Friday, February 23, 2007

"Quilt Like an Egyptian"

17 months ago I was here in the 900 year old covered Tentmakers' Souk in Cairo, gobsmacked by the intricately appliqueed quilts hanging from every inch of wallspace inside the tiny shops, being introduced by Jenny Bowker ( to the men whose skilful hands create these intricate designs, men she has come to call her friends, and drinking cups of soothing mint tea.

Quilt after quilt was auditioned for me, until at last I decided on this burgundy-toned one, an elaborate symphony of lotus flowers, symbolising long life, which now hangs in my dining room, halfway across the world.

Inside, though, I felt wretched. Discharged from a Cairo private hospital only the night before, after spending 3 days in intensive care for a particularly nasty case of dysentery, I struggled with queasiness, and my body felt so weak that I could only walk a short distance before needing to rest.

So when I heard that Jenny was staging an exhibition of these spectacular quilts at the Australasian Quilt Convention in Melbourne, and had brought out two of the quilters as well, I simply had to go. I just had to see them again, this time without the fog of nausea.

That is why, for the second time this week, I left the house this morning at a time when I would normally still have been well and truly in the land of Nod. I flew to Melbourne just for the day, on my own, and had a wonderful adventure!

The photo below shows Ahmed Nagib, one of only around 40 quilters who still keep this traditional craft alive. Just as he would have done back home in Cairo, he sat all day stitching and trimming his appliquee pieces as curious visitors to the AQC's "Quilt Like an Egyptian" exhibition craned forward for a closer peek at his work.

[Update: Thank you to Helen who has pointed the way for me to Pam Holland's blog. Pam has made a lively video of the AQC in general, and Ahmed in particular, and here is the link . You can click on the link to her blog too, on the sidebar above, and there you'll find more of Pam's videos. They really bring the experience alive!]

Hovering nearby ready to translate was his nephew, the moustachioed Ayman Ahmed, who warmly greeted me with "I remember you!". Was this mere Egyptian charm, I wondered, or are all Jenny's friends so deeply embedded in his memory? (Please don't disillusion me)

In days gone by these quilts would have been made to hang from the sides of tents on celebratory occasions or during Ramadan at the end of the day when the faithful were permitted to break their fast. Instead these days fabric printed with these patterns is rolled out by the metre for such decoration, and Egyptians no longer aspire to cover their walls with quilts from the Tentmakers' Souk.

[Update: Also from Pam Holland's always entertaining and informative blog is this link to an interesting article on the tentmakers.]

The quilts were wonderful, and on this first day of the AQC almost every one bore a red "sold" sticker, bringing their makers more income than they would generally have earnt in a whole year, as Jenny remarked in her lecture "Egypt: From the Tentmakers' Souk to the City of the Dead".


  1. Thanks for this great post. I watched some videos Pam Holland had posted on her blog. Fascinating to watch Ahmed stitch with a HUGE needle and cut the fabric roughly, not an exact shape. I'm glad they sold well.

  2. The lotus wall hanging is so beautiful, is the applique as exact as say Pam Hollands/Jenny Bowkers?

  3. Hi,

    Thanks for the mention on your blog and for putting the links in. I've just learned how to do that on my blog!!(took me a while)

  4. Lynette, the quality of the applique varies immensely. There is some very fine and exacting work, but also some which looks fantastic for overall effect (like most of mine!). I guess it depends on what the item is to be used for.

    Of course Pam and Jenny are in a league of their own, aren't they? LOL.


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