December 18, 2014

Egyptian Appliqué Art

Welcome to Egypt!

Having just visited Turkey during the ancient Roman era in my previous post, let's continue the tour with a stop in Egypt for a little needlework history.

A friend brought over a gracefully appliquéd pillow case that had been purchased for her in Egypt. It's about 33" square, for a floor cushion.  She asked me to put a sleeve on it so she can hang it on her wall

This prompts me to also share a wall hanging that I found at an estate sale, quite clearly also made in Egypt.  It is about 40" x 17" - the camels are about 12" tall.

Sharing the photos of course meant that I needed to research the art.  Over the years, I've heard about the Egyptian appliqué tradition, but hadn't ever taken the time to learn more about it.  So.

The art of Egyptian appliqué, known as khayamiya, has long and deep roots as the decorated interior side of the canvas walls of large desert tents.  Now, the art is often seen in smaller pieces like these that are made for sale to tourists.

The designs are in the ancient decorative art tradition that is common all over the Muslim world.

The work is traditionally, and still, done by men.  There is a street in Cairo called Khayamiya Street which continues as the center of the appliqué industry, often a family business passed from generation to generation.  It is, unfortunately, in danger of becoming a dying art.  These pieces are used locally for interior decor and often commissioned for celebrations.  But people are now also buying printed knock-offs of the design style.

My hanging was found at an estate sale in a collection of camels in all sorts of media.  It was a no-brainer for me to buy it - wonderful needlework plus an ancient Egyptian theme.  You can see that the cotton is appliquéd onto the traditional heavy linen used for the tents.  The linen is there as a base fabric in the pillow cover, too.  A cream cotton was layered on before the appliqués were added.

A google search will lead you to many resources about the Egyptian tentmakers.

The Textile Research Centre in Leiden, The Netherlands, has a blog post about these appliqués, and also a virtual presentation of the 2015 exhibit of the Centre's collection.  It includes descriptive and historical information, and photos of a wide range of design styles and subject matter.

An interesting tidbit is that the stitches go into, but not through, the linen.  In other words, no stitches are to show on what would be the outside of the tent.

I found a video showing the process including pattern making, pattern transfer, and stitching.

Definitely check out the technique.  The appliqué patches are just rough cut, i.e. no shapes drawn on them.  They are not even pinned on.  They are cut to the exact shape bit by bit as the stitching happens.  All the work is done in the lap, thigh becomes table top.  And these guys sew really fast!  One video I watched told of a well-known aphorism something like this - "A slow tentmaker has a hungry family".


  1. I have foyr very similar camel hangings that came from my Dad when he was in Egypt during the war. Interesting to see something so similar!

    1. How cool! I have no info about the history or age of mine. The person whose estate was being sold obviously loved camels and had collected camel art in all sorts of media. The display filled about half the living room!

    2. Hello! Really interesting post. I have also acquired some Egyptian Applique art recently. Three large panels. The longest is 139cm in length. Really similar to the work you show in your post. Trying to work out how to send you a picture of them...

    3. Wow, from what I've read and heard, the smaller pieces like mine are made for the tourist market, but larger pieces like yours are bought more by local folks and used for special occasions and such. You can email photos: annquilts at comcast dot net

  2. I am attempting to gently clean an Egyptian applique fabric wallhanging that I suspect was made in the 1920's and has been hanging in our cabin in New Hampshire ever since. I will send you a photo in case you have any relevant information on the origin of such items. Thanks.

    1. Yes, I got your email, and will respond over there. Thanks!