Egyptian Imports: A Celebration of Appliquéd Canvases and Papyrus Art Traditions
Patricia L. Cummings
photos by James Cummings
Today, there are still many Tentmakers who continue to ply their needles to make canvases, either those useful ones or else
smaller ones to sell as tourist souvenirs. Their workplace? Why, the Shari Khayyamiyia, “Street of the Tentmakers,” in Cairo,
Egypt! In the not too distant past, thousands of men were engaged in this artistic pursuit. More recently, far fewer artisans
work at this demanding occupation that relies on skill and being fast when creating appliquéd works..
Egyptian Appliqués in New England Shops
Egyptian appliqué pieces, intended for pillow covers, framed pictures, or wall hangings, have been showing up with surprising
frequency lately. One panel that I saw in a New Hampshire antiques shop I bypassed due to the price attached to it. In
returning, after a change of mind, the item had already been sold. The image was that of a Phoenix, the mythological bird that
was celebrated by both Egyptian and Greek cultures. This bird sometimes took on the appearance of a peacock, an eagle, or a
heron. According to legend, only one of these birds existed at any given time but could regenerate itself by fire every 500 to
1,461 years. Symbolically, it represents resurrection and immortality.
This trend of selling imported Egyptian appliqué work may seem to be new but it is not. Items such as these have been sold
in the United States since the turn of the twentieth century, if not a bit prior to that during the late Victorian Era. Some authors
have linked the opening of Tutankhamen’s tomb in 1922 to the overall renewed interest in Egyptology: the study of all things
Egyptian. However, others dismiss that idea entirely, citing other reasons such as more extensive travel in the 1920s..
Early Twentieth Century Fascination
The late Marie Webster, an early twentieth century quilt historian included photos of Egyptian panels and wall hangings and
information about how Egyptians have historically used color. Her book, Quilts: Their Story and How to Make Them (New
York: Doubleday, Page & Company, 1915), notes that (solid) pieces of cotton are most often the fabric of choice for the
appliqués, while linen or cotton canvas are utilized as the background fabric.
Small appliques are sold to tourists. I call this one "The Archer"
The size of this particular design is 18 ½" x 16 ¼."
Home of Cotton and Linen
Historically, Egypt has produced the finest cotton in the world, referred to as super-pima cotton and/or pima cotton.* This
high quality cotton has long-staple threads and is easier to spin without breaking. The fertile agricultural areas along the Nile
River also yield flax, the source of linen, a fiber which once grew wild in early New England, dotting the countryside with its
lovely blue flowers.
Donkeys (minus the correct number of legs)
Methods of Working
The visible black lines where the background canvas was marked is very evident on several of the pieces collected. In a piece
that I call the “Sun Worshippers,” the fabric tip of the appliquéd green flower (on the left), falls short of the leaf initially drawn
by the artist. The line at first seemed to have been done by a black permanent marker.
In doing some further reading, I discovered the following. Some tentmakers like to draw their design shapes directly onto the
canvas. Others use a pin to prick the outline of a shape onto paper. Then, by using a dark chalk or other substance that they
rub on, the design is transferred to the cloth. In a similar manner, "old time quilters" used cinnamon to mark lines for hand
Size of Imported Egyptian Panels
A selected sample of these imports were assembled and measured and were found to have an average size of 17 ¾" square.
This fact-finding was mentioned in a research paper presented by Blaire O. Gagnon, published by the American Quilt Study
Group, cited later in this article.
More research is needed in order to try to determine dates of imported textiles of this type. To try to date any of these pieces
individually is, at the moment, next to impossible. Future scholarship may help us to be able to more easily identify individual
pieces based on construction methods used in their making, and types of designs chosen. This could happen only if enough
examples with a known provenance are collected and documented. Generally speaking, there seems to be a wide range of
quality and size of these wall hangings. All of the Egyptian appliqué pieces that I have personally seen are clearly intended to be
placed vertically to be enjoyed as art.
Prices vary dramatically. A vendor in New Hampshire recently offered an elaborate Egyptian wall hanging for almost $1,000.
In contrast, a more modest, much smaller, more primitive design, (“The Archer”), sold for $3.00 at another shop.
Recently, I was sent internet photos of three Egyptian panels which form a triptych (a quilt which, when hung, looks like one
quilt, but actually is composed of three different sections). Each part would nearly cover the size of a standard door in one’s
Fantastic Research Paper
In 2003, Blaire O. Gagnon presented a research paper at the AQSG annual seminar. The paper titled “Egyptian Appliqués" is
published in Uncoverings 2003, Volume 24 of the Research Papers of the American Quilt Study Group. To gather information
for this paper, Gagnon combined field notes shared by Dr. Betty Waas, University of Wisconsin-Madison Professor Emeritus,
and knowledge gained through reading a translation of a master’s degree thesis on Egyptian Tent Production by Mohammed
Aly Gad, plus additional references, to write her well-researched paper.
If your appetite has been whetted for more information on this subject, you might want to consider ordering that volume of
research papers online at the American Quilt Study Group website page.
Long Standing Tradition
We can readily see that appliqué work is a long standing Egyptian tradition when Blaire O. Gagnon reports that the earliest
known piece was a sail composed of gazelle leather and constructed by both patchwork and appliqué for the temple of King
Sahure in the Fourth Dynasty: 2575-2465 B.C.
Appliqué Art Tradition Based on Tentmaking Skills
The tourist items we are seeing in shops are based upon the skills of this tent making trade. Jayne Spencer, a University of
Cairo librarian, has concluded that the making of tents in Egypt may have originated when invading Turks entered Persia in the
eighth century, as noted by Gagnon. These were created in both geometric and appliqué styles. The earliest appliquéd tent was
found in the tomb of Queen Isi em Kheb and dates to 1000 B.C. The interior of that tent is elaborately adorned with flowers
and animals around the perimeter, and features a blue sky and many stars on the ceiling.
Since homes in Egypt are small, individual panels are assembled to temporarily construct a siwan or suradeq. Both names
denote the enormous tents that are temporary structures which accommodate ceremonies, celebrations, and picnics. In the
past, they have also served as mobile palaces, and as lodging for princes engaged in a hunting expedition. Traditionally, tents
are made in three sizes.
Four Distinct Styles of Tents
Tent colors vary according to the time period in which they were produced. The colors may also correspondence to the style
of tent being manufactured. Four distinct styles have been recognized. The Islamic style is primarily geometric and adheres to
the Islamic doctrine of not including images of animals or humans, a belief similar to the Orthodox Jewish belief of “no graven
images,” or to the practice of the Amish people (who do not allow photos of people).
A second style, Pharanoic tents, celebrate the era of the Pharaohs (2980 BC- 332 BC). Very few examples of this type remain.
The third style, Calligraphic tents, include Arabic writing. Sometimes, quotations from the Koran are featured. The fourth and
final style is Folkloric tents which often present landscape pictorial images.
At the present time, Egyptian decorative appliqué is practiced only in Cairo.
In the same line of Egyptian collectibles are hand-painted, papyrus art. We first came across these in a shop in Greenville, NH.
Scenes depicting the history of Egypt are rendered on papyrus. A certificate of authenticity accompanies each painting, and
some are signed by the artist. Papyrus is prepared from plant fibers of reeds that grow along the Nile River. This has been the
source of all papyrus manufactured since the First Egyptian Dynasty, a process that continued until the eleventh century.
Today, papyrus is sold exclusively for art work.
A company in Wisconsin, Egyptian International Art, imports papyrus art. The biggest surprise was to see paintings online that
are identical to the ones we had purchased. So, if you are looking for "true" antiques, these may not fill the bill. However,
while they are most likely currently made pieces, they are well done, lovely, and affordable examples of collectible art whose
scenes are linked to the history of Egypt.
As always, our trips to antique stores in New England turned up some real treasures that were definitely an impetus for more
research and study. When an object goes beyond what it “is,” to have a greater meaning within an historical context, it
becomes more meaningful. There is so much more for us to discover about the use of symbolism in Egyptian Art. We have
had a lot of fun learning more about Egyptian textiles and papyrus art and we hope that you have enjoyed reading what we
have shared here.
A Quick Look at Egyptology's Sun Gods
By the Fifth Dynasty (2494-2345 BC) RA became a major god often pictured with a hawk head and a headdress featuring a
sun disk. He is identified with the midday sun. He travels across the sky in a solar bark, and in another bark he journeys to the
underworld where he battles with Aposis, the evil serpent whom he has to vanquish every night in order to return to earth the
next day. Ra rules the heavens and Horus serves as his proxy. Khepri is the god of the rising sun and Atum is the god of the
setting sun. Ra is the source of all forms of life which he calls into being by employing their secret names.
*Vintage Textiles Specialist, (the late) Joan Kiplinger of Ohio, recommended that an important notation be added about pima
cotton. She states:
Egypt only produced the finest pima cotton until American Sea Island's cotton came along. This cotton is a superior strain to
pima but hybridization of top strains continue.
According to Joan, "Sea Island cotton is now grown in the USA, off the coast of Georgia, as well as in Brazil, and in the
Caribbean. At present, this cotton is considered to be superior to Egyptian cotton, once the leader in the field, and is
controlled by the American SuPima Association. Today, most superior strains from Egypt are blends of American and
Egyptian pima strains, as well as Sea Island with top Egyptian strains."
Helen Ducker of Hobart, Tasmania, Australia writes:
I have just been reading your information about Egyptian appliqué and have a few comments.
I was in Cairo in November 2001, as a direct result of a talk and display of Egyptian appliqué by Sandra Hardy, an
Egyptologist in Yorkshire, UK. I visited the Street of the Tentmakers and was impressed with their skill and the tradition,
though not with the range of designs available.
Those that I was offered were either large wall coverings from 5' x 5' up to 12' x 12', large floor cushion covers (about 3' x 3')
or small tourist items about 12" x 8". Most of the designs were circular stylised floral patterns, though there were also many
using Islamic pattern or verses from the Koran. The smaller tourist items had scenes or motifs from the ancient Egyptian
paintings - similar to the ones pictured on your website.
In one 'shop' in the street I was shown a modern cityscape done in non natural colours, that looked like an abstract painting
and had been done as an experiment to see if tourists would buy it. This was the only original design I saw anywhere.
I spoke to a 'designer' and he explained how he made a new design. He took a traditional motif such as the lotus and
arranged it in new patterns. He then drew it out on the background (like a canvas material) and told the sewer which colours
to use and where. As far as he was concerned each change of colour made a new design.
On your website: "A company in Wisconsin, Egyptian International Art, imports papyrus art. The biggest surprise was to see
paintings online that are identical to the ones we had purchased. So, if you are looking for "true" antiques, these may not fill
the bill. However, while they are most likely currently made pieces, they are well done, lovely, and affordable examples of
collectible art whose scenes are linked to the history of Egypt."
The main Museum in Cairo was filled with Art students making copies of the ancient Egyptian artifacts and paintings ... they
were everywhere mainly sitting on the floor! Most were working with pencil and paper though some had watercolours. I was
told by my guide that they were students from the university, and that copying the old styles very accurately was most
important. No changes were allowed ... and (he said) that this was the way Art was always taught.
Later in a Papyrus 'shop / factory', I was shown numerous hand painted versions of the same scenes - all with authentication
of the University to state that they were done by authorised artists. I was also shown how to tell the difference between hand
painted work and mass produced transfers, and genuine papyrus and imitation plastic papyrus.
It is therefore highly likely that those online paintings were either these modern authorised copies or old authorised copies or
even prints onto imitation 'papyrus paper'. Very difficult to tell the difference - even in the flesh, (so to speak), as papyrus
does not age as other materials do.
Additional Reading - Annotated List
Ancient Egypt: Its Culture and History, J. E. Manchip White (New York: Dover Publications, Inc., 1970), reprint from a 1952
Egypt: The World of the Pharaohs, edited by Regine Schulz and Matthias Seidel (Konemann). An amazing oversized book
about everything you would want to know about Egypt and more.
Egyptian Decorative Art, W. M. Flinders Petrie (New York: Dover Publications, Inc., 1999) first published in 1895.
Explanations of symbolic decoration with more than two hundred illustrations.
Egyptian Designs, CD Rom and Book, (New York: Dover Publications, Inc.) three hundred seventy two " permission-free
Egyptian Designs, Polly Pinder (UK: Search Press, Ltd.). Design Source Book.
Patricia Cummings' writes about antique quilts and textiles. She and her husband, Jim, provide this educational website for
your enjoyment and enlightenment.
Much has changed since I first wrote this article in 2004. It is hard to believe all that has happened within the last 10 years in
Egypt. Bonnie Browning of the American Quilters Society (AQS) has been to Cairo on buying expeditions to make available
some of the masterpieces of the Tentmakers of Cairo. The organization published a book, and the tentmakers have journeyed
to this country to demonstrate their techniques and to sell their textiles. Much has also changed in the region, politically.
See my blog for an additional article: http://quilltsandmusings.blogspot.com
Copyright September 2004-2014. Patricia Lynne Grace Cummings, Quilter's Muse Publications, Concord, New Hampshire.
All Rights Reserved.