Silk Weaving in Egypt
In a village in southern Egypt, a new generation of artisans weave threads of the past into shawls.
From the corner of an old mud brick house, Srour Mourad has been weaving for the past 30 years. Seated at a wooden loom, with hundreds of lengthy yarn strands extended before him, the 68-year-old follows movements devised thousands of years ago. He is turning pink silk threads into a ferka, a shawl representing the deep cultural heritage of southern Egypt’s prehistoric Naqada village.
While in conversation, Mourad’s hands and legs never pause their rhythmic beating of the loom. The old man is one of the last few weavers who still use a traditional loom, called noel in Arabic.
Strands of white thread are stretched as long and wide as the ferka’s final measurements; a blank canvas, ready to come to life. Indeed, the weavers call the process ‘drawing’. Using a makouk, a wooden tool that is passed through the threads from one side to the other, they fill the canvas with colours and patterns.
Top: Om Mohamed, a weaver at the Muslim Girls Association
Bottom: Hoda prepares the warp beams that will be used as the base of the ferkas
Up until a couple of decades ago, the ferka’s main market was Sudan. The shawl was a tradition in ceremonies, and accompanied girls in their most pivotal phases of life. Sudanese women would take two pairs of the same design and wear them as an outfit, like a long sari-type cloth worn by brides on their weddings. On their bachelorette henna nights, the red striped ferka was the go-to design. Women in other African cities such as Nairobi and Addis Ababa also used it when giving birth, and considered it a good luck charm.
At three meters long and 90 centimetres wide, it could take a weaver two days to finish one ferka. Designs were originally an interplay between black, white, yellow and red stripes: the Mezeyya had two black stripes along the whole length of the shawl, sandwiching its main white colour; the Barouty, one of the most expensive ferkas, was made entirely of silk. Safeeha, Benamla and Shaheyya are some other ferkas still in memory of the weavers.
Top: Srour Mourad holds the beater to push the weft yarn into place
While the Pharaohs weaved ferkas of linen and wool, shawls today are made of silk, cotton, viscose and velvet. Once manufactured in Egypt, yarns are now imported from Indonesia, India and China. Silk was introduced in the 16th century, when Tunisian weavers, famous for their silk tablecloths, migrated to Egypt. The material merged with the Egyptian weaving technique, invented in 4000 BCE.
The alleyways of Naqada are so narrow that one needs to go through one house to reach the other. This intimate environment paved the way for Hoda to learn ferka weaving in one of her neighbours’ homes, when she was only 12. Now in her forties, Hoda easily produces up to three ferkas a day, while someone new to the craft could spend a whole week to produce this amount.
These days, ferkas are no longer exported en masse to Sudan. Some locals cite dying traditions and a change of culture, others political tensions between the two countries. Civil war in Sudan, along with economic hardships, has played a role in the termination of the ferka trade. Before, not one house in Naqada would be empty of a noel – some would have two or three – but today, that is no longer the case. The decline in export hugely influenced the already low-wage craft, and many locals have turned to other jobs. The art of silk weaving, transmitted through the generations since the time of the Pharaohs, is now passed down to fewer and fewer children.
This led teacher Hazem Tawfik to establish the ferka department at an NGO called The Muslim Girls Foundation, where 30 women of different ages make a living out of weaving.
‘Handmade shawls have a soul, unlike mass produced goods. Every piece is unique in its own way, and no other like it is ever done,’ Tawfik says.
Not only has he been striving to preserve the craft, but also developing it. New patterns have been introduced, such as Al Nejma, ‘the star’, where diamonds are scattered on the scarf. Tawfik travelled to India on a mission, bringing back new techniques and designs, and new knowledge to the craftswomen.The foundation also collaborates with PhD candidates from Helwan University in Cairo, which help with dissertations and imagining new drawings.
A weaver draws the weft yarn between the warp yarns to create designs and patterns
‘It’s a hobby that the women expend their energy on. They get creative with patterns and colours, and test out new drawings. They find themselves in this skill,’ Tawfik says, proud of how his team sometimes show up on weekends to work.
‘They sometimes ask if they can teach others,’ he says. The foundation is also willing to teach any woman who expresses dedication.
The treadles are foot pedals used to move the shafts, allowing the shuttle to pass through
Before the 1980s, more than 70 per cent of the 145,000 inhabitants of Naqada took up weaving. Today, that number is down to 40 per cent, around 900 families. Yet it remains the village's number one craft.
Om Mohamed, at 46, only learnt weaving a year ago. ‘All my life, I have liked the craft. But I was married and my husband would not allow me to work,’ she says. After he died, she did what she had always wanted to, despite her family’s disapproving. She learnt through watching the younger weavers, who would later teach her some tricks. ‘My family opposed the idea, but now they wish to join me,’ she says.
Hazem Tawfik, who heads the ferka department in Naqada’s Muslim Girls Association
Another threat facing the craft is that younger generations often consider weaving a job of lower status. ‘I’m used to being outdoors, I don’t want to stay at home,’ Hanan Mohamed, 24, says. Yet she does not want her children to become weavers. ‘I want something better for them: to be a teacher, an engineer or a journalist.’
To come around this sentiment, women often build a noel in their house. Some of the girls Tawfik and his crew have taught in turn teach their sisters and mothers, and take back noels for them to weave at home.
Top: Preparing the warp beams to start a ferka; here, done manually
Products are sold in tourist markets, mainly in cities like Hurghada, Luxor and Aswan. But 80 percent of the foundation’s work is exported through the association Fair Trade.
Dreaming of the day when teaching and crafts, both Tawfik’s passions, will fuse together, he’s put forth the suggestion to introduce ferka weaving to schools. Meanwhile, it’s up to passionate individuals like.
Om Mohamed to keep the ancient craft abloom. ‘It needs patience. If you love what you do, money will come later,’ she says, adding that some days she would wake up at dusk and head straight to the foundation, to finish what she began a day earlier.
Writer: Aya Nader
Photographer: Nada Elissa
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