Egyptian Needlework at Risk of Disappearing; GAZERIT SHANDAWEEL, Egypt -- Veiled Women Gather on Couches in a Small Room with Chipped Sky-Blue Walls. Using Tiny Homemade Copper Needles, They Sew Thin Silver-Metal Strips into Colorful Starched Tulle Cloth That Will Be Sold as Scarves. [Derived Headline]

By Hiel, Betsy | Tribune-Review/Pittsburgh Tribune-Review, October 17, 2015 | Go to article overview

Egyptian Needlework at Risk of Disappearing; GAZERIT SHANDAWEEL, Egypt -- Veiled Women Gather on Couches in a Small Room with Chipped Sky-Blue Walls. Using Tiny Homemade Copper Needles, They Sew Thin Silver-Metal Strips into Colorful Starched Tulle Cloth That Will Be Sold as Scarves. [Derived Headline]


Hiel, Betsy, Tribune-Review/Pittsburgh Tribune-Review


GAZERIT SHANDAWEEL, Egypt -- Veiled women gather on couches in a small room with chipped sky-blue walls. Using tiny homemade copper needles, they sew thin silver-metal strips into colorful starched tulle cloth that will be sold as scarves.

The sparkling designs range from pharaonic to Coptic Christian to Islamic.

"Every scarf has a unique design; each has a story," said seamstress Sheima Abdou, 38, pointing out the varying motifs -- a bride, a candle, a camel. "See these stars? You see them on the pharaonic temples."

The specialized needlework known as tally is unique to rural Upper Egypt and dates back hundreds of years. But it began disappearing in the last century and is at risk of going the way of so many handicrafts, now mass-produced by machine.

Abdou and Dr. Nawal el-Messiri, a member of Egypt's Society for Folk Tradition, are trying to save the artisan skill and generate jobs for women in the villages where it originated.

Messiri, author of "The Making of a Traditional Artist: The Art of Tally and Sustainable Development," said tally produces a "very elegant" material that "sort of glimmers."

The earliest historical reference she has found for the craft is a 19th-century mention of a caliph taxing tally and carpets.

Older versions, made with pure silver and gold thread, were expensive and "elite merchandise," she explained. But demand grew as Christian missionaries and tourists traveled on the Nile in the 1800s and saw the intricate embroidery in villages.

About 290 miles south of Cairo, in Sohag province, Abdou works with about 150 women to produce tally scarves and dresses.

Abdou must speak loudly over the whooshing air and clicking wooden arms of a loom drawing tight the seamstresses' yarns. She recalls how hard it was to learn the painstaking needlework as a 12- year-old.

The original tally "was heavy because it was made with 100 percent silver," she said. "Mothers would give it to their daughters on their wedding day," handing down scarves that often passed through three or four generations.

Tally is "difficult to mechanize," Messiri said, because "you are working with metal thread. Each stitch is a separate stitch. ... You have to pass through six stages of doing it," producing identical designs on both sides of a scarf.

Sales ebb and flow; many belly dancers prefer tally for their costumes, but finding artisans to produce the desired quality is difficult.

Then, in 2002, a researcher whom Messiri sent to Upper Egypt phoned her to exclaim, "I found a treasure! …

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Egyptian Needlework at Risk of Disappearing; GAZERIT SHANDAWEEL, Egypt -- Veiled Women Gather on Couches in a Small Room with Chipped Sky-Blue Walls. Using Tiny Homemade Copper Needles, They Sew Thin Silver-Metal Strips into Colorful Starched Tulle Cloth That Will Be Sold as Scarves. [Derived Headline]
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