Quilting heritage

March 21, 2023

The Karun Thakar Fund has awarded artist and designer Maya Gowaily a project grant in support of her project ‘Quilting Her-itage: Khiyamiyya Stories’. Here, Maya introduces herself and her project.

Two people holding a decorated hanging against a wall.
Al-Hattaba Khiyamiyya wall hanging, 2020. Photograph: Ahmed Abo El-Fadl

I am a costume designer as well as a textile product designer. I completed my MA in Costume design for performance at the London College of Fashion in 2016. In 2017 I went on to design costumes and do styling for TV commercials as well as several short films in Egypt. I’ve also designed textile products inspired by the heritage districts of old Cairo, working with organisations committed to the preservation of these areas and the well-being of their inhabitants, such as Athar Lina Initiative and the Egyptian Heritage Rescue Foundation (EHRF).

In 2019 I completed a project in collaboration with the Athar Lina Initiative in one such Cairo district, called Al-Hattaba, near the famous Salah-eldin Citadel. I worked with women from the district to design a large Khiyamiyya applique piece inspired by the women’s stories and their attachment to their homes. At the time, the people of Al-Hattaba had been told that they would have to evacuate their residences and be relocated, as the government planned to refurbish the area to make it more appealing to tourists. Our project aimed to shed light on the importance of the place to its inhabitants, and the sense of security they felt living there.

We further wanted to engage them with the craft of Khiyamiyya applique, a famous Egyptian traditional quilting technique. By teaching the women the technique, we hoped that they would in turn keep it alive and at the same time gain a source of income. The resulting art piece, alongside documentation of  its making process, was used as advocacy material for a campaign to encourage authorities to rethink the demolition of the Al-Hattaba neighbourhood and consider alternative development approaches.

My current Karun Thakar Fund supported project aims to work with the women of the Al-Khalifa district, another heritage site in old Cairo rich with beautiful Islamic architecture. This project likewise sits under the umbrella of the Athar Lina Initiative, and is focused on local women telling stories about their relationship with their home. We hope to gather intangible stories, memories and myths beyond the physical heritage of al-Khalifa district, which will then be translated into a Khiyamiyya  piece made by the women themselves.

Most heritage sites in Cairo are impoverished districts where people have resided for many years. I will be working with women in Al-Khalifa to hold a storytelling workshop in which they can narrate stories about their neighbourhood. They will then sketch drawings inspired by these tales and, on the final storytelling day, will work with scraps of textiles to re-create in cloth some of the images they created while talking, listening and sketching. Following the storytelling workshop there will be a second workshop with a Khiyamiyya craftsman, during which the women will learn the basics of Khiyamiyya applique as well as some basic embroidery techniques. Finally, I will create a cohesive design inspired by the women’s stories and artwork, and they will work it into a large Khiyamiyya wall hanging.

Following on from this stage of the project, a second stage will focus on designing and creating products such as bags and pouches inspired by the art work in the Khiyamiyya wall hanging, the production and sale of which will allow the women to gain sustainable income.

A table top showing a woman planning their design
Storytelling workshop with the women of Al Khalifa district, January 2023. Photograph: Aya Hani
A group working around a table.
Storytelling workshop with the women of Al Khalifa district, January 2023. Photograph: Aya Hani
A group around a table, all are working with textles
Visualising stories into quilted pieces from storytelling workshop with the women of Al Khalifa district, January 2023. Photograph: Aya Hani
A close-up shot of a colourful wall hanging
Detail of Al-Hattaba Khiyamiyya wall hanging, 2020. Photograph: Ahmed Abo El Fadl
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