Friday,15 December, 2017
Current issue | Issue 1315, (13 -19 October 2016)
Friday,15 December, 2017
Issue 1315, (13 -19 October 2016)

Ahram Weekly

A passion for stitching

Mai Samih talks to patchwork entrepreneur Soheir Mohamed, a woman who has managed to find a new function for a traditional craft

Al-Ahram Weekly

Soheir Mohamed is a Faculty of Commerce graduate who has started a project to renovate the art of patchwork through an online business called Sue’s Patchwork.

“Ever since I was a child I have loved to make things like handmade crocheting. I also used to knit. In the 1990s I was in Saudi Arabia with my husband and still making crocheted things. I found that one of my neighbours from Jordan was making patchwork products. I bought a magazine and saw some pictures of patchwork products in it that attracted me,” she remembers when describing the origins of her business.

She then started to read more about patchwork. “In 1995, I asked my neighbour where and how she had learnt patchwork.

She told me about a Canadian woman living in Riyadh who gave lessons, and I went and asked her to teach me. She gave me all the basics, and I would then go home and finish the work I had started in her sessions. I started with a cushion, and then she asked me to join a class with others who already worked in the craft.”

A year later, her husband finished his work in Saudi Arabia, but Mohamed’s passion for the craft encouraged her to learn more about it when she returned to Egypt. “When I left Saudi Arabia I hadn’t started my business, but I had started to educate myself. This craft is like a sea — there is not much information about it, and even now I am still learning by joining online courses like patchwork bag making,” she says.

She has also attended courses to learn how to make quilts, bed and table runners, cushions, and clothes from patchwork, among other things.

It took a lot of support from her family and friends before Mohamed finally started her own business. “I decided to start three years ago. Before that patchwork was just a hobby. I already had the tools, but I needed something to encourage me to start and to ensure that I was on the right path. I started by making things for my own children. I also made my friends a quilt for their new-born baby. However, I didn’t have the courage to put together a business proposal. This only came when I attended a seminar entitled ‘a passion to profit.’”

“The word ‘passion’ did not mean a lot to me at first, as we didn’t use to hear it a lot in Egypt. Nevertheless, I quickly went to reserve a place on the session. It aimed to help you find out exactly what your passions were and to decide which ones could be transformed into a business,” Mohamed adds.

“They did not have patchwork in their list of passions, so I wrote it down. I also discovered that although I loved baking and cooking I could not turn them into a business but I could do that with patchwork. I took part in a second round with instructor Mohamed Tohami. He asked me to take photographs of the things I had made out of patchwork, which I did, and the other members of the group were very impressed by them.”

From here it was not long before Mohamed started her own business. “One day, a colleague on the course asked me to make a patchwork quilt for the baby of one of her relatives. I had not started my business then, but I had two aims in mind: first, to spread the craft of patchwork, and second to sell good quality products through a Website. Even if I have now found an idea I like, I still have to put my own spirit into it, and this is what I have tried to do with the materials I now sell on my site,” she comments.

“I now also teach other people the basics of patchwork in the Meshkat Gallery in Cairo and in the Diwan Library. I also work for NGOs like Adwaa Al-Mostaqbal, where I have taught some 14 courses,” she adds.

Today, she focuses on integrating patchwork into daily life. “I make baby quilts instead of larger ones as they take more time and effort and need a bigger machine. I also make plate mats, small bags, children’s bags, earphone bags and make-up bags, all out of patchwork. I want to try to make backpacks in the future,” she says.

Mohamed uses 100 per cent cotton fabrics as patchwork products must be made out of cotton. If the fabrics are 80 per cent cotton they can still be used, however. “It is not good to mix different types of fabrics together, as when making small pieces you have to layer the background and sew all three layers at the same time. If you use fabric of different thicknesses it doesn’t look so nice,” she says.  

“I buy my materials either from the Al-Azhar Market or from Wekalet Al-Balah Market in Cairo. As a rule of thumb, you can make good things with ordinary materials, but with materials that cost a little more you can make really great products,” she comments.

For tools, she uses a rotary cutter, or one that is in the shape of a circle like a pizza cutter. If this is used to cut on wood or glass it can slip, which is why Mohamed uses a special rectangular mat made from a special type of rubber. She uses rulers that are 30cm or 60cm in length, depending on the length required. She also uses a sewing machine to ensure the durability of her products and a steam iron, which is important to ensure the accuracy of the patchwork. The iron presses the material and preserves its shape.  

The time it takes to make a patchwork product depends on the measurements and the design. “If I am making a cushion that has a simple design, I can make it in a day, meaning some four or five hours,” she says. “But if it is a really complicated design, it can take days to make. A baby quilt could take a month to make. A large quilt could take many months.”

 Prices for a small bag range from LE10 to LE15, while LE60 is the price of a large woman’s bag or baby’s bag. A make-up bag could cost LE40 or LE50, depending on the size. Baby quilts cost about LE400 to LE500 depending on size. Most of Mohamed’s customers are women who buy the bags and babies’ quilts and girls who buy the small bags.

“There is a common misconception about patchwork in Egypt, namely that it is all about scraps of cloth,” Mohamed says.

“Whereas in fact you can use different types of left-over material like they do abroad provided that these are in harmony with each other. You can make a lot of things using just tiny pieces of cloth,” she adds.

“I try to make useful things like bags with patchwork designs. When I started, I tried to make Arabic designs in patchwork, creating a form of patchwork with a traditional Arabic flavour. I have recently started to make bags out of old jeans and intend to post these on my Website. I am also starting to make special things with clothes, especially babies’ clothes. I found something on the Internet about using old babies’ clothes to make quilts, for example.”

“I have made two of these so far, one for a girl and another for a boy. I cut the old clothes from the front and back and sew them on the quilts, even including the logos of old T-shirts,” Mohamed comments, adding that she sees children’s bags and baby quilts as her speciality as she particularly loves to make things for babies.

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