The traditional delicacy of tulle-bi-telli

Khaled El-Ghamry, Tuesday 28 Jun 2022

There is history and meaning in the intricate and exquisite embroidery of tulle-bi-telli, one of Egypt’s best-known traditional fabrics, writes Khaled El-Ghamry


The French city of Tulle may take the credit for first making hand-made tulle, a very fine, light-weight fabric, in the 18th century. However, traces of tulle and similar fabrics date back to ancient Egypt, meaning that the ancient Egyptians were making a similar fabric though calling it by a different name.

Fast-forward to the 1930s in Egypt where the dresses of belly dancers were elegant, smooth, and exquisite, each a hand-made masterpiece made of tulle-bi-telli. The fabric was often made of silk or cotton and was delicately embroidered with golden or silver thread.

Tulle-bi-telli was not popularised at the time as much as it might have been because the public associated it mostly with belly dancers. It was not until the 1990s that it regained popularity, this time among the general public, due to the efforts of heritage aficionados and handicrafts and plastic artists who worked on reviving this type of Egyptian art and presenting it in handicrafts exhibitions and establishing training schools for those wishing to make it.

Aziza Abdel-Hamid, who owns a tulle-bi-telli workshop and lives on Shandawil Island in Sohag in Upper Egypt, said that she started working in embroidery at the age of 12 in schools run by the Cultural Palaces Organisation and at tulle-bi-telli workshops.

She was passionate about handicrafts such as sewing, khayamiya, embroidery, and making shoes and bags, though when she started such things were a hobby. It was only later that she started developing her own products and coming up with new ideas for tulle-bi-telli.

“Sohag is the most famous governorate for the tulle-bi-telli industry because of an English visitor who took a photograph of a tulle-bi-telli dress in one of the museums on Shandawil Island in the late 1980s. She showed it off when she got home, attracting international interest to this traditional Egyptian form of art and increasing the demand for it,” Abdel-Hamid said.

“Tulle-bi-telli is a difficult type of embroidery because the thread used is thick, being covered with a layer of gold or silver. During the embroidery process, the fabric should be tight and the knit is done several times so that the end result is soft,” Abdel-Hamid explained, adding that in the making of tulle-bi-telli different fabrics can be used, including tulle, silk, and linen to make cloaks, shawls, and evening and wedding attire.

“All tulle-bi-telli designs are derived from Egyptian nature and culture, and they include palm trees, camels, brides, knights, closed triangles, mosques, and crosses. The figures have a Pharaonic air about them, even if the tulle-bi-telli thread is imported from France, Germany, or China, proving that the craft is originally Egyptian, despite some contradictory claims,” Abdel-Hamid stated.

“The majority of tulle-bi-telli buyers are women of different nationalities, but demand has recently increased, and it has also started to appeal to some men. I started by making ties, which gave me the idea of making jewellery and accessories such as chains, necklaces, earrings, buttons, pendants, bags, and shoes all made of tulle-bi-telli,” she added.

“Although these crafts are limited to women in Upper Egypt, my husband, son, and 18-year-old daughter Khadiga assist me in marketing my products. One of the most important ways of doing this is through handicrafts exhibitions, where people and companies buy the products and then export them.”

She added that she feels she is responsible for teaching the people of her village the art of tulle-bi-telli. Together with her daughter, Abdel-Hamid has taught more than 100 women and girls this art of embroidery, and today Khadiga is an experienced teacher and girls as young as 10 compete to learn and perfect the art.

Referring to some obstacles in marketing her products, Abdel-Hamid said that some thread may be unavailable, or only at high prices. The latter had increased by about 30 per cent, she said, adding to the cost of final products and delivery times, especially when taken in addition to the high rentals charged for spaces in exhibitions.

“The banks and the Social Fund should do more to provide soft loans for workers in the tulle-bi-telli industry to help them to preserve this authentic art,” she said.


DESIGNS: Doaa Mustafa, a businesswoman and fan of the art of tulle-bi-telli, explained that the prices of cloaks and dresses made in the fabric could range from LE1,500 to LE5,000, while wedding dresses could cost up to LE10,000, depending on the amount of the embroidery, its quality, and the type of fabric used.

“Special designs should be developed that retain their Egyptian character to match modern tastes. More fabrics should also be used to suit different age groups and be worn on different occasions,” Mustafa said.

“Workers in the tulle-bi-telli industry should be given training courses in marketing, design, and customer service to learn the importance of maintaining relations with their customers when it comes to pricing and deadlines,” she added.

Sidra Khaled, an 18-year-old student, believes that her generation does not know much about tulle-bi-telli and that it does not suit her in its current form. Perhaps if it was used in a simpler way and in different forms she could wear outfits made of it, especially on special occasions such as weddings, she said.

Shaimaa Al-Naggar, a resident of Shandawil, said that she had learned about the tulle-bi-telli industry by chance at the age of 12. “I was playing with friends in front of the house when we met a neighbour who asked me to accompany her to buy tulle-bi-telli embroidery thread. I was intrigued, and then I learned the craft at the hands of the daughter of our neighbour,” she said.

Al-Naggar was a quick learner, mastering knitting in classes at her elementary school, for example. She then worked in several tulle-bi-telli workshops in her village before deciding to work in the business independently.

She added that she had lost money several times because she had found it difficult to market her products. Upper Egyptian customs forbade women to travel alone without their parents, and her father insisted that she should not attend exhibitions held outside the village to display her work.

When an exhibition of handicrafts was held by the Ministry of Local Development in Cairo, Al-Naggar tried to pressure her father into letting her go to it. “My friends told him that they would not leave me alone and that it would be the only time I travelled alone. He eventually agreed,” she said.

The event was a breakthrough for Al-Naggar. The exhibition was opened by then president Hosni Mubarak, and Al-Naggar was captured on television shaking hands with the president. All of Al-Naggar’s pieces were sold, and she was contracted to do more tulle-bi-telli work.

In 2000, the ministry was preparing another exhibition and asked Al-Naggar to attend. Her father refused, however, even with the attempts of her friends and brother to convince him that she would have to pay a fine if she missed it. It was only when the other villagers showed him a video of his daughter shaking hands and talking with Mubarak at the previous exhibition that her father agreed.

He knew his daughter would go places with her talent, as indeed she did. Al-Naggar went on to participate in handicrafts exhibitions in Italy, France, India, and the UAE, among other countries.


HISTORY: Al-Naggar explained that tulle-bi-telli was famous during the era of Mohamed Ali in the early 19th century as he was personally very interested in handicrafts and fine art.

He used to present royal visitors and Egyptian princesses with clothes embroidered with tulle-bi-telli thread of pure gold and silver. Princesses wore it and considered it a fine example of Egyptian heritage. Queen Nazli, the wife of Egypt’s king Fouad, used to wear dresses embroidered with tulle-bi-telli. Today, Paris museums exhibit unique embroidered tulle-bi-telli pieces.

Al-Naggar added that tulle-bi-telli can vary in quality. Metal thread is the cheapest for the embroidery because it rusts, while thread plated with silver or gold is more expensive. The most expensive fabrics of all are those that are embroidered with thread made of pure silver or gold.

Pieces can range from LE300 to LE7,000 for cloaks and dresses depending on the quality, the type of thread, and the days spent embroidering the piece. The latter can range from one to 15 days. Some pieces, such as wedding dresses embroidered with silver thread, can cost up to LE30,000 and take about six months to make.

Al-Naggar said that most of her clients are from the upper classes, not because her products are expensive, but because these clients appreciate this kind of embroidery and the time and effort put into it. “They know that hand-made work is different from that embroidered by machine. I also receive foreign clients that know the value of tulle-bi-telli,” she said.