THIS Saturday sees the launch of the latest exhibition at Fisherton Mill, a collection of work by the Tentmakers of Cairo. The Tentmakers are a group with a slightly misleading moniker, but one with a fascinating history, as I discovered when I spoke to the exhibition’s curator, John Fisher last week.

The Tentmakers get their name from producing Khayamiya – intricate textile artworks or appliqué that originally featured on the travelling tents of the Ottoman Empire. The main tradition dates back to the seventeenth and eighteenth century, though examples of appliqué were also discovered in the tomb of Tutankhamun. In the second half of the nineteenth century, the technique grew in popularity during the Khedivate of Egypt. This was a period when the country began to develop as a travel destination: Thomas Cook ran its first tours to the country, the Suez Canal opened, and there became a growing demand for artwork to be taken home. Merchants like Arthur Lasenby Liberty, who founded Liberty’s, were among those who helped make the techniques become fashionable beyond Egpyt.

The stitchers, as those in the profession are known, all work from the same area of Cairo, known as the Street of the Tentmakers. Keeping the tradition alive has been difficult in recent years, first with factory printed fabrics undermining and undercutting the work, and then with recent political unrest in Egypt leading to tourist numbers drying up. Increasingly, their survival has become reliant on exhibiting their work overseas, which is where a textiles expert such as John comes in.

The work itself is intriguing, intricate and impressive. Many of the designs have their origins in traditional Islamic art, with geometric and calligraphic patterns popular. Another popular design is the tree of life, as are distinct and stylised images of birds, butterflies and flowers. As the work has been exhibited abroad, so some of those international influences have started to weave their way into the designs, too, taking the techniques into a different direction.

That’s the latest addition in a changing rotation of influences. Back in the nineteenth century, early traveller demands led to more touristic designs, including images and friezes of tombs. In the twentieth century, different trends have ebbed and flowed: the 1960s saw strong primary blocks of colour; work from the 1980s John describes as the tentmaker’s ‘beige period’. Since then, designs have swung from a return to bright colours to a vogue for more pastel shades.

John’s passion for his subject was clear when I spoke to him, and if you get chance to visit the exhibition, you’ll understand, too, why he considers the work so special.

The Tentmakers of Cairo exhibition is at Fisherton Mill from June 15 to July 13.