In Cairo’s centuries-old Darb al-Ahmar district, Salama Mahmoud Salama’s traditional dye workshop is a multi-colored hive of workers busy with all kinds of fabrics.
They lay out the long, flowing threads, to be used for everything from handmade shoes to rugs and drapes, and dip them in large, hot color baths.They have no gloves or masks to protect them from the dyes and fumes.
“We start by levelling the cotton out, then immersing it in dye and adding salt to get the color right,” 83-year-old Salama says one busy morning.
The workshop in Islamic Cairo has been going strong for almost 120 years.
“We rinse the wet threads before flattening them out in an electric presser and then leave them out to dry,” he adds.
Of the 23 historic dye workshops that used to service the city, only a handful remain.
While industrial dye factories usually work with at least of a ton of yarn at a time, Salama says he can color as little as half a kilogram (just over a pound).
His loyal clients come from all over Egypt, and even from Sudan and the United States.
But he says competition from foreign products has hurt the homegrown textile industry.
“In a popular store in al-Azhar (in the heart of Islamic Cairo) a wool sweater sells for 200 pounds ($12.60), but you can find something similar on the street that’s made in China for 30 pounds ($1.90).”
The rise in the dye prices globally has also taken a toll on the niche industry.
To stay competitive, Salama has started using firewood instead of fuel to heat the baths.
Still, he is optimistic about the future of his craft.
“As long as people need clothes, this job will never die,” he says with a glint in his eye.
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