Founder Sohair Sharafeldin doesn't simply find inspiration in Egyptian craftsmanship - she's making herself part of it.
There’s been plenty said about Egypt’s dying crafts over the last few years; just talking about it has become something of a trend, let alone 'reviving' it as so many brands and designers continue to do. But aside from taking its aesthetic and revamping it for a contemporary market, how involved are these brands? In local clay tableware maker, Tumye, we have one brand that that’s neck-deep in it.
“My background is in marketing,” founder, Sohair Sharafeldin, tells CairoScene. “I’m a brand manager at a large corporation.” For as long as she can remember, however, Sharafeldin has always enjoyed working with her hands. After taking a Azza Fahmy jewellery-making course and experimenting with sowing, it was a pottery workshop at Darb 1718 that led Sharafeldin to conceiving Tumye.
Rather than jumping in headfirst, however, she spent months researching, creating samples and networking with local artisans and workshops, the latter of which would become essential to the very spirit of the brand.
The name, which took some oven-time, came to her when she was watching a video about pottery making in Egypt. “Tumye is the first step of the process, the origin of this industry in Egypt,” she explains of tumye, which is a type of silt indigenous to the Nile, known for its high quality and has been used since Ancient Egypt’s clay day.
“The story is really beautiful. It’s all somehow natural. You get the silt from the ground, and then you start shaping it. Your tools are the pottery wheel and your hands. And then you leave it in the sun to dehydrate, then you add any ornamentation or colour before putting it in the oven. Some designs take multiple stages in the oven as well.”
Like her months of research, Sharafeldin’s approach to production is methodical and she lets it take as much time as it needs in order to ensure quality. Unlike a factory producing thousands of pieces a day, the workshops she works with produces each piece over two or three weeks. “That’s what makes them artisanal and what makes them personal,” she explains. “There’s a relationship between the artisan and the craft.”
Working with local artisans is an important part of her approach. Right now, she works with a few workshops she handpicked to ensure the most ethical mode of production. She doesn’t work with workshops that hire children, for example, or pollute the environment by using wood ovens. She also took her time in finding places that use the right materials. “The glazing film can be harmful to the workers. The temperature of the oven can sometimes result in the glaze not sticking to the material, hence making the plates harmful for people who use them to eat.”
Further than employing these workshops and craftsmen to execute her vision, Sharafeldin remains humble and open to a give-and-take relationship. “The beauty of these workers is that they give me ideas, as well. They add to the idea, and sometimes they contest it as well. With the Night Sky collection, for example, they were resistant at first. I told them to take the risk. Afterwards, they realised that it’s something special and became more open to adding new touches and techniques.”
This collaborative workflow allows for her products to always be unique. “I’m more towards organic shapes. It’s meant to be imperfect. When you touch the project you can feel that it’s handmade. You can almost see the handprint of its maker.”
Having launched on the premise of connecting workers, craft and consumers through Tumye, she still worries for these underappreciated crafts. “They’re dying. I think the support we give to local artisans is really important. I want to emphasise the relationship between the artisan and the consumer and to bring modern designs to an ancient craft.”