The people of Upper Egypt continue to use the traditional "leg-ironers," amid concerns that the profession will become extinct with many Egyptian households owning a steam iron. But for now, the rural residents of Upper Egypt still take their clothes, especially woolen Saidi jilbabs (long and loose-fitting garments, also known as abbayas) and fabrics, to the leg-ironers, who have been passed down the skill from generation to generation.
“I started working as an ironer about 18 years ago; I followed in the footsteps of my father and grandfather. This is an old profession passed down through generations,” Abd al-Rahman al-Fouly, the owner of a clothes-ironing shop in Upper Egypt’s governorate of Sohag, told Al-Monitor.
Fouly said, “With leg-ironing, the hand controls the iron and the leg moves it. This gives maximum pressure on the clothes and therefore the result is a well-ironed piece of fabric compared to the steam irons used in households and dry-cleaning and ironing stores.”
The leg-iron is made of pure iron and weighs around 50 pounds. It takes longer than the steam iron but does not cool down as quickly. “The iron is heated over a fire for roughly 15 minutes and can iron three jilbabs before it needs to be reheated,” Fouly explained.
An iron is heated in what is known in Egypt as a “babur gaz,” or kerosene stove, which is the old method of heating that later developed into modern gas ranges. Babur gaz units are still used in the rural areas and villages to heat food and make tea.
Fouly said that sometimes leg-ironers built mud-brick ovens and use gas to heat the iron. Mud-brick ovens are still present in poorer areas and are used by farmers and the local bread industry.
Mohamed Aly, a Sohag resident — who prefers to wear a jilbab instead of casual clothes — told Al-Monitor he considers leg-ironing the best method, especially for winter clothes and different types of wool.
In regard to the cost of leg-ironing, Aly said, “Ironing a Saidi jilbab and a kaftan — which is always white and worn under the jilbab — costs 3-6 Egyptian pounds [roughly $0.20-$0.35].”
“The cost of ironing depends on the type of outfit and its material. For instance, silk is different from wool. The price also differs from one area to another,” Fouly added.
But Fouly worries that his profession may be among the disappearing professions of Egypt, as more and more people prefer steam irons. The remaining leg-ironers are from the countryside and villages in the far south of the country. They often work in small shops, while others take to the crowded street markets and work illegally. They have no association or organization that would assist with teaching the profession to the next generation or help those who are working as leg-ironers. The only way to keep leg-ironers from becoming extinct, according to Fouly, is for the government to give them subsidies.