The West African Weaver at Work
By Awake! correspondent in Liberia
IN THIS sophisticated 20th century, with its computerized, mass-production factories, how refreshing it is to observe a craftsman producing beautiful work in much the same way as it was done in Bible times.
One day while visiting Mustapha, I found him at work on his loom. In former times, weaving was a secret art, so according to local tradition, no one could stand behind a weaver to watch him work. Mustapha explained that among the Mende tribe, weavers at one time all belonged to one family within a chiefdom. Even then, only a few persons actually knew the process, and only paramount chiefs were able to afford the services of a weaver.
When a paramount chief employed a weaver, a clearing was made in the forest nearby, and a fence of palm thatch was built to enclose the weaving area. It was a common belief that a spirit aided the weaver in the intricate process of designing the cloth, so the enclosure prevented anyone from entering without warning to the weaver.
The weaver would be employed by the paramount chief to produce a gbalee, which consisted of several strips sewn together to make a piece somewhat larger than a bedspread. The weaver and his family, along with an assistant, would go to stay at the chief’s compound, where they were provided with a hut and daily food. The weaver would not hurry unduly and might take as long as a year to complete two gbalees. When a government official or other dignitary visited, the gbalee would be presented to him as a gift. The weaver would not be paid for his work with money but might be given a cow or a virgin girl.
However, modern weavers, like Mustapha, operate on a commercial basis. Mustapha even had a contract to provide the furnishings for the Organization of African Unity Conference Hall in Monrovia. With the development of the tourist trade, there is a growing market for gowns, shirts, bedspreads, place mats, and other woven goods.
Source of the Basic Materials
The basic materials, I learned, are all obtainable locally. The threads are made from cotton. There are basically two types, low bush (white) and high bush (brown). The cotton is then separated according to color—brown, light brown, and white—and placed in kinjas (storage baskets).
I was invited to visit an old woman, Siah, to observe the processes by which the cotton is prepared for the weaver. She took great pride in demonstrating her skills.
The first step is to remove the seeds from the cotton. To do this, cotton is placed on a wooden block, and a round stick or piece of iron is passed over it in a rolling motion. In this way the seeds are pressed out of the cotton. Then the pieces of seeded fiber are put in baskets awaiting the next process, which is carding.
This process is fascinating to watch. Cotton fiber is folded over the string of a bow, which is plucked repeatedly to loosen the cotton. Eventually the cotton becomes fluffy. Then pieces the size of the palm of the hand are pulled off, patted flat, and placed in loose layers in baskets, ready for spinning.
The next process, spinning, is done mostly by women. This calls to mind the Bible’s commendation of a capable wife: “Her hands she has thrust out to the distaff, and her own hands take hold of the spindle.” (Proverbs 31:19) This accurately describes the method still used today, as demonstrated by Siah.
First, she winds the carded cotton loosely around a smooth stick, the distaff. Holding the distaff high in her left hand, she draws the fibers down with her right hand, at the same time twisting them to form the coarse thread. The thread is attached to a spindle, and it is further twisted by the rapidly spinning spindle.
Since the cotton is basically white or brown, I wondered how the vivid colors are obtained. Well, a bright red dye is obtained by boiling the bark of the camwood tree. Yellow dye comes from the turmeric plant. A root is processed in the same way to make a brown dye. Wood ash is added to make the colors fast.
A brilliant blue is obtained from the tender young leaves of the indigo plant. The leaves are crushed underfoot on a mat, and then they are sun dried for three or four days. Afterward, they are loosely packed in storage baskets and hung under the eaves of the house. Later the dyestuffs are taken from these containers and mixed with water. They are then kept in big, covered clay pots, which can be seen standing or sunk into the ground in the courtyard or behind the house. The yarn is dipped in the dye for about a day at a time, and various shades are produced according to the number of times it is dipped.
The art of weaving has been used for centuries to produce a variety of articles that enhance our enjoyment of life. Learning firsthand some details about the process indeed proved fascinating to me.