Last week I was in Freetown and finally had an opportunity to see in action the distinctive tripod loom used by weavers of the Mende, Vai and neighbouring ethnic groups in the eastern half of Sierra Leone and western parts of Liberia. This is the most widely distributed of a number of loom types that are found only in this region of West Africa (see Sierra Leone Weaving by Venice and Alastair Lamb, Roxford Books, 1984.) In the past this loom was apparently used exclusively by men, but as my photographs show, today there are also some women weavers adopting the technique.
Mrs Sia Nelson is one of a small group of around ten weavers whose looms are set up by the roadside in the small village of Grafton on the peninsular a few kilometres outside Freetown. The area was a major refugee centre during the recent civil war (1991-2000) and these weavers were displaced from their home villages in the interior and have chosen to remain. As the photos show they are weaving broad bands of quite thick cloth from machine spun thread. The simple designs are used primarily for sewing into men’s tunics, while some more complex cloths with weft float motifs are still sold at the small craft markets in Freetown and used domestically, primarily as a hanging at young women’s puberty ceremonies.
Although we can only speculate on the origin of this loom its structure appears to be a hybrid combining aspects of probably older single heddle ground loom forms (see my post here on a surviving ground loom tradition in Nigeria) with the double heddle operated by foot pedals similar to the narrow strip loom in use throughout West Africa.
Click on all photos to enlarge. All photos are copyright Duncan Clarke, 2011. Please do not re use without permission.
At one end of the loom the prepared warp bundle is tied to a small post.
At the other end some 20 metres away, the completed cloth strip is rolled up in a wheel attached to a second post.
The weaver, with his or her bench seat and tripod supporting the weaving mechanism, moves slowly along the unwoven warp towards the post as weaving proceeds. Once the post with the warp bundle is reached, a new length is unravelled from the bundle and the woven cloth rolled up on the wheel. The weaver returns the tripod and seat back to the post that holds the woven cloth strip, secures both ends to their respective posts and resumes weaving. This process continues until the entire length of warp has been woven. This aspect of warp positioning and the movement of the weaver as weaving progresses are very similar to that of the ground loom.
However when we turn to the weaving mechanism itself close similarities with the standard West African double heddle loom are apparent. The shed (the gap between the two sets of warp threads that the weaver manipulates to allow the passage of the weft) is formed using a set of two heddles leashed to alternate warp threads and joined by a stick that acts as a rocker suspended from the tripod. The lower end of each of the heddles are tied to a foot peddle, allowing the weaver to alternate the shed using the feet, leaving the hands free to pass the weft back and forward. Each pick of the weft is then tightened using a reed or beater.
We can note four differences from the standard double heddle loom. Firstly the weaver uses only the right foot, moving it from one pedal to the other as required (the weaver on the standard loom uses both feet.) Secondly the weft is rolled in a bundle rather than held in a shuttle as is the case on the standard loom. Thirdly the rocker replaces the pulley used by most but not all weavers on the standard loom. Finally the reed is not suspended from the tripod (as it would be from the frame of a standard loom.) Instead it rests loose on the warp and is manipulated using a side handle.
As a comparison the above image, a vintage postcard taken by the African photographer W. S. Johnson in Sierra Leone around 1900-10, shows the same loom type in use 100 years ago.