Friday, 17 June 2011

Drummers, poets, and master weavers: rhythm and structure in the design of Ewe “kente” cloths.


Some African textile scholars have remarked on what they perceive to be affinities between aspects of African textile design and the use of “off beat” rhythm in African musical traditions, for example in designating certain types of Malian blanket as “jazz cloths.” While these analogies are suggestive and thought provoking, and do seem to me to point in some degree towards important aspects of textile design in the region, as yet there has been very little attention paid to discussing these issues with either makers or consumers of particular African textile traditions. In this note I want to quote at some length from a recent article by the Ghanaian professor of literature Dr Kofi Anyidoho (“Ghanaian Kente: Cloth and Song” in The Poetics of Cloth: African Textiles/ Recent Art edited by Lynn Gumpert, GreyArt Gallery, New York, 2008) , that mentions neither “off beat” rhythm nor “improvisation,” but nevertheless appears to me to be an important contribution to this discussion by someone who is both an Ewe and a trained weaver.


“The first expert on kete weaving I interviewed was my uncle Dumega Kwadzovi Anyidoho, the man who brought me up and under whose tutelage I learned to weave. Now in his eighties, he is acknowledged as one of the most experienced master weavers in Wheta, with more than sixty-five years of experience. He is also a master drummer and heno (poet-cantor.) Halfway through our conversation I asked him to name other great master weavers he could recall. To my surprise, almost everyone he remembered was also a heno and/or a master drummer….

My uncle pointed out that this was more than a coincidence and offered two possible explanations for this apparent connection between the art of the master weaver and that of the master drummer and the poet-cantor. First, he explained that the weavers, whether alone or in groups, often sang to ease the tedium of long hours at the loom. Of greater significance however, is the fact that weaving, like drumming and singing, is a rhythm-based aesthetic performance. From the habit of singing songs composed by others, the musically and poetically gifted among the weavers would begin to try out their own voices and, over time, developed into composers of note. The rhythm maintained by the regular alternation of the heddles (eno) and the treadles (aforke), reinforced by the throwing and catching of the shuttle (evu), as well as the constant rhythm of the beater (exa), all provide a natural drive for the flow of song….

Beyond the aesthetic competence entailed in the application of the rhythm of weaving to the composition and performance of song, there is the more complicated factor of technical competence. Weaving is more than the application of a sense of rhythm. It requires considerable technical skills in design, possible only through a careful application of mathematical calculations combined with the architectural ability to construct organic shapes and forms from individual threads as building blocks. This process is not unlike that involved in the architectural design of the well-made song or poem.”


Click on any of the images above for a larger view.

To conclude, follow the links by clicking on any of the Ewe cloths below to view a selection of top pieces from our gallery. Looking at and thinking about the design of these cloths in terms of rhythm and structure does appear to enhance perception of the designs….




Thursday, 16 June 2011

An exceptional early C20th Ewe “kente” cloth


Although rather worn and missing a couple of strips this superb Ewe man’s cloth is exceptionally elaborate and finely woven and still looks beautiful even in its present condition. Virtually every available space on the blue background is covered by either weft faced bands or very varied supplementary weft float designs. This cloth would have been the masterpiece of a very experienced master weaver working for a wealthy and knowledgeable patron. Dates from circa 1900-20. Click the image to go to our website for a larger photograph and more details.

The 1/4 million euro weaver’s pulley….


A Baule (Ivory Coast) weaver’s heddle pulley, collected in 1927, sold yesterday at Sotheby’s Paris for Euro 240,750.. more info and auctioneer’s description here

Wednesday, 1 June 2011

The tripod loom in Sierra Leone


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.