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Volume 32, Number 5September/October 1981

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Warps, Wefts and Wadis

Written and photographed by Virginia McConnell Simmons

Sunset bathed the acacia-studded wadi with a peach-colored light as we jostled down a sandy track toward the Bedouin camp where we had been invited for supper. A young girl was herding her flock toward the same destination, a black tent nestled in the lee of a granite outcrop. Surely, it seemed, this scene was a mirage, spun from romantic scenes of the past.

Rounding a boulder, we came into camp. The men of the family greeted us and led us to a handsome wool rug beside the fire pit outside the tent, where coffee was soon served. Seated on our fine rug - conspicuously the place of honor, since the other rugs around the fire were of ordinary India cotton -took in a few details of the camp, with its modern acquisitions juxtaposed on the traditional scene. On one side of the tent was a shiny wire enclosure filled with sheep and goats; next to it a new pick-up truck was parked. On the other side of the tent a long, narrow loom of the ancient Bedouin type was stretched on the ground.

With the men's attention occupied by the host’s new portable radio, I walked over to the tent, where Sarah, our hostess, was preparing food. When I showed an interest in the nearby loom, Sarah proudly pointed out the pieces of her weaving equipment - an acacia stick wound with gray yarn, a few iron tent stakes pinning the apparatus to the ground, a carved piece of wood for beating the yarn into place, and an animal horn.

To my delight, Sarah then demonstrated the loom. Kneeling near the heddle, from which was suspended the longitudinal warp yarn, she leaned forward and beat the heavy strands of warp with her fist. Like most Bedouin women, Sarah was not large, and all the strength in her slim arm was required to force down those threads while she tugged at others, pulling them up to form a passage for her shuttle. When this opening was formed, she inserted her carved sword beater- the name refers to its shape - to hold the opening while she inserted her shuttle - the shuttle being simply the acacia stick - and so drew the weft yarn-the crosswise yarn-through the warp, or longitudinal yarn. Then came a vigorous pulling against the weft with the sword beater to bring the new row in snugly. Next, with the horn, she caught a few warp yarns and yanked them again and again to drive the weft down even more tightly. After repeating this step across all the warp, she resumed the original pounding on it to form a new opening for the weft. Sarah's strenuous methods are the standard techniques used with a horizontal loom.

Whatever the type of loom, its function is basically the same - to hold the warp taut while the weft is interlaced through it. Sarah's horizontal loom is man's oldest type of weaving equipment, with the exception, perhaps, of sticks hung between trees. Apparently first used in ancient Egypt, the horizontal loom is still the most common type used by Bedouins in the Middle East. The essential difference between this loom and most others is that it has a fixed heddle, so alternate sets of warp threads cannot be moved up and down mechanically to form passages for the weft: that has to be done by sheer muscle. Warp is wrapped in a continuous length back and forth between the front beam and back beam, alternate warp threads passing through loops of string, called the leash, which are attached to the heddle. This type of loom has two advantages over more sophisticated types: applying the warp is a. simple matter of winding yarn back and forth from front to back; and the nomads can unpeg the loom, bundle it up and move it with their camp-regardless of what stage the weaving on it may have reached. Disadvantages also are twofold: openings for the weft are difficult to make, and only a few patterns of weaving can be worked.

Like the loom itself, Sarah's simple tools are typical, although her combing horn is a possession especially prized by a weaver lucky enough to own one. It is a gazelle horn, from an animal once common in the Arabian Peninsula but now nearly extinct. Instead of a horn, many weavers use an iron hook - its end sometimes wrapped with yarn to provide a soft handle.

Before the loom is set up, the weaver must know the length of the finished piece of cloth. If a strip of tent material is to be woven, perhaps as long as 12 or 15 meters (40 or 50 feet), the beams must be pegged at least that far apart. Then the warp is wrapped, its alternate threads are leashed and weaving begins at the front beam. As the cloth grows, the heddle is moved back, a few feet at a time, and the front beam is occasionally unpegged and the finished cloth rolled up on it, both to keep it out of the dirt and to keep the edge of the woven area within the weaver's reach. Then the beam is re-pegged. A strip is rarely wider than 63 to 76 centimeters (25 to 30 inches), this being the limit of most weavers' reach. If a wider piece is needed, separate strips are sewn together, or a pair of weavers may work side by side on the left and right sides of the loom; often mothers and daughters, one generation learning from the other.

Sarah's daughter, who was learning through just such an apprenticeship, was eager to help with her mother's demonstration to me. After a few rows of weaving, Sarah rocked back on her heels and looked up at me, her gestures and expressive eyes asking if I understood. Yes, I understood the techniques. What I didn't understand was how this small woman could sustain the back-breaking labor long enough to produce anything. But over our heads was the very tent which she had made and to which she would add the new strip now on the loom. A dividing wall inside the tent, and even the intricately patterned rug on which I sipped my coffee had also been made by Sarah and her daughter. I wondered how much longer the Sarahs of the desert and their daughters would be able to continue this skilled and time-consuming craft when they can now so easily and cheaply buy imported textiles.

For centuries, Bedouin weaving has gone hand in hand with the pastoral culture of the Arabian nomads. Their livestock has provided milk and meat, utensils made of skins, fuel from dung, transportation, occasionally some trade goods and, of course, wool for weaving.

Nowadays, the Bedouins belong to a money economy in which many of these traditional uses are not as importa nt as they were. Yet Arabian sheep and goats still total over four million, and there are about one million camels, plus uncounted donkeys, oxen and cattle. Thus, the raw material for weaving is at least available.

Although a man will occasionally shear a sheep or goat for the wool, the women usually pluck the hair after the animal has been slaughtered and skinned. Most of the hair for weaving comes from goats and sheep, with additional raw material from camels and cattle. Both goat and sheep hair are fairly coarse, and since the native fat-tailed sheep are long-haired, there is no fleecy wool. Camel hair, being very soft and fine, but also comparatively scarce for weaving, is the most highly prized. Goat and sheep hair is usually black or white with some rich brown from goats and gray from sheep, while camel hair ranges from ecru through dark brown.

Producing spun yarn from these fibers is a seemingly never-ending task for women and girls, and one seldom sees a shepherdess without a spindle in flashing motion as she follows her flock over the desert. First, the wool is washed and picked over with the fingers to remove twigs, thorns and other foreign matter, but it is not carded. During this cleaning process, the fibers are worked into a loosely twisted thread, called a rove, which is wound into a skein. The spinner then can carry the skein on her wrist, and, with the thread hooked to the upper end of her spindle/twist the fibers into yarn. Twisting techniques vary: sometimes the spinner drops the spindle yo-yo-fashion in the air, holding it by the yarn already spun. More often, in Arabia, the spinner uses the palm of her hand to roll the shaft of the spindle upward along the outside of the thigh. As spinning progresses, a ball of yarn is wound onto the end of the shaft or around the crossed bars which are sometimes attached to the end of the spindle.

Still, the yarn is not finished, for this single strand or ply of spun yarn is not heavy enough for most uses. Instead, two balls of single-ply yarn are twisted together into two-ply yarn. To keep it from unraveling, the plying twist must be in the opposite direction of the twist that spun the yarn. Large as they are, these balls of very coarse yarn will be too short for most weaving purposes, so the weaver will then splice the yarn by wrapping strands together with thread or even ribbon, lending a rather disconcerting effect to the finished product.

Most Bedouin yarn is used in its natural color, such as the black goat hair used for tents, which are decorated with only an occasional band of natural white or gray, but some is dyed. The dyed wools, and the scarcer natural browns, are usually saved for such items as dividing walls inside the tent, rugs, bags or animal trappings. Until World War II, most dyes used in Arabia were natural "ones - madder, henna, or cochineal for red; kermes for reddish brown; saffron or fermented lemons for yellow; lichens treated with ammonia for purple and indigo for blue.

In some towns like Jiddah, where a dye trade flourished, strips of indigo cloth drying on lines were a common sight and in Taif or Hofuf today you can still find dye sheds filled with hanks of yarn in handsome shades of red, purple or rust. Some of the natural dyes are still imported from India, but most dyeing today, whether done by commercial dyers or Bedouin weavers, is done with commercial aniline dyes. From Europe, consequently, the rich colors of older dyes are often replaced by untraditional splashes of pink, purple, orange or green - especially in products which are made for sale rather than for the weaver's own use.

Most goods woven on a horizontal loom have weaves which differ markedly from those worked on other types of looms. Many materials, such as those for tents, are warp-faced rather than weft-faced. That means that the threads that show most on the surface of the cloth are the "long" warp threads instead of the "crossways" weft threads.

The heavy "beating in" which each weft thread receives forces the warp threads into prominence, and the patterns or contrasting stripes are produced by using different colors in the warp rather than in the weft, as in weaving in the West or other Middle Eastern countries. When patterns are worked into a warp-faced weave, the weaver selects the warp threads she wants from the different colors of thread which have been strung on the loom; the unused colors "float" at the back of the cloth until they are needed for the design. Because of these floating threads, Bedouin warp-faced patterns are not reversible, unlike weft-faced rugs such as those woven by Indians of the southwestern United States.

Occasionally, however, Bedouin designs may be weft-faced. A kelim rug is much like Navajo weaving in technique, with different weft colors being worked back and forth with the fingers. Another finger-woven weft weave is sumak, which may be introduced as an embellishment or as the basic weave of an entire piece such as a prayer rug. This type of weave, characteristic of Bedouin fancy work, is shared with craftsmen of many times and places: sumak has appeared in primitive weaving in Egypt, Peru, Sweden, Japan and Guiana, among other places, and archeologists have found sumak weave fragments dating from 2000 B.C. at a site in a Swiss lake.

Although most designs in Bedouin weaving are simply colored stripes, an adventurous weaver may attempt borders, triangles, diamonds and zigzags, but intricate designs are rare. In keeping with orthodox Muslim traditions, there are few depictions of human figures or animals in Bedouin weaving.

No one knows how long Bedouin women, using only simple tools, techniques and designs, have been manufacturing their families' shelters, rugs, containers, cushions and clothing. For that matter, no one knows how long people anywhere have been weaving; cloth is so perishable that only extraordinary circumstances - acid mud, for example - preserve it for the archeologists. It seems likely though that Arabia's prehistoric populations knew how to weave, as Egyptians of the time did. But historical accounts from the 10th century to recent times all indicate that the demand for woven materials was greater than the local supply. Although most Bedouin women wove the woolen cloaks worn by their people, those worn in the Hijaz region came from Egypt in the early 19th century, according to Burc-khardfs Travels in Arabia (1829). Even the tents, which seem to be the hallmark of Bedouin culture, were once not so abundant. Karsten Niebuhr's Travels in Arabia (1792) informs us that only the shaikhs enjoyed the luxury of living in tents.

Thus, it appears that Bedouin weaving in Arabia may have reached its greatest productivity only after the early 19th century, when the craft could provide most of the textiles used in Bedouin daily life -including what became the principal type of shelter used: the tent. A conspicuous advantage of the bait sha'ar, or "house of hair", was the readily available construction material; it involved no cash outlay. Furthermore, women could make it, set it up, and take it down for seasonal migrations. The oily hair provided insulation and resisted moisture, and the original roof could be enlarged or repaired at any time with a new strip. Within the tent a more colorful dividing curtain usually separated the women's household and sleeping quarters from the men's gathering place. This curtain was often woven of sheep's wool, sometimes dyed, and decorated with strips or geometrical patterns. When it was not needed for privacy, the curtain might be used as a rug for seating guests.

Today, in many parts of the Arabian desert, this curtain now seems to have fallen into disuse, even where the traditional goat-hair tent remains, and decorative rugs are also scarce; the Bedouins themselves seem inclined to buy inexpensive imports such as plastic mats from Japan. Some rather garish, warp-faced carpets turn up in markets, but most of these are made by town weavers in Abha or Khamis Mushait or Yemen.

Similarly, hand-woven storage bags and saddlebags are being replaced in Bedouin camps by cotton sacks or even suitcases, while bags sold in the markets are the colorful products of village craftsmen. Traditional storage bags, some large enough to be made from two strips of cloth sewn together, were stuffed with household belongings and hung inside the tent, placed on the ground as cushions or, when moving, slung on the side of a donkey or camel. Saddlebags were also made, with one compartment hanging on each side of the animal. Along with the bags, Bedouins also wove brightly colored bridles, bands, and other animal trappings decked with tassels and beads. Few of these are made today - though elaborate trappings still are sold for special occasions like annual camel races.

Today, wool is rarely woven for cloaks except in a few oasis towns, such as Hofuf, where treadle looms rather than Bedouin ground looms are employed. Here, one might see the fine camel-hair cloth, which will be sewn into a bisht and trimmed with gold ribbon for a person of high rank.

Although craftsmen of towns and villages weave chiefly for urban markets, their merchandise also includes Bedouin-style weaving to be sold to Bedouins. Nomads, who lack the time or the skill to weave what they need, frequently buy tent strips or even balls of spun yarn at the country suqs. But as the Bedouins' needs and tastes have changed in the past 30 years, handweaving in the towns has declined too.

This is natural. Mass produced articles are cheaper and just as good as handmade ones. But they cannot provide the user with the pride which comes from the performance of a skill with the hands, a fact that other societies learned only after machinery had replaced almost all of the traditional handcrafts.

The loss is felt, though unconsciously. Two out of every five Americans, for example, engage in some sort of craft as a hobby, vocation or therapy - an attempt to regain what Sarah still has: a vital role in the welfare of her family and a tangible link with the heritage of her people. Her weaving is a symbol, unconscious though it may be, of the importance of her own life and her society. As Saudi Arabia takes steps to collect and preserve its traditional heritage, perhaps an increasing recognition will accrue to the value of the kingdom's folk art, present as well as past. In the craftsmanship from Bedouin looms is a key to recalling and understanding the old ways of the Arabian desert.

Virginia McConnell Simmons, an American, has lived and worked in Saudi Arabia.

This article appeared on pages 30-33 of the September/October 1981 print edition of Saudi Aramco World.


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