An old postcard aroused my curiosity about weaving in Sierra Leone and lead me to a blog which explains the whole process well. The unusual loom attracted my attention and the location in the village of Grafton, not far away, inspired me to arrange a visit. The sister of a friend’s maid arranged to take us to a place where they teach weaving. Just prior to publication I found this entry too, showing many old photographs of weavers in action.
Weaving cloth has a long history in most agricultural communities as the need for clothing from wool, flax, cotton or silk is universal. In many parts of the world this is still done on a ‘back-strap loom‘ which is a simple form of loom using the body of the weaver to maintain the tension on the warp threads. The cloth woven on such looms is therefore 30-40cms wide, reflecting the width of the weaver.
However, here in Sierra Leone (and some areas of Liberia) a unique type of loom is used. The warp threads are stretched around poles some distance apart to maintain the tension, then the mechanics of weaving are hung from a tripod of sticks, which can be easily moved along as the strip is woven. The tripod is lashed at the top, reminding me of ‘gadget making’ in the Girl Guides (probably itself a skill no longer used). The weaver is free to come and go during weaving without affecting the tension on the warp threads. The operative sits beside the tripod pressing alternate foot pedals, while passing the shuttle between the warp threads. The resulting strips of cloth are much narrower than those woven on a back-strap loom, approximately between 12 and 20 cms. Traditionally these are then sewn together, edge to edge to form simple garments, blankets and hammocks.
The centre we visited in Grafton, where weaving is both practised and taught, is hidden away in a residential area. We met our guide at the police station and set off on foot. Fortunately I had chosen to wear old sandals, which were perfect for the muddy, uneven paths we picked our way along, puddled with the previous night’s rain, past rudimentary houses, stepping over drains, debris and passing several stockades in which numerous small pigs were housed. They were penned one or two to each division and the whole structure, about 5m square, was roofed with corrugated iron and the sides mostly covered, so the animals were in semi-darkness. From the incessant squealing, they didn’t sound very happy. I wondered why they were not penned on patches of land nearby where vegetables were grown, or indeed allowed to scavenge on the rubbish tips – but my pig rearing knowledge is not extensive!
In an open area between houses, ducks, goats, chickens and small children milled around, while adults greeted us from their front stoops. To our right were the ‘womens’ gardens’ where fruit, greens and herb are grown.
The centre we were visiting is well built and used not only for weaving but also adult education, mediation services and counselling. As it is now the rainy season work has to be arranged inside. We found the loom set up with one piece of cloth partly woven and in the background, the warp threads were being prepared for another piece. Traditionally locally grown cotton is used to weave ‘country cloth’, but now they use imported threads of all kinds, some fine, some thicker. The only patterns are generally stripes or checks. A number of short lengths are kept as samples so that customers can specify what they would like. In the past more complex patterns were achieved by some skilled weavers described in this recent blog.
The weavers were happy to show us how they operated the loom and display some of the cloth they had made, which, of course, was for sale! This cloth cannot compete on price with imported manufactured fabric, nor imported clothes, which is why the industry has declined so drastically. Local people would only be able to buy it to wear on special occasions. It is however, a skill worth preserving, and here it is good to see the skill being taught and passed on.
Many vendors at Big Market in Freetown, which is much easier for most people to get to, sell country cloth sewn into blankets and hammocks, but it was interesting to see the process of weaving for ourselves and to buy from the weavers directly.