Types of Loom

Weaving, at its simplest, involves the regular interlacing of two sets of threads to create a textile. A loom is basically any kind of frame that facilitates this interlacing process. One set of threads (known as the warp) is fixed to the frame, while the second set (the weft) is manipulated in between one or more warps in an under/over fashion. Almost all looms have some means of separating alternate warps to speed up this interlacing process. Generally this involves string loops placed round every other warp, allowing the two groups to be pulled apart, creating a gap (called the shed) through which the weft is passed. This set of string loops is called a heddle. Looms where only one set of alternate warps are leashed to a heddle are called single-heddle looms. Looms where both sets are leashed to separate heddles are called double-heddle looms. In an influential book John Picton and John Mack have argued that the clearest method of classifying the many different types of loom found in Africa is to focus on this fundamental distinction in the weaving process itself, rather than looking at essentially peripheral features such as the position of the frame, the width of the cloth woven, or the gender of the weaver. See Picton & Mack "African Textiles" (1979.)

Hausa weavers Hausa men using double heddle looms, weaving 1cm width strips to be dyed indigo for Tuareg veils, Kura, Nigeria, 2006

Hand loom weaving has been carried on in Africa since ancient times, although in most of the continent in the unfavourable climactic conditions mean that very few textiles of any antiquity have been preserved. The earliest African looms of which any knowledge survives are those recorded in the wall paintings of ancient Egyptian tombs. For sub-Saharan Africa the picture is less clear. Although some scholars have proposed a variety of external sources for the main loom types only the Arabian origin of the East African pit loom is securely established. The two other main forms of loom in wide use are the narrow-strip loom (a type of double-heddle loom) and vertically mounted single-heddle looms, both of which may well been local African inventions. The earliest known cloths associated with the double-heddle loom are the large number of textile fragments dating back to the eleventh century AD found in burial caves along the Bandiagara cliffs in the area of Mali inhabited today by the Dogon. The great Arab traveller al-Bakri described seeing what would appear to be a double-heddle narrow-strip loom in operation in the Mauretanian town of Silla in AD 1068. For the single-heddle loom there are tiny fragments excavated with the treasury of intricate brasswork dated to the ninth century AD found at Igbo Ukwu in Southeastern Nigeria.

Whatever its origins it is clear that the distribution of the skills of weaving on the narrow-strip loom, along with the tailoring and embroidery of men's robes, owes a lot to the long distance traders that criss-crossed West Africa dealing in a huge range of goods, both locally produced and imported from across the Sahara. Most of these traders were Muslims, and the demand for appropriate and prestigious Islamic attire certainly helped to promote the spread of textile technologies. In some areas the majority of weavers are themselves Muslims, although this is by no means always the case. Until very recently almost all double-heddle loom weaving was done by men, but now, particularly among the Yoruba in Nigeria, it is being taken up by large numbers of young women. Although there are innumerable variations in such features as the seating posture of the weaver, the use or other wise of a wooden frame, the shape of the heddle etc, an essentially similar loom, known as the narrow-strip treadle loom, is found across almost all of West African from Senegal to Lake Chad and the border areas of Cameroon. The key features of this loom are the use of a weighted drag-sled to tension the warp, a pair of suspended heddles operated by simple foot pedals, and the weaving of a single long, usually rather narrow strip of cloth, which is then cut up and sewn together edge to edge to create the finished fabric. The other, less widely distributed, double-heddle looms are: Middle Eastern looms used by urban Arab weavers in North Africa, the pit treadle loom used in Ethiopia and Somalia, frame looms of European colonial or missionary origin, and various hybrid tripod and tetrapod looms found in parts of Sierra Leone and Liberia

tripod loom postcard The tripod loom, Sierra Leone, circa 1900-10. Vintage Postcard, photographer W.S Johnston, authors collection.

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