The single-heddle looms found in Africa include the ground loom used for weaving tent cloths by Berber women, a second type of vertically mounted Berber loom, the vertical loom used mostly by women in Nigeria, various types of vertical raffia looms used from eastern Nigeria into the Congo, and various simple ground looms used along the Nigeria/Cameroon border and formerly in large areas of East Africa. Various single-heddle looms are also found in Madagascar. The best known type is the vertically mounted single heddle loom that was used by women across much of Nigeria. The loom is a simple rectangular wooden frame, either freestanding, as in the picture below, or leaning against a convenient wall. They were often a permanent fixture of the veranda or passageway of a house. The warp threads are wrapped in a continuous loop around the top and bottom beams. A single heddle of string loops around alternate warps is lashed to a heddle stick, allowing the weaver to create a shed (space for the weft) by manipulating the heddle and one or more shed sticks: i.e. pulling the heddle forward creates one shed, the weft is passed through and beaten in tightly using a wooden "sword", then a shed stick between the two groups of warps is used to pull back the second set, allowing the weft to go through the other shed. Once as much cloth has been woven as can be conveniently reached the loop of warps is shifted around the two beams at the front, making another area available to the weaver. Once the entire loop of warp is complete apart from a few inches, the remaining threads are simply cut across allowing the finished cloth to be removed from the loom.
|A Yoruba woman in the Nigerian town of Owo, weaving on her upright single-heddle loom, in front an apprentice practices on a smaller cloth, 2001.|
In some areas, particularly among the Yoruba and Igbo, the use of this loom has declined sharply in the last few decades, and it is now in active use in only a few towns such as Ijebu-Ode and Owo in the case of the Yoruba and Akwete among the Igbo. Elsewhere in Nigeria though, such as in the Nupe town of Bida and especially the Ebira town of Okene, it is still relatively popular.
|One of many single-heddle loom variations formerly used in Central African raphia weaving. Congo-Brazzaville, Early C20th postcard.|
Single-heddle raphia looms were probably once widespread in West Africa but in the C20th they were only documented in Sierra Leone, Cameroon, and southeast Nigeria. Their main area of use however was in the Congo and neighbouring areas of Central Africa where raphia cloth production was once a vital element of economic and ritual life. There were numerous variations in such features as the angle of mounting, the presence or absence of a frame etc, but the general feature was the tying in of separate raphia lengths to create the warp, unlike the continual loop used on cotton looms in Nigeria. Plain cloth could be woven then subsequently embroidered or tie dyed, but complex weft patterning was also created using multiple heddle sticks. Most of these diverse raphia weaving traditions appear to have dyed out by the middle of the C20th and it is probable (although I'm not aware of any research into the issue) that the Kuba of the Kasai region are today the only people still weaving raphia in Central Africa.
|A Mumuye man working on a ground loom near Zing, eastern Nigeria, 2010.|
The sub-Saharan distribution of the ground loom today is limited to remote areas either side of the northern border between Nigeria and Cameroon (and a handful of examples noted by the Lambs in Sierra Leone.) In the past however it has been documented across a wide expanse of central and southeast Africa. Warps were tied to two short poles then held in tension horizontally a few inches above the ground by two pairs of posts. A single heddle above the warps was moved along the cloth by the weaver as he worked from one end of the warps to the other.
For a good summary of research to that date and an overview of the issues raised see:
Picton,J. "Tradition,Technology, and Lurex; Some Comments on Textile History and Design in West Africa" in History, design and Craft in West African Strip-Woven Cloth (Smithsonian 1988).
History references: Bolland, R. Tellem Textiles (1991)
Candotti,M. "The Hausa Textile Industry: Origins and Development in the Precolonial Period" in A.Haour & B. Rossi eds. Being and Becoming Hausa (2010)
Kriger, C. Cloth in West African History (Alta Mira, 2006)
Loom type references:
The key sources here are the work of Venice Lamb published in:
West African Weaving (1975) Nigerian Weaving (1980) Au Cameroun: Weaving-Tissage (1981) Sierra Leone Weaving (1984) Looms Past and Present (2005) plus the article: "The Classification and Distribution of Horizontal Treadle Looms in Sub-Saharan Africa" in Idiens, D. & Ponting K.G. Textiles of Africa (1980)
Loir H. Le Tissage du Raphia au Congo Belge (1935)
Ling Roth, H. Studies in Primitive Looms (1916-18)
Picton J. & Mack J. African Textiles (1989, 2nd Edition)
Schaedler K. Weaving in Sub-Saharan Africa (1987) - great for archive photographs
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