African Textiles – Social Organisation

In most societies in pre-colonial Africa there was some scheme for the division of labour by gender, with certain tasks being deemed appropriate for women and others for men, although the precise allocation varied from place to place and sometimes changed over time. Weaving was not exempt from these ideas. Until recently all of the weaving on the double heddle narrow-strip loom was done by men, as is weaving on the pit loom in East Africa. The picture for the single-heddle loom is more mixed. In general the upright loom of Nigeria and the Cameroon was used by women, but the raffia looms and the ground looms of Central Africa by men. It has been suggested that men also monopolised the upright loom in Nigeria prior to the introduction of the narrow strip loom but the arguments for this are not persuasive. The gender organisation of the industry is also impacted by the relation between spinners and weavers – it is usually women who spin the thread, and in some cultures such as in Sierra Leone they are regarded as the owners and prime movers in cloth production, simply hiring an available weaver for a small fee to weave a cloth for them. More commonly though weavers purchased the spun thread from their wives or daughters and so owned the finished cloth. Not least among the effects of the general move to the use of factory produced thread has been a shifting of the balance of these gender relations involved in the production of cloth. Since the 1970’s, and particularly in the 1990s, narrow strip aso oke weaving has become a popular career choice for young Yoruba women in ever growing numbers. Elsewhere, so far as I am aware, there are still only isolated instances of women using the narrow strip loom.

Lineage based weaving group in Oyo, Nigeria, 1996. Photo by Duncan Clarke

The status of weavers varied according to the local social structures. Among the Manding, Tukolor and neighbouring peoples in Senegal, Mali and Burkina Faso, weaving was one of the occupations restricted to members of a hereditary “caste” like group as like smithing, pottery, and praise singing, it was believed to bring the maker into contact with anomalous and dangerous spiritual forces. These craft workers and artists were “clients” and in some cases effectively slaves, of noble families. Elsewhere, such as among the Yoruba there was no particular status attached to weaving as such. It was simply one occupation among many others, organised primarily on the basis of at least nominally related lineage compounds. Some compounds were drummers, others farmers, or smiths, and some were weavers. All boys raised in a weaving compound would learn to weave, while girls and young women born into or marrying into the compound would learn to spin and dye thread. Master weavers controlled and organised the work of a group of subordinates in the compound, and if they became successful and wealthy could achieve high status. Although Yoruba women’s weaving on the single heddle loom was often on an individual part time basis to clothe her own family, there were also areas, particularly in the C19th and early C20th, where senior women organised production by groups of female trainees and junior family members of a quite large scale to supply a thriving regional trade.

A Nupe woman weaves alone outside her room at her husband’s family compound, Bida, Nigeria, 1990s. Photo by Duncan Clarke

Further Reading:
Perani, J. & Wolff, N. Cloth, Dress and Art Patronage in Africa (1999)
Goody,E. “Daboya weavers: relations of production, dependence and reciprocity” in E. Goody ed. From craft to industry (1982)
Bray, J.M. “The Economics of Traditional Cloth Production in Iseyin, Nigeria” Economic Development and Cultural Change 17 (4) (1969)
Bray, J.M. “The Organisation of Traditional Weaving in Iseyin, Nigeria” Africa 38 (3) (1968)
Clarke,D. Aso Oke: Hand-Woven Textile Design Among the Yoruba of South-western Nigeria (PhD thesis, University of London (1998)
Kriger,C. “Textile Production and Gender in the Sokoto Caliphate” Journal of African History 34 (1993)
Renne,E. “The Decline of Women’s Weaving among the North-East Yoruba” Textile History 23 (1992)
Shea,P. The Development of an Export Oriented Dyed Cloth Industry in Kano Emirate in the Nineteenth Century (PhD thesis, University of Wisconsin) (1975)
Dilley, R. “Tukolor Weavers and the Organisation of their craft in village and town” Africa 56(1986) -see also his PhD thesis an other articles.
Sierra Leone:
Hardin, K. The Aesthetics of Action (1993)