Loom Types in Sub-Saharan Africa

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 men using double heddle looms, weaving 1cm width strips to be dyed indigo for Tuareg veils, Kura, Nigeria, 2006. Photo by Duncan Clarke

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, the latter may well have been of local African invention. 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 Mauritanian town of Silla in AD 1068. For the single-heddle loom there are tiny fragments excavated with the treasury of intricate brass-work 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

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

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. Photo by Duncan Clarke

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. Photo by Duncan Clarke

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.

Further Reading: 
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)
Also important:
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