Our speaker for July was the acknowledged expert on this topic; Rhona Crichton. Thanks to Mary Carbert for this report.
After graduating with a 1st Class Honours degree in Industrial Design Technology from the Scottish College of Textiles Rhona began her career by working on designs for Harris Tweed. Her next move was to become self employed as a designer and weaver making items to sell with her main market being Japan.
When her husband was made redundant and got a new job in Kuwait she was hugely disappointed. She had a new baby and found the 50° C heat, the isolation from her home in Scotland, and her lack of purpose as no longer self employed really depressing. After a while she overcame this by asking the Museum of Textiles and the University run by the government in the city if she could do any research. They set her on to study the Bedouin Weaving of the country which she thoroughly enjoyed for 10 years. She also wrote a book Al Sadu The Techniques of Bedouin Weaving.
After her return to the UK she went to Leeds University before becoming a teacher at a large senior school in Barnsley for over 20 years. Now retired from full time teaching she gives talks and weaves.
To illustrate the talk Jo was dressed in a full Kuwait dress with head and face covered. It was very hot to wear and meant the female face is never seen in public. The only men allowed to see a woman’s face are close family members in the home.
Rhona had brought many examples of weaving which were circulated as she spoke about the customs and culture of Kuwait from the 1960s to 2000. The fibre used was goat and camel with wool, both local and from Australia.
It was not sorted or washed but spun straight from the fleece on a long shafted top whorl spindle. The yarn was then washed, and if required dyed, before weaving. Colours and designs were very traditional, handed down within the family. Almost everything was the natural black and white of fleece with a strong element of red for which commercial dyes were imported and highlights of natural camel to show wealth. The woven geometric and figurative patterns and symbols reflect the traditional tribal lifestyle and the weavers’ creative expression. Patterns were not written down but handed down the generations.
The items made were all for practical purposes. The nomadic Bedouin would weave their tents in strips from handspun goat hair, which swells in rain to become water-shedding and opens when dry to allow air to circulate, with intricately designed and woven ‘room dividers‘ used to divide the tent into different areas, also large oblong camel bags for transporting things on camel backs which doubled as cushions for sitting on the floor. The most decorative piece we saw was a camel decoration covered in cowrie shells. This would have indicated wealth. Now 99% of the population live in houses and weaving is done in the back yard.
Rhona had brought a traditionally made cushion cover and also one bought in a bazaar- which had been sold as ‘traditional’ but it looked and felt a pale imitation. Today the cost of handmade items is very high and because many people will not pay the price there is a large market for cheaply machine made fake items.
Looms are very simple and consist of corner posts hammered into the ground, a wooden bar to hold the heddle strings, a wooden beater and a piece of horn is also used for beating. The warping is done on the loom, working in a figure of eight with alternate ends going over and under the lease rod with no front and back rollers it is as long as required for the piece being woven. The maximum width of the piece is dictated by the length of the weaver’s forearm as you have to be able to reach through the shed to bring the weft ‘butterfly’ through. As the weaving progresses so the weaver, sitting on the woven cloth, moves forward up the loom, creating the tension, pushing the heddle bar and lease rod in front of her rather than the work progressing towards the weaver as in more conventional systems.
If the pattern to be woven requires more than one colour to appear in any one end, then that end is warped with up to 3 colours of yarn (the colours not required on the face float on the back unsecured). All the warp threads that pass under the lease rod are threaded through eyes on the heddle, all that pass over the heddle pass straight through. Remember the weft only acts as a binder and does not form any part of the design.
Rhona had brought a loom with a wooden base (made by her husband) which enabled her to demonstrate without the need to hammer posts in the floor.
We were invited to have a go and creating the shed proved quite hard work as on the first pick all the yarns passing over the lease rod are lifted in sections to allow the weaver to work her other arm through the forming shed, hence the limit on width, the beater stick is then inserted to allow weft insertion and is used to beat up the inserted pick. The stick is then removed to allow shed creation for the second pick, this is achieved by pushed down in sections of the warp with the heel of one hand, this allows the warp yarns running through the heddle to be held up forming the shed to push the other arm through. Repeat for a couple of months to complete the piece. The yarn used was strong, thick and hairy which made the end product long lasting. The completed pieces are finished by washing on the ground with hot soapy water and bleach (!) before rinsing and hanging to dry.
We were also invited to have a go at making ‘elephants tail’ braids for which Rhona had brought four ready prepared lengths of yarn knotted in a loop for everyone. The loop was to put over a big toe which allowed us to create a tension for the braiding. Some were more successful than others!
Rhona told us that after the Gulf war she had been invited to return to Kuwait to re-assess the state of Bedouin weaving. Sadly much of the collection held by the Kuwait museum had been destroyed, but the Bedouin still weave, training weavers and producing fabrics for upmarket gift-wear such as i-pad covers and the like.