July Speaker’s Report– Bedouin Weaving and Braiding

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.

shill share picTo 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.

shill share picLooms 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.

shill share picWe 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.

May Speakers Report: Fabulous Flax with Riitta Sinkkonen Davies

RitaGiven Riitta Sinkkonen Davies’s reputation as one of the UK’s foremost experts on the preparation and weaving of flax, this presentation was eagerly anticipated and it was noticeable that, despite competition from minor events further south, there was good turnout at Murton to hear it.

Riitta’s interest in textiles and especially flax began with holidays spent with her grandparents in rural Finland, where there was a great tradition of home spinning and weaving. This interest led to formal qualifications in Textile Design. This base has been subsequently expanded by years of practical experience and world travel. The net result is the Riitta is now the ‘go-to’ person for decorative fabrics in flax  along and with other fibres.

In most years Riitta grows her own flax, and processes the flax plants into fibre using the traditional techniques of retting, breaking, scutching and hackling. The flax plants are pulled up while still slightly green and are then dried. Fibre separation begins with retting (corruption of rotting?) either by laying out on the ground to be wetted with dew, or by soaking in tanks of water. Her preferred method is to hold the dry plants until the following summer and use tank retting, when sunny days warm the water and speed the process.

riitta2Once the hard part of the plant stalks start to break down it is dried again before being put through the flax break. This process breaks up the woody core of the stem, but does not break the fibres. It is thought that the reference to spinning straw into gold in the folk tale Rumpelstiltskin originates.

After breaking the flax is pulled through the scutcher –  overlapping metal blades – to start stripping out the woody waste and then through pin hackles of increasing fineness to finish combing out the waste, leaving clean long fibres ready for spinning.

The time and conditions of the rett greatly influence the colour of the fibre, quick warm retting in summer produces light colours.

Having established her reputation as a first rank designer and producer of flax fabrics, Riitta now receives commissions from many sources, particularly where the client is trying to accurately recreate period clothing or other fabrics. The Jorvik centre wanted historically accurate cloths for their re-creators, with hand spun, hand woven cloths bleached in the old way by alkali boiling and laying out in the sun. Sadly tight deadlines and a requirement to produce the cloths in the depths of a Welsh winter meant that commercially spun yarns had to be used and resort was made to chemical bleaching, carefully moderated to avoid a ‘bright’ white, had to be used. For a later part of the order there was a requirement for a yellow dyed with weld; not an easy task on flax, using only alum mordant as tannic acid would have resulted in staining of the cloth. An initial intense yellow was washed back to the required primrose shade.

In a similar vein is the project to recreate Shakespeare’s bedspread for his Stratford house; all the ground yarn had to be handspun on her grandmothers wheel – 26 100g bobbins at around 9 hours per bobbin! Sadly Riitta was unable to weave this piece as she did not have a drawloom (or draw loom if preferred) to produce the intricate weft surfaced patterns. Ironically this historically accurate reproduction ended up being woven on a modern Jacquard loom.

Further commissions included the linen elements of the enthronement robes for Dr Rown Williams as Archbishop of Canterbury when the usual maker of ecclesiastical vestments declined to go anywhere near weaving flax. This was a job much plagued by indecision and delay, only being saved by private benefactors when the Welsh Assembly declined to fund it.

Further jobs included a backing for a church altar in Oxford to hide a large radiator. Wall hangings to complement a bare stone wall in a restaurant, part of a barn restoration holiday complex, woven on the now acquired draw loom which allows the creation of complex patterns by lifting small groups of ends separate to the ground yarn. The design idea was to create a forest over a winter sunset, using graded colours in the ground weft.

Next we head to Llandeilo South Wales and the National Trust’s Dinefwr Castle, where the old billiard room was being converted to a restaurant but it needed acoustic boards to help kill the echoes of the big high room. These were not aesthetically pleasing so Riitta got the call. Sessions photographing the estate produced a design of six different species of tree found on the estate, each with it’s name, in welsh, incorporated in the weave.


As with all of Riitta’s major designs she works with a full size ‘cartoon’ of the required image behind the cloth she s weaving. These are hand drawn; not and easy task for a 3m high hanging. Again woven on the draw loom using a thick textured wool yarn for the design to help absorb sound.

Riitta does produce table cloths and settings to order; it being not unknown for rooms to be re-decorated to match. Typically table settings are woven in relatively thick yarns to give the appropriate weight and drape.

She also produces small pieces for framing, using many sources of inspiration, but especially one particular beach that she drives past 100’s of time a year and she noticed it looked different every time. Many photographs later pieces began to emerge as distillations rather than exact copies of a single image.

Being a true Finn, she admits to an obsession with white as a result of long winters full of snow and ice. A fix which she renews annually with a midwinter trip to her home land. Inspiration flowed from pieces of leaf trapped in ice. The base cloth is woven with slits in it, through which are threaded strip of paper – made from flax fibre of course – and embroidered with the aforesaid leaf shapes.

Recently she has teamed up with a ceramic artist to produce pieces by soaking woven and other materials in liquid clay, once dried the piece is fired to burn out the flax and to fuse the clay into a ceramic. Some pieces are shown as a before and after pair.

Riitta confessed during questions that she  only hand spins what she has to because she cannot source it anywhere else.  Most of the yarn she uses is commercially produced. Trying to hand spin everything would be too time consuming and would seriously hamper here weaving programme.

She uses Procion col water reactive dyes for similar reasons and I suspect to get the fullness of shade she uses in much of her work.