Anansi's gift of the Magic Thread
by Estelle Carlson

Estelle Carlson is a dyer and handweaver who creates beautiful garments with fabrics from around the world. In this article she tells of her encounters with some Kente weavers in Ghana.

Earlier this year I traveled to Ghana and Togo—two countries in West Africa. While visiting these countries I met many weavers, dyers and spinners. One of the outstanding weavers I met was a gentleman who lives in the Ashante town of Bonwire. His name is Samuel Cophie. I spent the day with Mr. Cophie and had time to not only observe his students weave their narrow strips of vividly colored cloth—but to meet with his wives and children. I asked Mr. Cophie many questions about weaving techniques, the strip-weaving looms, and his students—even about how he became a weaver. I then asked how strip weaving originated in West Africa. "Tradition" was his initial answer—but within time he also told me about Anansi, the spider—a popular folk hero in Ashante folklore.

Hundreds of years ago rainforests covered the land that today is known as Ghana. It is in this rainforest that the Ashante people live—and it is also in this rainforest that Anansi, the spider lives. Now, Anansi a wise and lovable trickster is shrewd and cunning. He is a troublemaker, but he is also imaginative and creative.

One day during the reign of Oti Akenten (about 1600 AD) two brothers--Nana Kragu and Nana Ameyaw--went hunting in the rain forest. After searching all day for food with no success they finally spotted a herd of impala. They were delighted with their find, but on closer inspection the brothers spied something else--something that hovered near this herd. What was this thing that glistened with the evening mist and reflected the colors of the rainbow? And who was this creature that was sitting in the very center of this delicate object? "I am a spider—I am Anansi, the spider and this "object" is a web," was the reply. "And in return for several favors I will teach you how to weave lovely webs like this."

The brothers accomplished the tasks Anansi gave them and in return they learned the art not only of weaving but the arts of spinning and dyeing. Upon returning to the village, the brothers showed everyone the beautiful fabric they had woven. They told everyone about the looms they had built and the threads they had spun and dyed. And, of course, they told everyone about Anansi’s gift---the Gift of the Magic Thread.

The loom Anansi constructed for the brothers was the simplest of looms—a loom built out of tree limbs and branches. This simple, portable loom is still in use today and can be seen all over West Africa. It is known as a strip-weaving loom.

Four sturdy tree limbs buried in the ground establish the frame for this loom. Its harnesses and beaters are supported by an overhead limb or by a beam in a roof. The front warp beam is also a strong tree limb that is tied to support branches with twine—it is this limb that carries the woven fabric.

The reed, shuttles, heddle pulleys are either constructed by the weaver or purchased in the market. 

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