Anansi's gift of the Magic Thread
by Estelle Carlson

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There is no warp beam on the back of the West African strip looms—only what is called by Eric Broudy (The Book of Looms) a "diverting bar". The warp travels over the diverting bar and stretches its full length across the compound’s courtyard. The warp is then tied to a weight or stone—this weight both anchors the warp and maintains even tension. This weight is called a "drag Stone". As the weavers weave and pull the warp forward the stone is dragged along the dirt towards the weaver. In many villages you can see the path the stone makes as it is dragged closer and closer to the loom.

The warp is prepared either in the courtyard of the compound, out in the streets of the village or any place where there is enough space. If space is a problem—as in some towns in Mali, the professional Warp Preparer will wind the warp around his house. However, when there is enough space poles three feet in height are used. They are hammered in the dirt and spread evenly apart. A forked tree branch is sometimes used to maintain the cross. For an Ashante man’s cloth (or toga) which is usually 24 strips wide and approximately 3 yards long, the warp has to be 32 yards long. The warp poles are arranged in any manner that is convenient to obtain this warp length. The Warp Preparer—which is an occupation akin to that of the weaver—knows from memory the required length and color rotation for a specified pattern.

After the warp is prepared, it is wrapped onto large bobbins, which are then placed on the tines of a bobbin carrier. This bobbin carrier is called in Ashante "menokomenam", which means "I walk alone". From the bobbin carrier the warp is transferred to the shuttles.

Treadles are also simple in construction. Twine is tied to the harnesses—at the end of the twine are knobs which are made from a calabash gourd. These knobs are placed between the toes of the weaver. As the weaver’s feet move up and down so do the harnesses. In Mali a knot is made at the end of the twine and this knot is placed between the weaver’s toes. In both instances the function is the same—the weaver’s feet become the treadles.

Weaving is done outside and is a social activity. Small sheds or fronded roofs are built to protect the weavers from the heat of the sun. Shade from trees also can protect the weaver from the mid-day heat. As I wandered through a village I would see weavers working together with their long warps stretching far into the compound. Up to three yards of woven fabric is made during one day’s weaving. At the end of the day the weaver dismantles his loom and takes it inside the house for the evening.

A weaver I met in Timbuktu (Mali) demonstrated for me the ease of dismantling a loom. He was weaving in a guildhall in the city of Timbuktu. I arranged to meet with him at the end of the day—he wanted me to meet and have dinner with his family. He took his warp, the reed and woven fabric, wrapped them into a ball and placed them into a bag. He then untied and collapsed his loom, bound the loom pieces together, put the loom on his head and shoulders and carried it home.

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