Anansi's gift of the Magic Thread
by Estelle Carlson

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The specific looms used by Samuel Cophie (and other Kente cloth weavers) are both similar and different from the simple West African strip loom. The looms are similar in terms of treadles and the extension of the warp into the compound—but this loom is not created from the limbs and branches of trees. These looms are the result of expert carpentry work. They are set upon a platform, with the upper beams being notched or serrated—these notched beams support the heddles and the beater and give the weaver greater flexibility.

The Ashante weavers often use two (sometimes three) pairs of heddles—this enables the weaver to alter the colors within the warp and is called "double weave" by the Ashante and Ewe weavers (this "double weave" differs from the western "double weave"). The first pair of heddles weave what is called the "asatia" (tabby)—the remaining heddles control the threads which weave the pattern. Weavers that do not use these extra heddles use the pick-up method for patterning.

The drag stone for the Ashante loom is placed on rollers. The warp is knotted and tied to the rocks or bricks with a clip or stick. In my observations this particular loom is used primarily by the Ashante weavers in the Kumasi area of Ghana (west central Ghana) and the Ewe weavers in the Southeastern part of Ghana. In the other areas of West Africa that I have visited the simpler loom is used.

As simple as these looms are they command great respect from the West African weaver. The weaver not only has to be able to construct his own loom—he also has to care for it. Old looms can not be broken up for firewood or used for any purpose other than weaving. The entire loom if it is no longer in use has to be thrown into the river. The loom according to Eric Broudy is "regarded as a household deity, a protector of the home". If any criminal or adulterous act is committed with the weaver’s home a sheep has to be sacrificed to the loom and to the Chair of the ancestors.

Weaving on these narrow strips looms is a man’s activity. The art of weaving is taught to young boys at a very early age—somewhere between five and six. These young boys are taught initially how to wind skeins, load shuttles and thread the reed and heddles—the latter job is not easy task. As he grows he is taught how to weave plain weaves, stripes and simple patterns. To weave the complex Kente or Ewe patterns he must be a skilled and practiced weaver.

Through tradition and a variety of taboos women do not weave—although I have seen photographs of several women weaving Kente cloth and Mr. Cophie said there is one woman weaver in Bonwire. However, throughout West Africa women are traditionally excluded from strip weaving. Women are in some areas even excluded from the environs of the loom. Captain R. S. Rattray in his book Ashanti stated that in the Ashante culture "women could never be weavers owning to the fact that they have menstrual periods…a woman during her periods may not touch a loom. A woman in this condition must not even address her husband directly". It is also generally believed that the women who do weave Kente cloth will become infertile.

According to Anne Spencer (Wrapped in Pride) several organizations—The Centre for the Development of People, The Anglican Diocesan Mothers’ Union and the Trinity Church I New York City—have all sponsored The Bonwire Anglican Women Kente Project and claim to have trained twenty women to weave. Another project in the 1980’s near Agbozume also taught women to weave Kente (or Ewe) cloth, but this project was abandoned in the mid 1990’s.

Women in West Africa do weave—however, they weave on looms other than the strip looms. In Togo and Cameroon women weave wider fabrics on the upright single heddle looms and in Nigeria women weave on horizontal single heddle looms. Women in many West African countries spin and dye yarns. They are also the primary sellers of woven cloth in the markets.

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