Our wonderful Ethiopian textiles supplier, Sabahar, is a member of the World Fair Trade Organisation. In a supportive and safe environment, spinners and weavers create a range of scarves, shawls, capes and homewares. A number of former obstetric fistula patients treated by Hamlin Fistula Ethiopia have found secure and meaningful employment by spinning organic Ethiopian cotton for Sabahar.
Below are excerpts from a recent Sabahar blog on the history and future of Ethiopian textile weaving:
Weaving is one of the oldest surviving crafts in the world.
It is the primary method of textile production involving interlinking a set of vertical threads with horizontal threads. 20,000 to 30,000 years ago, humans developed the first string by stretching out and twisting thin bundles of plant fibres together. This ability to produce string and thread was the starting place for the development of spinning, sewing, and weaving.
The first known pieces of woven clothing come from Egypt – made from linen from around 5,000 BC. The earliest example of silk weaving appears to be from China, produced around 3,700 BC. From India, woven silk articles started around 2,000-2,500 BC. Early looms needed one or two persons to work on them – as shown in these drawings from Egypt of women spinning linen and weaving.
It is not clear exactly when Ethiopians started weaving or from where they learnt it. The remoteness of many parts of the country may have forced people to be self-reliant for cloth production rather than dependent on trade.
There is a very curious and somewhat mysterious legacy connected to hand weaving in Ethiopia. Tablet weaving is an ancient and complicated form of weaving known to have existed in Egypt and Yemen. Though cotton has historically been grown in Ethiopia, there is no evidence of silk production until recent times. However, the largest silk tablet weavings in the world are from Ethiopia! It is generally agreed that these silk weavings were produced during the time of Queen Mentawab, a famous queen of Gondar during the period of 1721-1730. The motifs include the Queen, her husband King Bakaffa, and their son Iyyassu II, with angels and guards.
The foundation of Sabahar is weaving on the two harness looms which can be found in every region of the country. However, introducing new equipment and techniques is vital to the Sabahar vision – including innovations and updates in warping, harnesses and loom parts.
Sabahar is committed to hand-weaving, and to doing everything we can to make this sector appealing for traditional weavers and to new artisans. We have realised that this will require more than just changing some factors of production but will also require a redefining of hand-weaving within the Ethiopian economy. Greater effort is needed to move this traditional sector into the mainstream economy, which will require addressing such issues as policy support, access to improved technologies and raw materials, and increased and more sophisticated capacity to manage within a competitive global textile market.
All weavers reported that their lives have improved since working with Sabahar. The consistent and fair income has allowed our weavers to improve their lives in ways that their parents could not. However, they have a strong desire to see weaving as a profession – rather than a traditional home craft. They would like their work to be recognised as an important contribution to Ethiopia’s economy, rather than an informal, unorganised and largely invisible sector.
From the first twisting of plant and animal fibres together thousands of years ago, the story of woven textile production is one of innovation and improvement. At Sabahar, we are excited to be a part of this story and hopeful that even with small changes, we can contribute to the sustainability of the handloom sector in Ethiopia.
Click here to discover the Hamlin Shop’s range of fair trade, handwoven textiles - including work by Sabahar. Proceeds supports Ethiopian artisans and patients at Hamlin Fistula Ethiopia.