Monday, March 12, 2012

Country Cloth

Pa Brimah Daru
Master Mende Weaver
c. 1970
small country cloth bed spread or lappa (5 ft 6 inches x 7 ft 6 inches)
traditional Mende men's country cloth robe
a large country cloth made by Pa Brimah Daru in 1970 (6ft 6 x 10 ft 6)In Kenema, from time to time we used to run into Pa Brimah, who was a master weaver of country cloth. In Kenema, he might meet us in town as we were shopping and try to sell us place mats for our table. With us he was successful – and sold us a number of place mats that we used while in Kenema and also brought these homes for our use as well as for gifts for our family. I was well-aware of the value of cotton country cloths.
In Sierra Leone country cloth was a very valued commodity. Given as gifts or as part of dowries this was the traditional woven material. The process in making country cloth was labor intensive. Cotton was grown along with the upland rice, and was harvested at the end of the dry season along with the rice harvest. Then picked from its pod, the cotton was then made into cotton thread, and then dyed using indigo dye or kola nut (brown) or left its natural color which was a light tan. The process by which the cotton was made into thread and dyed was in those days felt to be a woman’s responsibility. After the thread was ready this would be handed over to weavers (men did the weaving) who would then set up their simple tripod looms. This often took several days to set up. In rural areas the patterns were most commonly simple stripes of blue and tan. Sometimes the patterns would be more complicated with complex patterns of symmetric designs. And the sizes of the woven material was variable from material that was large enough to cove a small bed (about 3 or 4 feet wide by 5 or 6 feet long) to some that could easily be 3 or 4 times that size. Pa Brima’s place mats, usually had somewhat complex patterns but were clever and made more for the small expatriot market that existed in Kenema.
A weaver would work long, repetitive, and tedious hours, moving his loom along the thread weaving long and narrow bands of material. These long bands when completed, would then be placed side by side and sewn together to make a material that could then be used for bed covering, or in more rural areas for mens country robes, or women’s lappas (the term used for women’s clothing). A Lappa might be 3 or 4 feet wide by 5 or 6 feet long. If there was a small amount of cloth left over, a small country cloth hat might be made.
In our area I knew a number of weavers and visited them often. There were several Fula weavers who lived in our neighborhood. These men tended to use European thread that had been made and colored in Europe and then imported in Sierra Leone. In the village of Bitema I knew two or three weavers who were Mende. Most of these men of Bitema wove material for their own use – The Fula weavers tended to weave material that they later peddled in downtown Kenema. It was the Mende country cloth that I liked the best. It had a rough quality to it – and looked less modern. While in Kenema I began collecting country cloth.
Pa Brimah Daru was an older man when I met him (perhaps in his late 40's), but he was willing to invite me to his home in Daru to see him at work. He had been a weaver for years and reportedly in earlier times had been the weaver of Paramount Chiefs – making for them huge cotton cloth blankets that were both beautiful and highly valued. As pressure became greater to use European threads and dyes the more traditional cotton country cloth became harder to come by. The issue was two fold (1) it was hard to make traditional country clothes – it took a lot of effort and time (2) European cloth was becoming fashionable and to some degree preferred –this despite people still marveling and having an appreciate for beautifully woven Mende country cloth when they saw it. I paid Pa Brimah several visits and ended up commissioning him to make me a very large country cloth blanket. In his house in Daru, a town about 3 or 4 hours travel from our house in Kenema, he turned out beautiful material on his tripod loom which sat on his veranda. He was rumored to have a few apprentices who worked for him from time to time.

No comments: