In the latest issue of Selvedge Magazine is my article about Senegalese textiles. The focus of the piece is the Mandjak style of weaving that is done in Dakar particularly, though it is influenced by Portuguese colonialism.
On the other side of town the boys on the street were no more than teenagers, and some of the younger ones working the complicated heddle sequences much younger than that. Known as Tissurands in Senegal, these boys were working on the pavement next to a busy road in Dakar with no basic comforts. Artisans working in the organised workshops were older and worked under an awning keeping off the worst of the sun. It takes two weavers per loom, one to throw the shuttles and one to lift the heddles, often an apprentice is performing this key part of the operation.
The looms are basic and are able to be dismantled so they can be left on the street, removing the key moving parts for safekeeping. A wooden heddle pulley is the main moving part while the warp is tied to a stone drag-weight on a wooden sledge that gradually slides towards the loom as the weaver works. Tradition has it that the loom is gateway between the spirits and this world with the secrets of weaving coming from a jinn spirit as detailed in the Juntel Jabali myth. It is said this is why the weavers use only bare feet on the loom, so as not to break the connection, while the cloth is supposed to protect the wearer from danger.
Symbolic of power and wealth, textiles carry symbolic messages and play an important role in daily life and ritual. Those used in ‘change of life’ ceremonies – weddings, births and funerals – become heirlooms holding great value. In West Africa these important fabrics are known as loincloths, wrappers, Seru njaago or rabal. They are considered to hold ‘the breath of life’: used to wrap new-borns along with the breath of the imam who names the child and also used as a burial shroud in death. Although Mandjak fabrics are considered part of the national heritage of Senegal, they may have more in common with neighbouring countries.
Find out more about Mandjak weaving in Senegal