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"Bedouin weaving -
The Bani Hamida Women's Weaving Project

 
The site of Herod's fortress of Mukawir - photo JTB
This is the Bani Hamida tribal territory

I should like to thank Joy Totah Hilden for her help and her permission to use her photos and her knowledge of weaving from her website at www.beduinweaving.com. Much of her material is quite fascinating. I have not quoted it since I am concerned here with the Bani Hamida tribe in Jordan, but if you are interested, you might like to read her description of a "tent assembling" session in Saudi Arabia. All of her photos reproduced here are of the Bani Hamida women at work.

In the villages in the mountains overlooking the Dead Sea, live the formerly nomadic Bedouin tribe of the Bani Hamida. Today the name of this tribe is synonymous in Jordan with the weaving project started by twelve women of the tribe in 1985.

From this modest start and encouraged by the help of first the Save the Children's Fund and later by the Queen Noor Foundation, the project is bringing a certain prosperity to an otherwise impoverished region of Jordan. Nearly a thousand women are now involved in the work and recently a girls' school was built partially funded by the money earned through the weaving project.

Most of the women work at home (see below), or in smaller centres in their own villages. However modern the approach to marketing, the rugs are still woven on the traditional ground looms, constructed of stones, sticks and other available objects, although some attempts are being made to introduce the newer upright looms which are less tiring to use. The project is centred in the village of Mukawir (known to tourists as the site of Herod's fortress and of the execution of John the Baptist), where you can visit the weaving rooms and admire the work. You can also buy of course, but the prices are high, like those of most handmade goods. If you are interested in this weaving and are not planning to visit Mukawir, you can see the results of the women's work in the Bani Hamida House in Amman on Jebel Amman.

In her backyard

You can see it's all happening here! Two looms are stretched out being prepared for work, and the lady of the house is busy spinning even as she talks. This is a hand spindle, of the type that many Bedouin women and girls take out with them while they are watching the flocks - see larger photo below of a such a spindle.

It is quite fascinating to watch how they continue to spin while chattering among themselves or climbing over boulders after the goats.

Beside our hostess on the ground are several blue hanks of spun yarn.

This is a "thumbnail" picture, click on it for a larger version, the details are most interesting.

The whole process is done by hand from the washing, carding, spinning and dying of the yarn to the finished product. The Bani Hamida traditionally use maroon, teal, olive, camel and light and dark natural colours, but this can be adapted to demand to produce carpets in soft pastels or in contemporary hues. A high proportion of their production is custom made and is exported directly.


A detail of a spindle The thread passes through the "hook" (bent nail) at the top before being wound around the stick bit. Notice how long it is,it must be nearly 2 feet, or over 60cms long

The dyepot, with the older ladies in charge.
You can see a ground loom behind them ready for work

The strong, heavily twisted yarn is being spun on this simple hand spindle. The spinner has a distaff full of twisted bunches of sheep's wool tucked under her left arm, sometimes in a pocket or in a bag slung over her shoulder. She holds the spindle in her right hand and turns it quickly in her open palm, guiding the stream of fleece from the distaff with her left hand. It might sound clumsy, but usually the spindle twirls so fast that one barely sees it turning, just the yarn accumulating on the handle

A traditional Bedouin loom is made of simple materials. Basically it consists of two metal or wooden bars resting against four tent stakes driven into the ground and sometimes, as shown in the example higher up, blocked by stones. The warp yarns are wound over the bars. The flat weave of the surface is found only in rugs made according to this Bedouin technique.

When a nomad family moved to another location the loom was easily dismantled and taken along.

Each bedouin tribe has its own tradition in the designs used in its weaving; most are based on ancient patterns, often taken from mosaics and ancient scripts that were copied for weaving by some past weavers and then adopted as a new design that later became part of the tradition. Sometimes designs can be based on the markings of the animals belonging to the tribe.

The work appears simple enough until you see what is actually involved. The woman sits on the ground, pushing and pulling, beating and plucking, to create the thick dense cloth that will withstand the severe sand, wind and wear of nomadic life. All this is hard and demanding work. You can see the position necessary to do it - imagine sitting like this all day! (The photo on the right was actually taken in Egypt, but the technique is the same).

Using the looms and traditional techniques of the tribe, they produce not only the carpets and rugs which are acquiring an international reputation, but cushions, wallhangings and saddle bags. The traditional designs remain the most popular with buyers, but the Bani Hamida Women's Weaving Project follows the latest trends of weaving and is interested in the latest designs and styles as shown in international professional magazines. They hold an exhibition in Amman twice a year, in the spring and the autumn, and today much of the production is sold even before it has left the looms.

Normally the looms used produce rugs something less than a meter wide. This results in panels which can be sewn or "laced" together to any width required. Some of the work is quite extraordinary - see the rugs shown below:

 

Here are two rugs made on the same principle of plain squares bordered by intricate patterns - all of which are different. The finished rugs represent hours and hours of work. The rug underneath is a "thumbnail photo" and if you click on it you will get a larger version in which the details of the weave and of the patterns are clearly to be seen. Even in this smaller photo you can see how narrow the panels are.

Buses go to Mukawir from the bus station in Madaba, the journey takes about an hour. If you are sightseeing as well as visiting the weaving project, there is a pathway leaving from just beside the weaving workshops, the walk up to Herod's castle is perhaps a bit challenging, but perfectly straightforward. The views from the top are magnificent and few people go there. The usual track passes a cave where John the Baptist is said to have been beheaded.

Otherwise, you can see many of the products displayed at the Jordan Society for Development (JSD) and at the Jordan Design and Trade Centre (the sales division of the Noor al Hussein Foundation) which has outlets in several town in Jordan: in Amman Tel:(962 6)5699-141/2, at Iraq Al Amir (24 km west of Amman) Tel: (962 6) 548-1385, in Madaba (35 km south of Amman) Tel: (962 5) 548-651 in Jerash (40 km north of Amman) and in Petra. You can also find Bani Hamida rugs at the Sandcastle shop in Petra.

A couple of websites where you can see the work are http://www.amsimports.com/collections_jordan.html http://www.jordanhere.com/bazaar/rugs/rugs.htm

The Huweitat tribe also have a weaving project in the town of El Husseiniyer in south Jordan. This is on the Desert Highway north of Ma'an, and I am told that their products are much less expensive than those of the Bani Hamida. They are certainly less well known.

This is only a very quick look at the weaving of the Bedouin, and I urge all those of you truly interested in the subject to look at www.beduinweaving.com where Joy Hilden has explained in much more detail both the techniques used in weaving and the utilisation of the results. Her description of the making and the furnishing of a traditional Bedouin tent is absolutely fascinating. There are also a number of photos of the intricate work done by the Saudi Bedouin women, these wall hangings or bags are not usually done for sale but just for decorating the "home". Again the workmanship is extraordinary.

You can also see some photos of the weaving being done by a Bedouin woman in Wadi Rum on the page of photos entitled "Bedouin photos".

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©Ruth Caswell 2002

Online June 30 2002