A Weaving Story in Jordan
by Alaa Mencke
On the outskirts of Amman, Jordan, lies a valley that is rich in history called, Araq al Ameer. The village located there is called by the same name. Araq al Ameer means, “Caves of the Prince’ in English and an ancient ruin called, Qasr al Abd, “Castle of the Slave” is also there, built in the second century Hellenistic period, before Christianity. The legend is that the castle was built by a slave, smitten by the King’s daughter. He built the castle as a tribute to her, but never completed it or won her hand. What is left of the castle is still visited today, as are the caves that are located on the side of a mountain, which are still used as storage places and sheep pens. Some of the original structures of the village were left to erode, but there are still enough of them, including the ancient watering system to imagine what this farming community may have been like in the past. But, for me, as a weaver, what is even more enticing is the weaving cooperative that is located in this small village.
The weaving cooperative, established in 1993, had 20 young women volunteers to learn how to warp and weave. It is in one of the old buildings where curved arches, similar to those used in medieval architecture, are still supporting a roof over weavers beneath them. Amina, one of the young women who volunteered to learn how to weave in 1993, said that the looms they have were donated from the Chinese Embassy. A weaver, presumably from the embassy, instructed the women how to wind a warp, dress the loom and weave. They have four looms that are two shaft, two treadle, countermarch design. However, what differs from the countermarch looms that are most commonly seen, is that the back of the loom is raised higher than the front resulting in a smaller shed. Since these are the looms the weavers learned on, they are used to the beater so close to the breast beam and the short shed.
Even though their looms are limited by the number of harnesses and treadles, they weave a flawless plain weave, balanced and well-made. Natural yarn is virtually non-existent in Jordan; the wool we have from the Awassi sheep, an ancient breed, is undervalued and cotton is not grown here anymore. As a result, the weavers in Araq al Ameer either use acrylic yarn from China or sewing thread. On my recent visit, Amina had acquired some cotton yarn from downtown, which she was dyeing with natural materials found within their village, and that day it was acorns. The natural dyeing they’ve recently done creates an effect similar to ikat. Sometimes they use the material they’ve woven and sew them into bags and slippers. However, the way in which they weave is very different from the way in which we are accustomed in the west.
First, when winding their warp, they set up their cones of yarn on a kind of metal frame that has eyelets screwed into the top. The cones sit at the bottom of the frame and each cone is threaded through an eyelet. Then, the yarn is taken across the room to a very large wheel, where it is tied on. The large wheel serves as their warping mill and can hold about eight yards. It’s so large that it reminds me of the large paddle wheel on a steam boat. Of course, it isn’t that large, but compared to the size of the room it’s in, it is very oversized. Naturally, once the threads are attached to the mill, they wind on the many yards of thread. They may count the yards (meters) wound onto the warping mill, but the number of ends are not counted. This is another technique that is uncommon to weavers in the west. Thread count and wraps per inch are irrelevant.
Unlike in other weaving communities, weavers that I have met in Araq al Ameer and in other places do not weave following patterns and number of ends per inch and the other technical aspects that many weavers use. In fact, I’m certain they do not know how to read a pattern. They simply fill the many string heddles on the two harnesses to the desired width. Since there are only two shafts, they just place a thread in each heddle, alternating between shaft one and two. Because they have not been taught the technical aspects of weaving, designs they could weave through use of alternate colored warp threads are not used. Because a single color is used in the warp, the weaving effect occurs by changing colors in the weft, making that the area where any kind of patterning or design is done.
While these weavers do not have knowledge in the technical aspects, such as the use of color and weave in warps, color theory or how to use a multi-harness loom, they are enthusiastic to learn. Also, their absence of knowledge in these areas does not take away from the beautiful fabric they do weave. They, just like all weavers, are always trying to learn new skills and have pride in the weaving they do.