Traditional textiles in Ethiopia have centered on the country's reputation as a cradle of cotton. Cultivated and hand spun here for thousands of years, cotton has always occupied a central role in rural cultural life. Ethiopian women will grow or buy unrefined cotton, card it by hand and spin it with an inzirt. Women twist the inzirt, essentially a free standing spindle, in one hand while pulling the cotton in the other to make yarn. The inzirt is topped with a kesem which acts as a bobbin to spool the thread. The thread is then given to weavers who are traditionally male.
Ethiopian weavers use handlooms that are either raised or suspended in a pit (called a pit loom). All weaving is done by intersecting the warp threads (the long, vertical threads) with weft threads (the threads woven in a horizontal fashion). Weavers operate the loom by pressing pedals with their feet alternatively up and down to interweave the threads. Most handlooms are only 70 – 90 cm wide so that both edges of the warp thread are within arm's reach. However, this limits the width of the cloth that can be produced. Often, weavers will sew together multiple panels to make larger swatches of cloth. To learn more on the specifics of weaving on handlooms visit Craft Revival Trust's Demystifying the Loom. Some workshops have moved to modern looms allowing them to produce wider pieces of cloth.
The majority of textiles are made from cotton and range in thickness from a light, gauzy feel to a heavy, wool-like texture. The boluko, naturally ecru (unbleached white) in color, is made of four hand-woven pieces of fabric with an attractive irregularity from the raw cotton and traditional weaving processes. Although cotton was the only traditional thread used in weaving, modern weavers have begun using silk and rayon for diversity. Silk worms are now being bred near Mekele in the north and there is some small-scale silk cloth production in Addis Ababa.
Weaving is traditionally found throughout Ethiopia but there are clustered handloom activities in the Shiro Meda, Adisu-Gebeya, and Kechene-Medhane Alem neighborhoods of Addis Ababa. In the rural areas, Dorze and Konso in SNNPR are well known for their weaving as is Gondor and Wollo in Amhara.
Traditional Ethiopian Clothing
The gabi, netela, kuta, and qemis are the key pieces of traditional dress that are worn throughout the country. The gabi is a large, heavy, white wrap used by both men and women to protect themselves from the cold air during nighttime and the chilly rainy season. Its thick cotton weave helps to keep out the chill. During warmer month or on special occasions, men will wear a kuta, a thin, gauzy shawl. The netela worn by women is a large, white stole made of fine and delicate gauzy cotton. Usually, the netela has beautiful bands of multicolored jacquard design on the edges, often with silver or gold metallic threads, called the tibeb. More recently, artisans have incorporated the tibeb design and concept into larger patterns for home décor and fashion accessories. The traditional dress for women is the qemis, a long, white robe decorated with tibeb on the edges and waist band. These dresses are made from shemma, long strips of woven fabric sewn together. Recently, innovative designers have been creating modern styled dresses with dyed shemma cloth and tibeb. Finally, the buluko holds a special place in Ethiopian clothing. Traditionally made for the dowry, the bride's family must give the groom a buluko before marriage. These heavy wraps are also used by village chefs during important village meetings to illustrate their leadership.
Ethiopian artisans also create knitted and crocheted textiles from cotton and rayon yarn and wool. The weavers in Guassa collect wool from their local sheep and weave beautiful and rustic woolen rugs and mats .
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