Ethiopian Woven Wisdom

worshippers in traditional clothing, viewed from behind

Ethiopian Textiles

Her art was embroidery; her gym for the brain.

__Mesfin Tadesse on Abyssinian Queen Saba

Ethiopian Weaving and Embroidery

Ethiopian textile crafts are older than Abyssinian Queen Saba (Sheba). Saba lived 3,000 years ago near the Blue Nile River. She was a master of the unique Ethiopian style of weaving called tibeb. This means wisdom and art. King Salamon (Solomon) said, ‘I was in love with her wisdom before her beauty.’

There are many tibeb styles, usually in panels on clothing. Saba’s people illuminated the Ten Commandments with a tibeb design: 4 zig-zags in a box. In 2021, I wore an Ethiopian dress on the flight home to Australia. Its tibeb panels set off the security alarm because they held rich metallic embroidery thread.

multi-coloured Ethiopian traditional embroidery with Queen Saba face
Tibeb with Saba face

Ethiopians referred to Saba as the Engineer Queen; in our book Lucy’s People, Mesfin describes her technical feats. My Aussie architect friend told me how he learned to sew garments as a child; this helped him understand how objects fitted together. It is not surprising that Saba’s art was embroidery: gym for the brain. The Amharic word for embroidery is from ancient Ge’ez: tilfe. It means ‘the edge of art’. Read more about Saba, who was also called Makeda (Hebrew for ‘throne’.)

Embroidered Folding Umbrellas

Orit Orthodox Ethiopians—Saba’s people—invented wide, folding umbrellas or mirgif for ceremonies. Used today in monasteries and churches, these feature abstract-art embroidery in silk, gold and silver. This ceremonial umbrella dates from the 19th century, when Empress Taytu gave embroidery new life. Pure silk, the umbrella will last a further 500 years.

Red silk ceremonial umbrella and velvet cape with silver-thread bell border
Emperor Menelik II’s selat umbrella and velvet cape

In 2020, a contemporary genius sold her handmade umbrellas under plastic tarpaulin, with barely room to squat. A typically gracious vendor, she let us take this photo. Her hands made these museum-quality pieces.

6 blue, red, black, green and brown embroidered and fringed silk umbrellas
Selat Orit Orthodox embroidered silk umbrellas

Ethiopian Silk Cultivation

In Ethiopia, there are 3 kinds of silk. The finest is from the sheririt spider, its praises sung by Asnakech Worku. At Lake Tana, I mistook an acacia for low-lying white cloud; the small tree wore a white veil of sheririt silk. Harer in Ethiopia’s east is named for this silk. Harari women’s garments are exquisitely coloured. Draped in light, vibrant layers, the women walk tall and move their torsos with feminine pride and skill when dancing.

The 2nd type is from the qimburs maggot or caterpillar.

3-cm white oblong silk cases from the qimburs maggot in woven, dyed plant-fibre dish
Qimburs silk-maggot cases at Saba Har factory, Addis Ababa

A 3rd type of Ethiopian silk is harvested from the gulo plant. Upon this wild gulo in Addis Ababa, insects have begun weaving white silk between tiny protuberances on the plant. When thick enough, a person will lift off the crop. Then the gulo will receive sunlight and continue to thrive.

green plant with white silk covering
Gulo silk plant, on a mountain roadside.

Humane and Ethical Production

Animals do not die during Ethiopian silk production. Mesfin tells more in our Lucy’s People book extract, below.

Ethiopians cultivate all fibres humanely. They grow organic cotton using no sprays or harsh chemicals. The soil is a glorious red, layered with yellow and other wondrous colours. It is sweet to smell with an almost edible consistency. This does not happen by itself; it takes hard work and skilled traditional farming to maintain a healthy yet highly productive environment.

Farmers humanely cultivate wool. Rift Valley farmers make animal husbandry look effortless and their sheep and goats are calm. I would happily change places with any animal in the flock owned by 1 man. He walked behind, serenading them with his washint bamboo flute. All livestock had interesting markings, intelligent faces and long legs. In central Addis Ababa, a brown goat-and-sheep pair roamed the busy footpath at noon – their owner nearby, doing business over coffee.

I was given a wool-and silk-pullover handcrafted in Ethiopia’s south. Warm and soft, it keeps its shape and green colour. The dyeing was done with natural substances and plants. Workers and I were not exposed to toxic chemicals in artificial dyes: the garment’s production was ethical.

Traditional Yagerlibs Clothing

Ethiopian men's white, purple, blue and yellow striped shirt
Men’s yagerlibs shirt

Ancient Abyssinian Innovations

Ancient Abyssinians pioneered spinning, weaving, embroidery, knitting, crochet and lace making. Monks developed sewing machines in Orit Orthodox monasteries thousands of years ago. Today, Ethiopian tailors use treadle machines beside streets and in laneways. These are sinja – like ‘Singer’.

Ethiopians invented the lace-making machine; Mesfin’s mother owned and used one. The Amharic word for lace is dantel and the French word is virtually identical: dentelle. Did France base its word for lace on the Ethiopian word?

My Ethiopian lace stockings have lasted more than 2 years. A cotton blend, they are the most comfortable hosiery I have worn. They enhance both Western-style dress and Ethiopian traditional clothing or yagerlibs – ‘traditional clothing of the country’.

White and gold embroidered Ethiopian dress
Amhara yagerlibs with silk tibeb panels and borders

Yagerlibs are also called ‘cultural dress’. Styles vary between districts. View Tariku’s gorgeous south-western yagerlibs: here, he performs his acclaimed “Dishta Gina”. (Tariku sings in Dinka.)

Fabric is cotton, silk or wool or combinations. Some cultures have non-woven grass skirts. Traditionally, intricate weaving of pampas grass is another widespread skill. Women produce mesob baskets, hats and mats. Tigray and Eritrean women dance beguilingly with them.

multi-coloured, circular, domed woven basket lid
Pampas grass mesob lid

Hair braiding is similar to weaving. Amhara created sheruba: stylised plaits on the head only. See regional styles here.

Timeless Ethiopian Fashion

This cotton dress has Amhara-style woven embroidery borders and panels. They were done by machine, but traditionally the work is by hand.

yellow full-length cotton dress with yellow, green, red and blue traditional-embroidery panels
Yagerlibs with machine-made tibeb embroidery panels

Timeless Ethiopian fashion may incorporate contemporary elements. To view its creative scope, type yagerlibs fashion into a search-engine search-box. You will see a few cocktail-length dresses; I prefer modern or traditional yagerlibs for occasional wear in Australia.

Ethiopian clutch
Clutch with tibeb embroidery

In Addis Ababa, men and women also wear chic Western clothing and the best shoes and wristwatch that they can afford. At Fasika (Ethiopian Easter), our hotel’s cleaners gathered in traditional yagerlibs for a staff breakfast, each woman a queen. I am glad of shirring on traditional dresses that works magic with waistlines.

Red fedora and green, yellow and red fringed silk scarf
Ethiopian silk-flag scarf & Fedora

This treasured gift has Ethiopia’s flag colours: green for growth, yellow for hope and peace, and red for the blood spilled in defence of the mother land. Other African flags have used the same colours. I proudly wore the scarf on my head on Adwa Victory Day and whenever Ethiopia was hammered.

A hotel cleaner taught me that every long yagerlibs dress needs a natela. The wide and long shawl covers the head, shoulders and upper arms. This is essential when visiting any church, mosque or monastery.

white, gold, silver and blue Ethiopian shawl
Cotton natela with silk, gold & silver tibeb

For men’s formal yagerlibs, view this family photo. Ethiopian men’s dance is athletic, so Amhara often wear shorts. Patriots, who resisted invasion, wore long pants that were fitted to the knee – this stopped grenades from falling out of the wide thigh area. Nazis copied the style during World War II. Today, some yagerlibs suit trousers have the patriot cut.

Made to Last

Ethiopian dress fabric is light and finely textured, yet strong. Dresses drape on the body in a flattering manner, the cut suiting most figures. Mine have lasted 6 years so far. They withstand vigorous dance and repeated hand washing. The secret is expert crafting including spinning by hand. Traditionally, this is an essential female skill, embedded in cultures.

Can Ethiopia’s cotton cloth be likened to her people? Refined yet tough. In Bahir Dar, on the shores of Lake Tana at the source of the Blue Nile, I witnessed a fusion of dance and spinning. A slender lady did Eskista shoulder dance while walking in a deep squat in a circle, smoothly without bouncing up and down. At the same time, she spun cotton expertly. Incomparable and unique.

Eskista shoulder dance

Ethiopians weave tibeb embroidery panels in their homewares: airy curtains, cushion covers and gabi – a throw or blanket that can also be worn during cold nights. View gabi here.

Textile Worker Conditions

While Ethiopia was under the TPLF, I visited a yagerlibs garment factory. The business was Ethiopian owned and inspiring. This contrasted with a business nearby; the former government had let Turks take it over. Its supervisors had been abusing workers, especially women. The police would not help, so workers demonstrated and the TPLF killed 100.

The Ethiopian garment factory operated in a building that was light and airy. Although in full swing, the factory was quiet. Washed cotton dried outside; indoors, men worked heavy mahogany looms. They did most of the weaving including sections with intricate designs. Women prepared bobbins and men sewed garments. Every worker was a respected craftsperson. People worked efficiently and with great care. They were not creating fast fashion.

Fast fashion is critiqued here in English by a thoughtful French designer of sustainable women’s apparel. Like fast food, fast fashion is worthless; it is ‘wear and throw’ Western-style cheap clothing. Always belonging to rich countries, brands produce clothes in poor countries without paying the factories properly. Textile workers are exploited. You may know about the 2013 accident that killed and injured thousands of grossly underpaid garment workers in Bangladesh. Conditions have barely improved in 9 years despite promises. Too few customers in rich countries care about safety, human rights and living wages for those making their clothes. If you buy your clothes in a Western country, you have consumer power. When shopping, ask about fair trade and workers’ remuneration and safety.

Better realities play out today in independent cultures. In Ethiopia, locally owned traditional textile and clothing production is sustainable and ethical. An uplifting example is Saba Har in Addis Ababa. This silk and cotton factory and retailer is set in glorious gardens; the video shows its production processes including silk cultivation and cotton and silk spinning, weaving and dyeing. Long may it endure.

4 spools of spun cotton
Hand spun cotton on liqadit spools

Kombolcha Textile Factory Destruction by TPLF

Before I share Mesfin’s happy tales of silk cultivation, let me explain what the Ethiopian textile industry is up against today. This is in addition to plagiarism: rip-offs of Ethiopian designs by European and Asian designers. The latest is death and destruction brought about by the November War – with design by Caucasian supporters of the junta. Here is some background.

In May 2021 the rebel junta broke a ceasefire and attacked the northern districts of Welo and Afar. My friend visited his people in Dessie, the spectacular Welo capital. He returned depressed at TPLF murder and destruction that lasted for more than half the year. The West did nothing when mercenaries from the richest nations helped rebels take over Dessie. When they killed 152 young people just for fun, the UN did not decry this. Instead, the Security Council moved to invade Ethiopia – for ‘humanitarian purposes’. Russia, China and India voted against it. TPLF executions of civilian youth continued, while the UN’s Biggest Bully Nation warmed its jets threatening to bomb Ethiopia.

My friend said, ‘Why do they hate us?’ The junta’s powerful friends love fertile land, agriculture, minerals—tantalum, titanium and uranium—and industry.

Here is a report about systematic destruction of industry and infrastructure in Kombolcha, near Dessie. Kombolcha Textile Factory was 1 of the largest in Africa. 35,000 worked there. 4 decades ago, it took 8 hours to drive past a single Welo cotton field. The cotton industry thrived and Kombolcha Textile Factory exported products to Europe. In November 2021, TPLF rebels stood guard as Caucasian mercenaries dismantled the factory. Part of it was underground, so they attacked with bunker diggers. They also burned it.

Removal of African industrial competition was on the rich countries’ list of tasks for the rebels. Large textile factories are opening elsewhere in 2022. How will workers fare?

Ethiopia Book Extract

Mesfin’s mother Tewode and grandmother Mama Teliqwa were traditional craft workers. This extract is based on a passage in Chapter 5 of Lucy’s People: An Ethiopian Memoir by Mesfin Tadesse. 2nd edition, 2021.

She switched on my brain with labour.

< My tiny grandmother was the biggest person. She had fought war with war. Mama made fun of post-colonialist ambitions in Africa: She crouched like a ravenous fox fixated upon prey. Then she ambled on all fours, a bull with juicy balls that did not drop. Better for the fox to catch rabbits at home.

With work she switched on my brain. My brother and I processed her sacks of angel silk. Gojjami monks chanted about its dazzling whiteness. Burst-open purple bolls held seeds and fluffy silk. We separated them. Mum sold the oil-rich seeds for candle making.

Mama Teliqwa inspected Mum’s fingernails. Her silk apprentice had to file them smooth. Mum spun thread then wove it on her mahogany loom. She sewed handkerchiefs and capes. For embroidery, Mum wove silk on a 50-centimetre frame. She dyed threads with sun dried flower petals.

I melted metal for Mum to make silver thread and polished it with iodine. In woven silver crosses, she incorporated bluestones that I sanded and shaped.

red and gold embroidered cape detail
Kapo in silk velvet with gold embroidery

Customers sent advance parties.

Christian Orthodox lords bought her garments for palace events to impress the emperor. Haile Selassie would ask about the fine tibeb craft. Mum’s customers would not mention her: to them, she was evil eye. Mum overcharged the belly fillers. Customers sent advance parties. They came if our patriot grandmother was out.

Inat Ethiopia, our other grandmother, complained to Dad: ‘Tewode is turning the children into tibebenya.’ She meant Jewish skilled craft workers. We gained the wisdom of Mum’s people in Gojjami Qur Amba. I would apply her mother’s systems to all areas of life. This included budgeting and household management. Pure cotton traditional clothing maintained the skin. Hand spun, its production did not harm the environment. She decorated our interior with dishes and mesob baskets with precisely fitting lids.

I drew Dad’s army cap, then his face. Mama Teliqwa said, ‘The army never leaves you.’

Glancing at me, my other grandmother said, ‘The neighbour’s corporal son died young.’

Mama Teliqwa said, ‘Say that again and you will die before my wee dries.’

3-in-1 bronze statue of 2 male and 1 female Ethiopian patriot warriors
Mama Teliqwa the patriot

Mama Teliqwa taught me 3 types of silk cultivation.

Mama Teliqwa taught me 3 types of silk cultivation. We grew gulo silk plants that flowered purple in spring. Sheririt and insects wove their white silk. Spread between jagged leaf points, it strengthened in the sun. We harvested it with scissors. Then sunlight revived the plants.

We kept the white maggot of a fly called qimburs. It reached three centimetres and pupated for 25 years. As it aged, it shrank and produced more silk. Qimburs wove a silk case around a shell. When it got too large the case would stifle it and the maggot moved out.

My grandmother transferred it, still inside its shell, to a new home. This was the underside of an old bamboo coffee table. The maggot adhered to the surface with a glue-like substance and produced more silk: three 600-millimetre-square harvests per year, thick and frothy. I scrounged bamboo coffee tables. Mama kissed my forehead – a rare gift from the bereft.

High-quality silk came from khaki sheririt spiders. Each wove a tent to protect itself from flies, mosquitoes and bees. When we harvested the silk, none died. Mum sprinkled a cup of water on them daily and they danced eyes roving, sunlight a rainbow on them. We fed them honeycomb and collard. Qimburs preferred bula. This was a porridge made from the root of the false banana.

Our grandmother forbade coffee bean roasting near the maggots. Drunk on fumes, they would move to the garden. It would be impossible to get them out of thick mulch. I kept our sheep away from the sheririt, which would gorge on wool, then sicken and die.

Mama Teliqwa cleared away my 2 favourite plants from the silk cultivation area: girawa (soap leaf) and set akuri (female pride). Toxic detergent in girawa killed both maggot and spider. Sheririt loved the fragrant set akuri. They would devour pollen and fatten, unable to breathe.

Children used set akuri as toy microphones. I added girawa to rivers to filter them. The school gave me an award for reducing pollution. When I removed the plants from our yard, Mama Teliqwa gave me extra garden space. >

Read more Lucy’s People book extracts.

Resources

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