Sierra Leone, as well as many other West African countries, are known for lapas. This is an African fabric meant to be worn as a wrap while dancing, but also commonly worn anytime. Lapas come in an array of patterns and colors, and its waxed fabric does not fade. Besides the bold use of color, I did not observe any common themes in the lapas; the prints ranged from ostriches to balloons. Many Sierra Leonean women make their own clothing, most often being tie-dyed cloth called garas. Sierra Leone is also known for yappas. At birth, a brightly colored cloth called a yappa is placed on a baby’s back. It appears that bright patterns and colors have always been an important aspect of their culture. However, its interpretation is evolving with the influence of Western culture. Fashion designers in Sierra Leone have incorporated their culture into contemporary silhouettes.
Country Cloth changing lives in Sierra Leone
Country Cloth is known as the local clothing or textile of Sierra Leone. In Salone country cloth is as culturally significant and dear as the Kente is to Ghanaians. The process of creating this unique textile is 100% local. The cotton is first planted in a large farm. After that, it is harvested and then it is spun into thread. Once the thread is made it is then woven into strips which are later bought and sewn together to make a cloth.
One of the young women involved in the weaving process of the country cloth is Massah Konneh who is a native from Kailahun District. Konneh weaves strips of country cloth for a living and says she uses the money she makes from weaving to send her children to school, feed them and take care of herself.
Wata Musa is another young woman in the country cloth business but unlike Konneh, she has only been in the trade for 5 – 6 months. Musa’s journey into weaving started when her family fell on hard times.
“At the time I took up the trade and started learning how to weave the threads into strips I had a lot of personal problems, My mother was sick and at the time the work I was doing involved me going into the bush which was very dangerous for a woman and the sad thing was that there was not much money involved in this risky job. So I decided to learn how to weave the thread into strips and after a while, I was able to take my mum to the hospital and solve a lot of my problems with the money I earn from selling these strips.”
Lahai Konneh is the leader of Country Cloth Org, which has 65 members across the country. He told SwitSalone that they’ve been in business for 5 years. Konneh said the group majorly consists of 50 women and 15 men. He explained that from the time they plant the seeds to the time they harvest it can take up to one year. In the group older women in the are responsible for cultivating the cotton whilst the younger women spin the cotton to a thread and do the weaving.
The Project Manager for CountryCloth.Org N’Fa Alie Bangura said that the main aim of the organization is to have a unified body of weavers, and revive the trade. Many people who had the skill had stopped weaving because they didn’t know that there was a market for their trade.
“We see that the local weavers we work with are happy and their lives are transformed for the better cause we do all their marketing at home and abroad and also tell them the worth of the work they do, because at first they didn’t know all this. We also want Sierra Leoneans to know the worth of the country cloth and also encourage them to wear something made
Bangura says they started this project with just two districts 4 years ago because they were trying to encourage people to come into the business. Some of the challenges the local weavers face is competition from Chinese imports. Cloth woven in China are available in the same artisans market where Salone country cloth is sold. Despite this challenge local weavers still continue to weave the country’s cloth, keeping the tradition alive. They say that Sierra Leoneans are able to differentiate between the import and what they make, and they place a premium value on what is being done at home. For those working with the Country Cloth Org cooperative, traditional weaving has given them a better livelihood. This is especially the case for the women like Massah Konneh, and Wata Musa.
Country cloth is a thick, heavy, cloth, traditionally made from locally grown cotton that is spun into thread, dyed, and woven into strips on a tripod loom. The strips are then sewn together edge to edge to form the finished cloth. Such cloth was, in the past, regarded as a sign or wealth and Prestige. This example consists of two strips of black and white striped cloth. The Sierra Leone Museum catalogue notes that this pattern is known as white yarn, black ndulie and fandewa .
small country cloth bed spread or lappa (5 ft 6 inches x 7 ft 6 inches) traditional Mende men’s country cloth robe a large country cloth made by Pa Brimah Daru in 1970 (6ft 6 x 10 ft 6)In Kenema, from time to time we used to run into Pa Brimah, who was a master weaver of country cloth. In Kenema, he might meet us in town as we were shopping and try to sell us place mats for our table. With us he was successful – and sold us a number of place mats that we used while in Kenema and also brought these homes for our use as well as for gifts for our family. I was well-aware of the value of cotton country cloths.
In Sierra Leone country cloth was a very valued commodity. Given as gifts or as part of dowries this was the traditional woven material. The process in making country cloth was labor intensive. Cotton was grown along with the upland rice, and was harvested at the end of the dry season along with the rice harvest. Then picked from its pod, the cotton was then made into cotton thread, and then dyed using indigo dye or kola nut (brown) or left its natural color which was a light tan. The process by which the cotton was made into thread and dyed was in those days felt to be a woman’s responsibility. After the thread was ready this would be handed over to weavers (men did the weaving) who would then set up their simple tripod looms. This often took several days to set up. In rural areas the patterns were most commonly simple stripes of blue and tan. Sometimes the patterns would be more complicated with complex patterns of symmetric designs. And the sizes of the woven material was variable from material that was large enough to cove a small bed (about 3 or 4 feet wide by 5 or 6 feet long) to some that could easily be 3 or 4 times that size. Pa Brima’s place mats, usually had somewhat complex patterns but were clever and made more for the small expatriot market that existed in Kenema.
A weaver would work long, repetitive, and tedious hours, moving his loom along the thread weaving long and narrow bands of material. These long bands when completed, would then be placed side by side and sewn together to make a material that could then be used for bed covering, or in more rural areas for mens country robes, or women’s lappas (the term used for women’s clothing). A Lappa might be 3 or 4 feet wide by 5 or 6 feet long. If there was a small amount of cloth left over, a small country cloth hat might be made.
In our area I knew a number of weavers and visited them often. There were several Fula weavers who lived in our neighborhood. These men tended to use European thread that had been made and colored in Europe and then imported in Sierra Leone. In the village of Bitema I knew two or three weavers who were Mende. Most of these men of Bitema wove material for their own use – The Fula weavers tended to weave material that they later peddled in downtown Kenema. It was the Mende country cloth that I liked the best. It had a rough quality to it – and looked less modern. While in Kenema I began collecting country cloth.
Pa Brimah Daru was an older man when I met him (perhaps in his late 40’s), but he was willing to invite me to his home in Daru to see him at work. He had been a weaver for years and reportedly in earlier times had been the weaver of Paramount Chiefs – making for them huge cotton cloth blankets that were both beautiful and highly valued. As pressure became greater to use European threads and dyes the more traditional cotton country cloth became harder to come by. The issue was two fold (1) it was hard to make traditional country clothes – it took a lot of effort and time (2) European cloth was becoming fashionable and to some degree preferred –this despite people still marveling and having an appreciate for beautifully woven Mende country cloth when they saw it. I paid Pa Brimah several visits and ended up commissioning him to make me a very large country cloth blanket. In his house in Daru, a town about 3 or 4 hours travel from our house in Kenema, he turned out beautiful material on his tripod loom which sat on his veranda. He was rumored to have a few apprentices who worked for him from time to time.
Tie and Dye Traditional Textile Art
When I visited the south of Morocco in 2012, I was gobsmacked by some tie-dye textiles I found there. Absolutely marvelous traditional cloth-binding techniques that used natural or sythetic dyes to create incredible designs.
I cannot remmember the name that was given to this technique but after some research I found out that its name in Sierra Leone is Gara and in Nigeria, in the Yoruba tribe, it is Adire. I am sad to say that I found very little information on this textile art in other countries, so if you do have any information, please share it with us !
As with any tie and dye technique, Gara and Adire techniques use thread to bind bundles of fabric together before dyeing the cloth. Tie and dye fabrics can be found throughout Western Africa, from Senegal to Nigeria including Gambia, Mali, Burkina Faso, Guinea, Sierra Leone, Liberia, Ivory Coast, Ghana, Togo and Benin.
The most popular traditional dyes used with this technique are indigo and kola nut dyes.
Many cultures have a tradition of indigo dyeing because of the exceptional quality and permanence of the dye. Common indigo is native to India but was introduced in Africa by the Europeans ; Philanoptera cyanescens, or Yoruba indigo is native to West Africa and is called “Gara” in native Sierra Leone language. Hence the name of the technique there.
In Nigeria, the dyeing was done in large earthenware dye pots which were partially sunk into the ground. The dye used was made either from indigo leaves which grew locally or imported indigo grains.
Indigo is not soluble in water. To make it soluble, the leaves were collected into balls and allowed to ferment, thus creating “white indigo”. The white indigo was then added to water softened with caustic soda and the cloth would be dipped into the dye and then pulled out. The white indigo quickly oxydises with oxygen in the air and reverts to the insoluble, intensely colored indigo. This process would then be repeated, the more times a cloth was dipped the darker it would become. Sometimes after it had been dyed the cloth would be beaten with a mallet so it took on a sheen.
Used alone, the nuts yield a medium brown dye. When a cloth is immersed in kola and then over-dyed with gara, or indigo, the color ranges from a dark green to a greenish black.
Unlike the indigo dye, the preparation of kola requires a considerable amount of physical strength and stamina :
Once several gallons of the nuts are gathered, they are placed in a large mortar and finely crushed using a heavy wooden pestle, and then added to water with wood ashes which serve as a mordant or fixative. Besides being tedious to make, the kola-nut dye bath does not remain usable for long. Because of this, the cloths to be dyed were planned and prepared well ahead of time, with as many pieces as possible sharing the vat.
It is possible to combine brown kola dye with indigo blue gara by first dying a cloth in the kola, and then binding parts of it so that when it was immersed in the indigo, the dye could not access some areas, creating spectacular effects and colours.
Adire are indigo resist dyed cotton cloths that were made by women throughout Yorubaland in south-western Nigeria. Cloths were made up of two strips of factory produced cotton shirting sewn together to form a shape that was roughly square. They were generally worn by women as wrappers. One of the most important factors in the popularity of adire during the 1960s was that a large number of cloths could be produced quickly and cheaply in response to changing customer demands. It has now however fallen out of favour.
Cloths were usually prepared and dyed, by women and treated in a variety of ways to create patterns that would be revealed after dying. Raffia and starch were the two most common forms of resist used in the production of adire.
When raffia is tied around the cloth to act as a resist the cloths are known as adire oniko. A great variety of patterns can be produced using this method. For example, small circles can be created by tying small stones or seeds into the cloth and larger circles can be made by lifting a point of fabric and then binding the fabric beneath it tightly or folding the cloth from corner to corner like a concertina and then binding it very tightly at various points.
The term adire alabare is used when sewing has been used as a means to resist the dye. If the sewing has been done with raffia then it would be a form of adire oniko. Both machine sewing and hand sewing could be used to produce patterns. Although adire cloths were usually made by women the cloths that used a sewing machine were made by men.
When the two pieces of dyed cloth were stitched together is created a diamond shaped pattern with alternating blue and white stripes. The broadness of the stripes can be varied by the intervals at which it is bound.
In the early decades of the twentieth century, new techniques of resist dyeing were developed, like hand-painting designs on the cloth with a cassava starch paste made from cassava flour prior to dyeing. This was known as adire eleko and is a similar process as “batik”.
Nowadays, synthetic dyes are more affordable, cheap and less hassle than the traditional indigo and kola nut dyes so you would be more likely to find lively colours. The pictures below are the only ones I found of the process nowadays
Reference- Source: The Traditions and History of Indigo Dyed Textiles in Sierra Leone, 2011, click here for the PDF version.
By Nidhi Singh