The Tareq Rajab Museum holds some examples of Al Sedu or bedouin weaving. Old pieces from
Kuwait are hard to find , because they were made to be used until they wore out.|
It was the bedouin women who were responsible for producing these beautiful , functional
storage and saddle bags, camel trappings, floor and cushion coverings. The largest single
item the woman wove was the tent itself , bayt al sha’ar or ‘house of hair’. Woven in long
strips from goat or sheep hair, or a mixture of both , it provided shelter from the wind,
warmth in winter and shade in summer. Since the fibres expanded when wet , the tent was also
waterproof. The tent was usually owned by the oldest woman in the family, who had probably
woven it herself. The combination of the chocolate brown, black and white strips of a tent
lying low in the vastness of the desert with its dividing curtain of red, beige and yellow
patterns was an extraordinarily beautiful sight.
The layout of the tent reflected the activities carried out within it. It was divided by a
curtain into a men’s and a women’s section. The former was for entertaining visitors, the
latter for cooking , looking after children and sleeping. Women did not enter the male
section , unless the men were away when they would take over the duty of hospitality if
visitors arrived. The women would , however look over the partition and listen to the
conversations taking place on the other side. They passed loud comments on the tribal
affairs under discussion, and were never slow to give their advice. That advice was listened
to with respect and often taken.
The designs woven into their weaving reflected Islamic traditions and even now the human
figure is rarely seen. The geometric patterns are made up of vertical or horizontal stripes
along with stylized scorpions, combs, maybe an incense burner or a tribal wasm or motif .
Since the Iraqi invasion of Kuwait in l990 , an occasional gun or a FREE KUWAIT have been
added to the repertoire .In the past some tribes were famous for a particular motif. Small
triangles arranged in a bright staggered pattern and much used in northern Arabia, was called
after the woman who first created it - Janah hanbaliyyeh. Its overall effect is vibrant
and exuberant. The tent dividers had gaily decorated ends with patterns that varied from
tribe to tribe. The back and sides of the tent could be raised in summer to help with shade
and ventilation, even so summer temperatures could go as high as 50C in the shade.
The traditional life of the bedouin woman was one of hard work. In addition to weaving
there was the bearing and rearing of children, cooking, as well as the pitching and striking
of the tent as the tribe moved to other pasturages. In the old days, the women also made the
clothes for the family . When the Singer sewing machine was introduced early in the twentieth
century , it immediately became a part of every household, bedouin or urban.
Wool for weaving came from the tribe’s flocks and was black, brown and shades of beige and
white. White wool could be dyed red, yellow , green and dark blue or black. Indigo might
have been used as a dye , though it is not really known if this was so . Indigo, if it was
used would probably have been obtained from India and arrived via the Kuwaiti trading ships
that plied between Kuwait and India. Kuwait town was a centre for many bedouin tribes , who
came in at regular intervals to buy their essential supplies. Most dyes were obtained from
plants collected and prepared by the women themselves . Later on dyes were bought from the
town druggist shop.
In the spring when the weather was at its most beautiful and temperate , the sheep were
sheared by men using big scissors. The rough wool was combed out by the women , and if they
happened to be near the sea, it was washed thoroughly. Spinning the wool into thread was
done at any time of the year and women and girls , whether herding the sheep, walking or
merely sitting were always busy with the spindle.
The process of weaving is known in Arabic as Al Sedu, which is also the name of the loom.
Threads are stretched between four pegs hammered into the ground to form a long rectangle.
Being flat it can easily be rolled up and carried from place to place. The loom was set up
in or just outside the women’s portion of the tent. To make the tent , the wool was woven into
long brown or black strips, which had to be carefully and painstakingly sewn together. Then
the tent cloth was raised on long tent poles and the sides tautened by long ropes. The size
of a tent depended on the importance of the family concerned. A wealthy one might have a
tent with four or five central ridge poles, while a poor one might only have one. As sections
of the tent wore out, the women would weave new strips or sometimes buy them from other
bedouin and stitch them together .
With the discovery of oil, the whole Arabian peninsula faced a period of very rapid change.
This brought more affluence but also began to destroy many fine traditions. Weaving ceased
to be a necessity and the art began to die. A group of concerned Kuwaitis , alarmed at the
rapid disappearance of weaving , formed Al Sedu Society to encourage the women to continue
weaving as well as sell their products. As weaving had previously been for personal use
only, it was a new concept to persuade the women that it could be worth their while to weave
for sale. Many of the women have returned to their looms and continued to produce work of
a high standard for the market. The invasion of Kuwait by the Iraqis disrupted the efforts
to keep alive Al Sedu , but young people are still interested in the art and continue to learn
how to weave the age old saddlebags, tents strips , as well as pieces that look so elegant
as an interior decoration.