Woven Wisdom is the Edge of Art

Her art was embroidery: her gym for the brain.

Jump to book extract.

1. Silk

Gym for the Brain

Ethiopian textile crafts are older than the Abyssinian queen, Saba (Sheba). Saba lived 3,000 years ago near the Blue Nile River. King Salamon (Solomon) said, ‘I was in love with her wisdom before her beauty.’ Her art was embroidery: her gym for the brain. To read more, click here. In the 19th century, Empress Taytu gave embroidery new life.

The Amharic word for embroidery is from ancient Ge’ez: tlfe. It means ‘the edge of art’.

Mesfin Tadesse

Orit Yehuda, who are Ethiopian Jews, invented mirgif for ceremonies. These are wide, folding umbrellas with abstract-art embroidery. They include gold and silver thread. The ceremonial umbrella, in the photo above, belonged to Negus Menelik II in the 19th century. Pure silk, it will last another 500 years. Ethiopians invented folding umbrellas. The image below is of silk mirgif sold near a monastery in 2020.

Types of Ethiopian Silk

Ethiopia has 3 types of silk. They come from the qmburs maggot, sheririt spider and gulo plant. Harer district in the east is named for silk. For a photo of locals dressed in silk, click here.

2. Tbeb

Wisdom and Art

Tbeb means ‘wisdom’ and ‘art’. It is woven embroidery. Unique to Ethiopia, there are many styles. Orit Yehuda ‘Ethiopian Jews’ illuminated the Ten Commandments with one tbeb design: 4 zig-zags in a box.

3. Yagerlibs

Yagerlibs is ‘traditional clothing of the country’. Styles vary between districts. Fabric is cotton, silk or wool. This cotton dress incorporates tbeb: woven embroidery borders and panels. They were done by machine. Traditionally, the work is by hand.

4. Book Extract

Mesfin’s mother Tewode was a craft worker. This extract is from the 2nd edition of Lucy’s People: An Ethiopian Memoir by Mesfin Tadesse.

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.

Customers sent advance parties.

Christian Orthodox lords bought her garments for palace events to impress the emperor. Haile Selassie would ask about the fine tbeb 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 Patriot Yuwagobesh 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 her 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, Inat Ethiopia said, ‘The neighbour’s corporal son died young.’

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

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

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. >

To read more book extracts, click here.

5. More Ethiopian Woven Wisdom

Lace & Crochet

The Amharic word for lace is dantel. Ethiopia gave the world the lace-making machine. The French use the Ethiopian word, spelling it dentelle.

Ethiopian mesob food storer & circular table with lid, handwoven from qetema
Women weave mesob. To see more, click here. These are baskets with tightly fitting lids for storing food. The base doubles as a tray or table. View a Tigray dance with mesob lids as props: click here.

Pampas-Grass Baskets

          

Braids & Plaits

     Ethiopians created sheruba: stylised plaits on the head only. To see regional styles, click here.

Featured Image: Ethiopian Gulo Plant Near Addis Ababa © Ianet Bastyan, 2020

   Tailors

 Ethiopia gave us sewing machines. Monks developed them in Orit Yehuda (Ethiopian Jewish) monasteries thousands of years ago. Tailors use treadle machines beside streets and in laneways. For a photo, click here.

Featured Image: Ethiopian Gulo Plant Near Addis Ababa © Ianet Bastyan, 2020

Photos:

  • Empress Taytu Shawl © Mesfin Tadesse, 2020, by kind permission of Raguel Monastery Museum near Addis Ababa
  • Silk Scarf © Ianet Bastyan, 2020
  • Emperor Menelik II Umbrella & Cape © Mesfin Tadesse, 2020, by kind permission of Raguel Monastery Museum near Addis Ababa
  • Ethiopian Ceremonial Silk Umbrellas © Mesfin Tadesse, 2020, by kind permission of the craftswoman & vendor
  • Ethiopian Dress © Mesfin Tadesse, 2020
  • Friday Prayer Service at Debre Libanos Monastery © Mesfin Tadesse, 2020
  • Silk Qmburs Cases © Mesfin Tadesse, 2020
  • Detail of ‘Trinity’ by GebreKristos Desta, 1968? © Mesfin Tadesse, 2020
  • Mesob Table © Ianet Bastyan, 2021, with permission of Soramba Cultural Restaurant, Addis Ababa

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