The Beauty of West African Textiles and the Amazing Variety of Heddle Pulleys Used to Create Them

September 20th, 2023

Kente cloth is a type of silk and cotton fabric made of interwoven cloth strips made and native to the Akan ethnic group of Ghana. Image via Getty Images

When conjuring up images of Africa, its majestic beauty, wildlife and most importantly, the extensive variety of cultures, one of the first things that come to mind are its vibrant and varied textiles.

Brightly colored prints from Nigeria, hand woven Kente Cloths from Ghana (once strictly reserved for Royalty) and the more rustic, trade cloths coming from the Ivory Coast and Mali.

Pile of colorful traditional textiles on bench, West Africa Baulé Tribe. Image via Getty Images

It is here, in both Mali and Ivory Coast, where in addition to strip weaving, the people have a centuries old tradition of carving figurative heddle pulleys to assist in weaving. These pulleys are suspended over rustic treadle looms and used to spin the cotton threads through the loom. Each pulley varies greatly in terms of carving detail and the quality of each carving, speaks to the proficiency of the weaver.

A novice weaver typically begins with a simple, unadorned wood pulley, whereas a master weaver, known for his quality work, will use an extremely well carved pulley in his loom, carved by a master carver, subtly announcing to all who pass by, the quality of his work.

Heddle Pulley with Female Face in Baule-style, Ivory Coast, around 1900-1970, Brücke Museum Berlin. Public domain image

These pulleys are commissioned works, created in a traditional style, but without ritual function. They also function to promote the works of master carvers in the region. These pulleys, over time acquire a subtle surface beauty from being handled and exposed to the surrounding elements over the course of many, many years, giving each work a deep, varied patina, and patina is something every collector knows adds great value to a work of tribal art…

The humble cotton trade cloths woven in Mali and the Ivory Coast coast are done using the strip loom technique and woven by both men and women using primitive treadle looms. The process is complex, using both hands and feet, working in unison, to create the strips of cloth. Once the fabric is woven into strips, it is sewn together, sometimes dyed, or painted, using natural pigments of indigo, earth ores and or, plant based pigments.

Dogon weaver, using a local variant of the narrow-strip double-heddle loom common throughout West Africa, Mali, Dogon, late 1950’s – early 1960’s, Bandiagara cliffs. (Photo by Werner Forman/Universal Images Group/Getty Images)

The Dogon peoples of Mali are known for their indigo stitch batiks as well as “Bogolon Fini” or Mud Cloth as it is more commonly called, which uses a fermented mud in the dye process.

Related: How Dogon Art Inspired Western Artists

The Senufo peoples, found in both Mali and the Ivory Coast also weave a simple cotton trade cloth, but rather than creating intricate patterns as the Dogon peoples do, they adorn their cloths with images of animals from the savanna.

Senufo culture designs found on Korhogo cloths. Image © Tropenmuseum, part of the National Museum of World Cultures / Licence CC BY-SA 3.0

The pulleys used by these two tribal groups are quite different stylistically. Each tribal group, found in various regions of Africa, has a centuries old style in which objects are carved.

The Dogon peoples are known for their cubist carving with minimal details, most often representing ancestors, whereas the Senufo peoples focus more on animal and bird images which are significant to their culture.

Heddle pulley used to support the cord to the foot pedals which alternate the heddles on the narrow strip loom typical of West African mens weaving, Mali. Dogon. (Photo by Werner Forman/Universal Images Group/Getty Images)

Of all the pulleys carved in West Africa, the most astoundingly beautiful ones invariably come from the Baule and Guro peoples of Ivory Coast.

Typically carved with superb attention to the aesthetics of human beauty, each pulley is most often carved as a portrait head with sublime attention facial expression, adorned with complex scarification patterns, complex coiffures, and occasionally a portrait will be of a mask or carved in animal form.

Heddle pulley used to support the cord to the foot pedals which alternate the heddles on the narrow strip loom typical of West African mens weaving, Ivory Coast. Baule / Guro. Central Ivory Coast. (Photo by Werner Forman/Universal Images Group/Getty Images)

Baule and Guro textiles are naturally, more complex as well. The cloth thread is dyed before the weaving process begins, using indigo and natural pigments and when woven together, create subtle and sometimes complex geometric patterns within the weave.

When it comes to collecting, textiles are by far the more affordable option. African fabrics can be presented in their entirety as a wall hangings, allowing the viewer to discover their cultural and majestic significance, or they can be used in fashion, home decor and a variety of other ways.

Related: Migrating Objects: The Collection of Peggy Guggenheim

West African indigo cloth, Baule People, mid 20th c. handspun cotton, indigo. Image © Material Culture

Prices for these masterfully woven cloths range from about $75 USD for a piece of Bogolon Fini made in Mali, to about $350 USD for a large Kente Cloth woven in Ghana.

Basic colorful print machine woven cloths from Nigeria, used for traditional daily attire can be as little as $10 USD a yard.

But if your taste runs to the sometimes very expensive, you can begin collecting West African Heddle Pulleys.

Senufo heddle pulley, late 19th or early 20th century. Image © Brooklyn Museum

A functional, ethnographic quality pulley can be bought on eBay or Etsy for less than $100 USD and indeed it may be genuine work of tribal art. However if you are looking for something more important and worthy of a serious collection, be prepared to pay anywhere from a few thousand dollars to several hundred thousand dollars for a genuine masterpiece.

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