The Thread of Fate and Cowrie Shells
Spinning, Weaving and Sudanese Embroidery
Drawing on accounts by a key founder of Textile Archeology, Grace Mary Crowfoot
Above, a ” mutrar” spindle, used for making cotton thread, Blue Nile area (Sudan Ethnographic Museum, Khartoum), and below, an exquisitely framed moment from the short film, Al-Sit, by Suzannah Mirghani. In this tender scene, the family matriarch spins cotton by lamplight while sharing her hopes for the young granddaughter who will become the Cotton Queen of Al-Sit’s full length sequel.
More on this evocative and gently subversive film in Al-Sit
Setting the Scene
This week’s post draws on four fascinating articles published between 1920 and the mid-1950s by the British botanist, archeologist, textile historian and midwife, Grace Crowfoot. Three of the sources (Sudan Notes and Records); The Handspinning of Cotton in The Sudan, Spinning and Weaving in The Sudan and The Sudanese Camel Girth in Double Weave are open access, courtesy of Sudan Open Archive (links provided). The article, Embroidery of Northern Sudan, published in the 1955 edition of Embroidery, The Journal of Embroiderers’ Guild, left, and in my personal collection, can be borrowed on request.
What makes Grace Crowfoot’s accounts so compelling is they were born out of warm conversational bonds with Sudanese women skilled in their craft, enabling her to document, in many cases for the first time in English, the unique and vital contributions these women made to Sudanese life. See Mover and Shaker: Grace Mary Crowfoot, Intimate Conversations, and Sudanese History.
Crowfoot’s accounts are meticulously detailed and beautifully illustrated with photographs, sketches and diagrams. They also constitute a poignant record of skills that Crowfoot feared would be lost and as such are powerfully relevant today. At the time of writing it was British colonial cotton cultivation policies that most threatened the survival of the skills she describes – a fact she acknowledges but doesn’t energetically challenge. Grace Crowfoot was a woman both ahead and of her time and expresses many of the cultural attitudes consistent with the British “colonial gaze”. The inclusion of her accounts in this blog should be seen as an educational resource to draw on and in no way as justifying colonialism.
“If a man on a pump station does what his wife wants and keeps back a bit of cotton for her spinning, it’s “stealing” and he may be put in prison. Stealing! Isn’t it our land? Why shouldn’t a woman have a bit of good cotton? Truly this Government is hard on us.”
Testimony recorded by Crowfoot above, encapsulating the plight of many women cotton spinners under colonial rule.
Grace Crowfoot’s questing spirit drove her to seek out women specialists in spinning, weaving and embroidery, observing their work firsthand, and often becoming their eager pupil. In all her accounts, Sudanese women’s voices ring out with often disarming sincerity. The founder of girls’ education in Sudan, Babekir Badri, recalled his official visits with her with respect, amusement and affection: “In 1917, he wrote, Grace Crowfoot accompanied her husband on a trek to inspect government boys’ schools. In a humorous passage (which is not only funny, but which also illustrates his brilliance as a memoirist in using sharp details to conjure images), Babekir Bedri describes how Grace Crowfoot dressed like a man – confusing one Sudanese village leader who hosted them – and how she rode a camel fearlessly. During this trip, whenever they stopped for a break, Babekir Bedri helped her collect botanical specimens, record their Arabic names…” Mover and Shaker
Grace Crowfoot was the grandmother of another remarkable woman and contemporary expert on African history, Dr.Liz Hodgkin. See Letters from Isohe and Elizabeth Hodgkin on Letters from Isohe
Photos above, top right, Sudanese embroidery patterns documented by Crowfoot, above left, Grace Mary Crowfoot (Textile Research Centre website) and above right, a Sudanese woman spinning thread, photo by Grace Crowfoot.
For biography and photos of this ground-breaking, widely travelled polymath, see Breaking Ground – Women in Old World Archeology
Breaking the Bias with Grace Mary Crowfoot
Grace Mary Crowfoot- Elizabeth Crowfoot
Above, just some of the 77 items from The Grace Crowfoot collection at the British Museum, including two traditional brightly patterned woven fans. Read details of the collection in Mrs Grace Mary Crowfoot at The British Museum
See too the remarkable Grace Crowfoot Collection at The Textile Research Centre, Leiden.
Finds, Fragments and Friendships: The TRC Grace Mary Crowfoot Collection
Above, cotton thread, often used to make “dammur” homespun cloth, described by Crowfoot as durable, often attractively but discreetly patterned and “a strangely warm material, therefore admirably suited for winter wear:”
Weaving and Camel Girths
The Thread of Fate and Cowrie Shells – Sudanese Embroidery
Excerpts from The Hand Spinning of Cotton in The Sudan, Sudan Notes and Records, Volume 7, 1924
The Handspinning of Cotton in The Sudan
The Delicate Skill of Cotton Spinning
“The Sudan is one of the few places in the world where cotton is still spun on a hand spindle, a method not only of great interest on account of its primitive character, but one with a peculiar value of its own. This note is written in the hope that if this value can be more fully realized, steps may be taken to preserve the craft, now in danger of destruction. Spinning, in most parts of the country, is a women’s craft, and one which they themselves regard as of great importance. I share their feeling,….”.
“I love to sit in a Sudanese courtyard and watch the face of some mistress of craft as she draws the thread from the spindle twirling in her right hand by the graceful flinging out of the left hand holding the fluff of cotton just pulled from the seed. Wide, wider her arms go and yet the thinning thread does not break, her set lip quivers to a smile — quick, she rolls the spindle on her thigh and lets it drop. The tiny toy hangs whirling at the end of the fine strong thread. The spinner smiles, a wise smile, the smile of the artist. She is full of the joy of creation. Ha! the English lady, for all her wisdom, cannot spin a thread as fine as mine! No, the English lady is lost in the pleasure of watching the thread grow, is absorbed in the magical moment when all the pains and grief of craft are left behind, the tedium of laborious hours of learning all forgot, and the accomplished form is there, swift effortless, and altogether beautiful. See, Lady! How fine! how strong! This is the best warp thread! How slender, chant the assembled company. They also spin—to many it is but dull labour–or at best something to keep the hands moving harmoniously with their lively tongues—but all know enough to admire the good spinner. To them a fine thread is an achievement, and the material farda el Banat woven from it is beautiful. False shame may sometimes make some sneer at it as baladi (rustic) but at heart they like it for its unrivaled softness, warmth and durability—it is their material, they have made it, spun it, every thread of it.” Photo above, ancient ceramic spindle whorls, Spinning in Meroitic Sudan See too Cotton in Ancient Sudan and Nubia
Below, a sample of dammur cloth, Textile Research Centre, Leiden.
The Context and its Tensions
Grace Crowfoot’s account echoes and amplifies Sudanese women’s voices of the time – both those celebrating the “joy and pride” they took in a craft known, she claims, to nearly all northern Sudanese women, as well as the frustrations and injustices they battled. Spinning was a vital source of income and self-sufficiency; “apart from the spinning done for family use, the good spinner can spin a bit more for pocket money, while a woman who is in poverty, thrown on her own resources, can always, as they say, get bread by it.”
The introduction of machine-ginned cotton, Crowfoot understood, gravely threatened the survival of the craft as women spinners relied on cotton on the seed for their work; as it was “impossible to spin fine thread on a hand spindle from machine-ginned cotton”. Her Sudanese interviewees confided with relish that a fire in the Medani cotton gin was divine judgement on the men “because they won’t let us have any cotton to spin and send it all to the gins and away out of the country.” Their indignation is palpable in their lament; “We sat with folded hands, so, and watched the camels go by, hundreds of camels laden with cotton, such beautiful white cotton, and never a bit for us.”
Crowfoot acknowledges that the “economic view, put forward by Europeans, that the people are better off if ALL the cotton is sold abroad and cotton garments PLUS other goods are bought with money, is not seen by the women.” She closes the article with proposals to safeguard the craft and a plea:
“How can we avert the threatened doom? We Europeans have killed so many crafts in our time, with our eyes shut – here we have our eyes open. The spinners themselves say “There is so much cotton in the country and we only want a little.” The problem is how we can give them that little without endangering the success of the cultivation of the fine types of cotton desired in the rest of the world or rendering ineffective the measures of pest control designed to ensure that success.”
Above, examples of embroidery as part of income generation skills in our women’s literacy programme, Khartoum.
See Weaving Brighter Futures, Celebrating a New Literacy Circle and
Spinning and Weaving in The Sudan, Sudan Notes and Records, Volume 4, 1921
Spinning and Weaving in The Sudan
This article provides richly detailed observation of both hand spinning and weaving techniques and their tools – spindles, looms, shuttles, together with a glossary of Sudanese Arabic terms and proverbs referencing the crafts. She also highlights the gendered nature of aspects of spinning and weaving skills.
“This age-old craft has long been practised in the Sudan. Fragments of fine linen found by Dr. Reisner at Kerma have been dated at about 2000 B.C. and he thinks that they were certainly woven in the country, though possibly by some Egyptian workmen attached to the household of one of the great noblemen then administering the country. Some 2000 years later, throughout the Meroitic period we see, carved on temple and pyramid, people dressed in figured robes whose lavishness and variety suggest a native and highly developed craft. Nothing is to be seen of such work to-day, both spinning and weaving are now practised only in very simple ways. Nor is the weaver’s occupation held to be very honourable — but then, no work is. A verse quoted here says : There is no compassion in barbers, Nor virtue in weavers, Nor generosity in butchers Only four occupations are considered respectable, that of the priest (‘ālim) the clerk, the merchant and the officer. The rest descend in a growing scale of meanness until, as in Ancient Egypt, the utter contemptibility of the fisherman is reached”.
Photo above, Meroitic cloth, Cotton in Ancient Sudan and Nubia
Below, Grace Crowfoot’s sketches of Heddle and Treadle Looms provided in the article
“As far as the treadle loom is concerned, weaving is a man’s craft. A woman may weave a shamla, but it would be a disgrace for a man to weave one, and she may go so far as to lay a warp for a piece of cotton but it would be shameful for her to weave it. I can give no rational explanation of these customs and I do not expect to be given one by those who practise them. The Sudanese woman who tells you firmly “I keep a custom because it is a custom” is much ‘nearer the truth than one who gives you a reason invented yesterday to account for a custom which has its roots in a long forgotten past.”
The Sudanese Camel Girth in Double Weave Sudan Notes and Records, Volume 32, 1951
The Sudanese Camel Girth in Double Weave
Below,I reproduce the article in full as it is a fascinating and intimate tribute to the Sudanese expert weaver, Sitt Zeinab and her skills.
Camel Girth – Grace Crowfoot Collection, British Museum
The Thread of Fate and Cowrie Shells – Sudanese Embroidery
Below, Grace Crowfoot’s illustration of a Sudanese embroidery sampler, (The Embroidery of Northern Sudan).
Below, selected excerpts from the article, detailing the patterns above and their tantalizing names – such as “The Lover and the Beloved”, “Mother of lightning”, “The Thread of Fate” and “Cowrie Shells”; and exploring the Egyptian, Ottoman and much earlier origins of Sudanese embroidery. The full article also includes details of individual stitches popular at the time, and the colours, forms and fabrics used.
Learn more about our life changing educational work in
Scenes from Our Orphans’ Schooling Programme
Celebrating a New Literacy Circle
3 comments on “The Thread of Fate and Cowrie Shells”
Beautiful work and handcrafting of the most wonderful complicated patterns. All this reminds my to when I was child, you could find a spinning and weaving in most houses.
A superbly detailed and illustrated post about a key skill of Sudanese women.