The traditional handloom cloth of the Gola and Mende tribes of West Africa covered by modern day Liberia and parts of Sierra Leone, Ivory Coast, Burkina Faso, Guinea and Mali is known commonly as ‘Country cloth’, ’Kondi gula ‘ or ‘Kpokpo Cloth’. Until it was replaced in the market by dutch wax print cloth due to mass produced affordability, this was the most commonly used cloth for attire and other utility such as hammocks, bedspreads and the more elaborate and weighty designs were used for wall hangings, often especially commissioned for auspicious and important occasions.  This is a thick, heavy and ornate cloth was regarded as a sign of wealth and Prestige and was often commissioned by Chiefs. 

Traditionally all cloth in this region would have been woven by men from locally grown, raw cotton which was handspun on a drop spindle and then woven using a throw shuttle on a tripod loom. On this unique, localized loom, the treadle, heddles and beater are suspended from a tripod of poles and the warp is fixed to pole which is in turn fixed into the ground, thus maintaining an even tension. In this unique set up, the weaver moves along the warp with the weaving apparatus as the cloth is woven as opposed to the standard loom where the warp threads move through a fixed weaving apparatus. The weaver sits on a small wooden bench, perpendicular to the warp and passes the weft through the warp by hand.

The country cloth is a weft based design in which a base of plain weave is embellished with twill patterning and sometimes a tapestry weave or extra weft brocade. The warp of the cloth was always left undyed and designs would be created through the application of varied weft threads, hand dyed with naturally occurring dye such as indigo and kola nut.

The cloth from this region is characterized by its 4 inch width, narrower than that from further east or north, and the standard bolt was 36 yards long. This bolt would be cut into shorter lengths which were then stitched together edge to edge by hand into a cloth wide enough to fulfill its desired purpose. Because of this method of cloth construction, common amongst many strip weaving communities of west africa, to create elaborate designs which run the width of the cloth demands a baffling level of meticulousness and highly skilled planning and craftsmanship.

The cloth woven for use as attire would generally have simple weaving design and very little tailoring would be applied. These simply constructed, plain weave garments would often be embroidered around the collar and pocket which would create additional strength and ornamentation.

With the majority of traditional market being won over by more affordable mass produced cloth coinciding with a long history of political unrest and violence marking a moving away from the old systems of patronage, many artisan craftspeople and their skills have been lost, resulting in the rapid disappearance of the art of West African strip weaving. Although there are a small amount of active contemporary producers, the quality of the cloth is much lesser than the traditional examples. Often this has a lot to do not only with the dyeing out of the skills but with the environment itself. With the rapid changes in the actual cotton seeds being grown and then the processes through which it passes before it makes it to the loom, the products woven using the identical traditional techniques these days are generally done using imported threads which are much cheaper and, understandably, a far cry in quality from that produced of a locally grown indigenous seed which would have been harvested, processed and spun by hand.

Generally the locally handwoven cloth has been competed out of the market by its much cheaper mass produced counterparts, however a couple patrons still exist. There is a small local market for simple designs which are sewn into mens tunics and some extra weft motif weaves are still used domestically, particularly as wall hangings at the puberty ceremonies of young women. Currently there are a few organizations based in the region which are aiming to train and empower weavers, working towards the revival of this rich local tradition. 


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For more information and sources, go here, hereherehere and here

You can also read a wonderful article about Isatu Funna, a contemporary designer from Sierra Leone based in the UK here

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