November 12, 2012

Book Review by Christina Lindholm

Volume 46 No. I Summer 2012
Christina Lindholm 
Virginia Commonwealth University

Bedouin Weaving of Saudi Arabia and its Neighbors is an important contribution to the documentation, understanding and appreciation of the material culture of nomadic tribal communities in the Arabian Peninsula. Joy Totah Hilden has undertaken an exhaustive study of the weaving and using of the tent and other household objects made by Bedouin women. Much of her research is based on a dozen years of fieldwork, however she presents a thorough scholarly basis and builds upon the work of other noted Arab specialists such as Abu Lughod, Dickson, Doughty and Weir.
     Background information on Bedouin lifestyle is essential to understanding the importance of the woven objects. When compared to other communities, relatively little has been written that realistically presents the particulars of the Arabian nomadic life. Hilden relates that in pre-Islamic times the term 'Arab' "seemed to denote tribally organized, tent-dwelling camel nomads, noted for their warlike qualities and their emphasis on kinship" (p. 19). This succinctly describes the people now known as Bedouin. Hilden explains that "Paramount values in the society are pride of lineage, honor, family and tribal solidarity, generosity and open-handedness, and fierce independence" (p. 19). Hospitality is also of prime importance and Hilden's book details how the weavings are used to provide shelter, comfort and a welcoming atmosphere as well as communicating important information through the symbols used in the weavings.
     Chapter 3 discusses the various areas where Bedouin weavers are found and details Hilden's personal interactions with many of them. These intimate portrayals of home visits, weaving stories and personal interactions are a rare and wonderful aspect of this book and open a window onto a seldom seen world. Hilden presents fascinating details on the Bedouin women's place in their society. Unlike their sisters, she says, who are settled and reside in towns and cities, they have a large degree of freedom and play a vital role in their tribe. Women's weavings are essential to the Bedouin lifestyle and are a matter of pride for the family as visible evidence of skill. It is a medium both useful and beautiful. Unfortunately, many of these skills and knowledge of traditional methods is disappearing as the nomads settle into permanent communities. Hilden recounts that natural dyes and fibers are being replaced with more easily available and easier care synthetics, or mass manufactured mats and cushions.

     Hilden's book finely details the history of Bedouin weaving which is a task in itself as many of the tribes speak their own colloquial language. Her particular expertise in both craft textiles and Arabic, and the fact that she is female provided unique access to Bedouin women, which, she says, would have been challenging if not impossible for a male researcher.
     Bedouin Weaving is lavishly illustrated with concise illustrations and beautiful photographs. Hilden clearly explains the entire process, stating "In earlier times, Bedouins made much of what they needed themselves, using every resource at hand" (p. 14). Wool fiber is collected from the tribe's own herds of goats, camels and sheep. The fiber is then hand spun into yarns using drop spindles, the design of which dates back centuries. She quotes anthropologist Klaus Ferdinand, "No other appliance is used as much as the spindle. It accompanies women and young girls wherever they go" (p. 123). The advantage of this type of spindle is its easy portability. The natural white, black and shades of brown fiber are used and additional colors such as red or orange are obtained by dyeing the yarn, using madder root, toadstools and various other plant materials. Increasingly, Bedouin women use commercial dyes in the mix with natural dyes. Hilden includes the dye recipes of several weavers in Appendix 5.
     Once a weaver has spun sufficient yarn, she sets up a simple loom on the ground using only four rods and four tent stakes. She then weaves strips of cloth with a variety of patterns called wasm. Wasm are tribal symbols which indicate ownership of animals, used on free roaming camels and used on other textiles to proclaim tribal identity. The symbols are generally basic geometric shapes well suited for weaving. Hilden describes and illustrates how the pieces are next stitched together into larger pieces for use as the tent or other items.
     The Bedouin way of life is disappearing. "The number of nomads in the Arab world has decreased dramatically in the 20th century," Hilden states; "Some continue to weave, but the lifestyle that gave birth and purpose to the weaving is fast disappearing, the victim of industrialization, government control and international conflicts" (p. l). Bedouin Weaving provides unique insight into that way of life. It is useful to scholars and weavers, but accessible enough to be interesting to the general public.

May 4, 2012

Gulf Times article by Fran Gillespie/Doha

Expert shares knowhow on Bedouin weaving

Detail of camel ornament showing the royal wasm of Al Saud of Saudi Arabia

An audience of more than 100 people was given an illustrated presentation last week by Joy Totah Hilden, the visiting author of a comprehensive book on traditional Bedouin weaving, on the subject of her research.
The presentation took place at a meeting of the Qatar Natural History Group. (click here to continue reading ...)

April 20, 2012

"Bedouin in the Big City" by Tracy Hudson

Please see an excellent article by Tracy Hudson, "Bedouin in the Big City" in Spinoff Magazine, Spring 2012 issue, pp. 48 -51. Tracy learned how to spin and weave from a Bedouin woman in Doha, Qatar, and through referencing Joy's book on Bedouin Weaving.

Tracy posts on as himalaya. Please also visit her blog,

March 11, 2012


Joy Hilden went on a tour to Saudi Arabia and Qatar April 5 through April 21st. Lectures and other events were scheduled by private heritage organizations. The subject was Bedouin weaving, cultural heritage, and her book, Bedouin Weaving of Saudi Arabia and its Neighbours.
She visited Riyadh, Jeddah, Al Jouf, the El Qasim region, the Asir region and Dhahran. She visited Qatar under separate auspices.

For a full description of the tour with accompanying photos, please click: Lecture Tour to Saudi Arabia and Qatar

January 15, 2012

Book Review by Nancy Arthur Hoskins

Hali Magazine, Issue 168, p. 149.


Joy Totah Hilden. Arabian Publishing, London 2010. 270 pp.,248 colour and over 100 black and white illustrations, drawings, diagrams, and weaving drafts, maps, appendices, definitions of terms, glossary, notes, bibliography, index. ISBN 9780955889400. Hardbound, 60 pounds, $120.

Reviewed by Nancy Arthur Hoskins

The quintessential Bedouin textile is a warp-faced, warp-patterned weave with weft-faced, weft-patterned, weft-twined bands made of hand-spun, natural-dyed wool. This fabric is woven on a simple ground loom suitable for their nomadic lifestyle. The sturdy warp yarn, skillfully arranged on the loom and woven with techniques passed down from generation to generation, becomes the fabric for a quotidian tent, curtain, cushion, rug, bag, or camel trapping trimmed with tassels, braids and bells.

With pride, the women created these items to add colour, beauty, and flair to the necessities of shelter and sustenance in their harsh environment. But now the centuries-old wandering way of life is changing – perhaps vanishing – as the Bedouin tribes leave the desert for a more settled pastoral or urban existence. The author of Bedouin Weaving senses that “the loss of hand spinning spells the beginning of the in in the delicate chain of hand-weaving tasks.” Contemporary textiles dyed and woven with synthetic materials will never have the sublime beauty of the older fabrics.

Joy Totah Hilden, who lived in Saudi Arabia from 1982-1994, was the right person in the right place at the right time to capture the cultural significance of and technical information about the traditional artistry and artifacts of the Bedouin. She is an artist, a teacher, a weaver and – as this book proves – a capable ethnographer who dedicated may years to studying the details of Bedouin weaving. One only has to look at the first map to see the extent and intent of her impressive research.

The book begins with a general discussion of ‘Textiles in Saudi Arabia’ and ‘The Bedouin and Their Lifestyle’,, but the emphasis is on the chapters devoted to ‘The Weavers’ and ‘The Techniques of Spinning, Dyeing, and Weaving’. The story of each visit to a weavers provides an interesting and intimate glimpse into their personal world. Hilden’s photos, descriptions, clear diagrams, recipes and weave drafts record – and rescue – the textile heritage of the Bedouin weaver.

A weaver with basic skills can make the loom and tools used by the Bedouin and follow Hilden’s instructions to explore the techniques of spinning, dyeing, weaving and finishing as it was done throughout history by the desert dwellers. A textile teacher could use this as a textbook for a course on Bedouin weaving. A collector will find this an informative text for identifying the type of weave and the probable tribal origin of textiles from Saudi Arabia and the other regions included in the final chapters. ‘Some Bedouin Textiles from Northern Arabia’ and ‘Bedouin Weaving of Other Arab Countries’. The book is profusely illustrated with excellent documented photography by the author. Five Appendices – Definitions of Terms in English, A Note on Transliteration, An Arabic-English Glossary, Notes, Bibliography, and an Index supplement the information in the text.

In a poignant epilogue, written fourteen years after she left Saudi Arabia, Hilden writes that, “Nomadism is a phenomenon of the past. Bedouin weaving has evolved into a decorative and historical art. Today it owes its preservation to a self-conscious effort to save part of the Arab cultural heritage.”

This handsome book makes a significant contribution to textile history, is an important text for the collector, curator, or craftsman, and captures the essence of Bedouin weaving as it was in the past.

Book Review by Kay Hardy Campbell

Review, Saudi Aramco World, Sept., Oct. 2010
By Kay Hardy Campbell

Joy Totah Hilden, 2010, Arabian Publishing, 978-0-95588-940-0.

In traditional Arabian Bedouin society, women wove and built their families’ goat-hair tents, using wool from their own herds. Hilden lived in Saudi Arabia from 1982 to 1994, learning everything she could about Bedouin weavers and their art; as a weaver and weaving instructor herself, she knew what she needed to learn and sought this knowledge in every region of Saudi Arabia. She stayed in touch with her favorite weavers, noting how their art changed with time and with their families’ integration into the modern economy. While the traditional craft is hardly practiced today, Hilden notes that many cultural institutes in the region are trying to preserve it. Her discussion of Bedouin life as seen through the weaver’s eyes reveals the gentle harmony they kept with the desert environment. The thorough information about the weavings photographed in the book will help collectors and archivists, and the book is also a precise and accurate guide for those who would like to make their own Bedouin weavings. It includes specific directions on weaving patterns and spinning and weaving techniques, and information on natural dyes.

Book review by Nadine Rose

Asian Affairs, July, 2011
by Nadine Rose

Hilden has produced a book for both the textile specialist and the weaving novice. Bedouin Weaving is beautifully visual and full of technical, geographical and historical facts. Focusing on Saudi Arabia and its neighbours, the back drop to the story of weaving is fascinating, the descriptions of the weavings and the producers is superlative and transports the reader into their everyday life.

Chapter one introduces a central theme of the book: that Bedouin weaving as a way of life is coming to an end. Hilden has undertaken a timely work of art in producing this book, having been researching and collecting data and objects for the past 30 years. As a passionate collector herself, she is able to delve into factors in the past in the context of today. Her description of the historical use of pit looms and ground looms and the textiles they produce demystifies the techniques and the beauty behind the objects.

Chapter two transports the reader into another world, with stunning photography and accounts from other historical writers about the riding litter, used to transport women, children, brides and objects by camel, and is ornaments. For the Al Murrah tribe, the word for litter is now the same word as car, ‘sayyarah’, and decoration once used for camels has now been transferred to cars and trucks, highlighting the importance given to long journeys by the Bedouin drivers.

Camel trappings are no longer being produced and the tribal brand of the Bedouins, the ‘wasm’, is also becoming obsolete along with the nomadic way of life.

Chapter three focuses on the weavers themselves, predominantly women in Saudi Arabia, apart from one area where – as in Yemen and Oman – there are men using ground looms and producing warp weft fabric. Hilden states that “Bedouin women enjoy a degree of freedom that urban women do not” (P. 55) as they are allowed to drive. As urbanization increases, the Saudi Arabian government is attempting to reintroduce and promote craft traditions, yet is using Egyptian and Turkish teachers and techniques, thus threatening and ignoring the true creative contribution and talent of the Saudi Bedouin women. Hilden uses a series of case studies taken from a geographical spread to examine and discuss the weaving techniques, looms and tools used and the skills of the weaver, providing evidence of patterning and dyeing supported by beautiful photography.

This is continued in great detail in chapter four. The “Techniques of Dyeing and Weaving” is suitable for the expert, explaining step by step ‘how to do it yourself’ and what is needed for the various techniques, including a good account of the purpose of tassels, braids and edging stitch, all of which are of value to the collector as well. Chapter five exhibits Bedouin textiles from Northern Arabia, exploring colour, objects, stitches and patterns.

Chapter six opens the reader’s eyes to the sharing of common technique along the borders of Saudi Arabia and into the rest of the Middle East. Functional woven camel gear in particular demonstrates similarities – with the main difference being colour and design. “Nomads in Turkey, Iran and Afghanistan, Pakistan and even Tibet use black goat hair tents and weave on ground looms just as the Arab Bedouins do, however in these areas there is a diversity of weaving techniques unlike in Saudi Arabia where pile weaving pre-dominates.” (p.178) (misquote) Patterning using complementary warp patterning on long narrow strips is universal. (See definition p. 243) Sadly, as Hilden highlights in her section on Yemen, many of the skills involved in the dyeing of clothes and textiles are now being lost as Asian imports are increasingly replacing local industries such as indigo dyeing. As the pace of modernization has accelerated, it is the Bedouin in the Gulf States who have lost more of their culture than those in Saudi Arabia, in part by being offered government inducements to settle in new towns and cities.

In her epilogue, Hilden states that there are other countries in the Gulf, such as Oman and Kuwait, which provide hope for the future of Bedouin weaving. Sadu House in Kuwait and the Omani Heritage Gallery are both cultural projects which may be used as models by other Arab countries where weaving is now becoming a craft to be preserved.

The bibliography of “Saudi Arabian Fibre Arts and Related Subjects” supports Hilden’s wish to “consider her book a success if it awakens an interest in Bedouin weaving and textiles”, by enabling the specialist or the novice to access the information needed to take the next step in furthering their knowledge of the subject.

Book Review by Susannah Tarbush

Saudi Gazette, Tues., Sept. 7, 2010
Weaving the Story of Bedouin Textiles, by Susannah Tarbush

When the American-Palestinian textile enthusiast and art teacher Joy Totah Hilden moved in 1982 to Saudi Arabia, where her husband Robert had been appointed as an English teacher at King Fahd University of Petroleum and Minerals (KFUPM) in Dhahran, she embarked on an intensive exploration of Bedouin weaving. Hilden’s interest in weaving and textiles had begun at an early age. She was born in Jerusalem in 1935 to a Palestinian father and an American mother from the mid-West. Her paternal grandfather was a village weaver, and Bedouin wove on ground looms near the family orange grove in Gaza. She spent her early years in Palestine, and when her family went to live in America, she got to know the work of her mother’s ancestors in sewing and quilting.

During the 12 years she and Robert spent in Saudi Arabia, Hilden traveled widely to observe the working practices of Bedouin weavers, most of them women. As she puts it: “The search for weavers and their secrets of spinning, weaving and dyeing became a full-time occupation, a new career”. Hilden also visited Bedouin weavers in other countries in the region, and she has read many historical and contemporary sources on the subject.

The fruits of Hilden’s travels and research are now to be found in her book “Bedouin weaving of Saudi Arabia and its Neighbours”, published jointly by Arabian Publishing of London and Al-Turath of Riyadh.

Bedouin Weaving” is an exceptionally handsome volume that is bound to be regarded as a definitive work on its subject. Its 270 pages record in words, photograph and drawings the practical and aesthetic arts of Bedouin weaving

The renowned Saudi sociologist, anthropologist and authority on Bedouin culture Dr. Saad A. Sowayan, of King Saud University Riyadh, first met Hilden at Berkeley, California, more than 25 years ago. He has contributed the introduction to her book. Dr. Sowayan writes that weaving’s functionality “links it organically to Bedouin culture; thus one can come to a true appreciation of it only via an authentic understanding of Bedouin culture. The intricacies, sophistication and profound symbolism of Bedouin weaving, given the very simple tools used in its production, make one think twice about such loaded designations as ‘primitive art’”.

Most of the fine photographs in the book, as well as many of the drawings and diagrams, are by Hilden. She also includes several pictures from the past, such as Carl Reinhard Raswan’s striking 1920s photographs of the Ruwala tribe with an imposing camel-mounted ‘market’ (ark or throne) decorated with ostrich feathers.

Hilden traces Bedouin weaving back to its earliest origins. From the ancient Arabian city of Qaryat Al-Faw there is evidence of thriving textile production between 3rd century BC and 3rd century CE. Elsewhere, ancient Egyptian and Mesopotamian weavers used ground looms similar to those used by Bedouin weavers today.

Hilden describes the vital role of Bedouin women in producing woven goods and coping with the desert surroundings. She writes that “being able to create your own shelter and all that you need from the materials in your surroundings is a powerful impetus for survival and for harmony with the environment.

It was traditionally women who wove tents from the hair of goats or the wool of sheep, and who erected and packed them up.

The ground looms on which tents were made could easily be assembled for use, and then rolled up for storage and transportation.

Women made almost all the woven items for the nomadic lifestyle, including the dividing curtain (qati’ or sahah) between the men’s and women’s sections, which can be up to thirty feet long and six feet high. They would make rugs, cushion covers, saddlebags and other gear for camels and horses, riding litter, the markab and camel trappings.

The riding litter or ‘hawdaj’ (which is also known by other Arabic names) is a powerful symbol of the woman, and was made by women. It is ina ‘hawdaj’ that a bride would ride on a camel to the bridegroom’s house on her wedding day.

In the Arabian Peninsula the ‘hawadij’ vary in style between tribes, the brilliance of the decoration reflecting the wealth of the family. Hilden writes: “Weavings that are made for the litter are some of the most beautiful ornaments the badu make”.

Hilden provides detailed accounts of her encounters with weavers and their communities in different parts of Saudi Arabia.

She writes warmly of the women, who come vividly to life as personalities and as weavers. One particularly skilful weavers was a woman name Damtha in the village of Judah, west of Al-Khobar in the Eastern Province. Damtha supported herself working full time on weaving commissions. Not all the weavers Hilden met were women. In Najran, for instance, she met male weavers.

The oil era has led to profound changes, with many nomads settling in urban areas. Even those who still have a nomadic lifestyle may buy items made by machine in place of those previously made by hand.

Canvas has been replacing handwoven tents. The art of spinning is rapidly declining, and rather than spin sheep wool, or the hair of goats and camels, many weavers prefer to buy synthetic yarn.

In place of dyes, Saudi Bedouin weavers mostly now use commercial dyes imported mainly from India, but also from Syria, Iraq and Pakistan. Natural dyes, such as dried limes, madder, pomegranate skins, turmeric and the toadstool burnuq, are sometimes combined with commercial dyes.

There is still much nostalgia for the old ways, and for the pleasures of being close to nature. While most Bedouin are now settled, many erect tents next to their houses and “still enjoy being out-of-doors in a woven environment, which is more pleasurable than their concrete houses”. Numerous families, Bedouin or non-Bedouin, love to camp in tents in the desert during vacations.

One of Hilden’s aims is to provide sufficient details and instructions so that “a person wanting fully to understand and perhaps to create this type of weaving could do so with the help of this book.” She provides clear instructions on how to assemble a loom and on different weaving techniques.

She provides an eight-page glossary of Arabic terms, and two pages of definitions of English weaving terms, outlining for example the difference between a ground loom, pit loom and floor loom. She also explains the difference between war0-faced and weft-faced weaving, and illustrates weft twining – the oldest weaving technique known in the world. Typical Bedouin weavings are made on a ground loom using a warp-faced plain weave. Hilden also describes the finishes – tassels, stitches and braids – which are such an attractive feature of Bedouin weaving.

A chapter on Bedouin weaving outside Saudi Arabia examines the similarities and differences in weaving over the vast area in which warp-faced weaving on ground looms is practiced, including not only the Arab world but also Iran, Turkey, Pakistan and other Asian nomadic areas.

In the past 20 or so years much has changed for Bedouin weaving. “Nomadism is a phenomenon of the past. Bedouin weaving has ceased to be functional and has evolved into a decorative and historical art. Today, where it is managing to survive, it owes its preservation to a self-conscious effort to save part of the Arab cultural heritage.”

War and the so-called war on terror have affected Bedouin weaving in some countries. “In Iraq the destruction and fracturing of society has undoubtedly put an end to the Bedouin lifestyle”. Upheavals among the Palestinian Bedouin in the 20th century have also taken a toll on weaving. Hilden discusses the initiatives in various countries to preserve and encourage Bedouin weaving. In Saudi Arabia, for example, several women’s charities promote the weaving tradition, and Hilden also pays tribute to the endeavors of Leila Al-Bassam a professor of clothing and textiles, in promoting Bedouin weaving in new ways.

Hilden thinks that cultural preservation projects of Kuwait and Oman could serve as models for other countries in the Arab world. She concludes: “Hopefully this book will contribute to the awareness of the precious resource of Bedouin weaving and so to its perpetuation.” - SG

Book Review by Angela Sutton-Vane

Arabia, the Gulf, and the Red Sea
Vol. 1, Issue 1, June 2011

Joy Totah Hilden, Bedouin Weaving of Saudi Arabia and its Neighbours
(London, Arabian Publishing Ltd, 2010), 283 pages, 297 illustrations, 3 maps, 60 pounds hardback.

Reviewed by ANGELA SUTTON-VANE, Institute of Arab and Islamic Studies, University of Exeter, United Kingdom,

Written during a period of huge and continuing social change in the Middle East – with the first oil boom waning and many nomads settling to take jobs in the oil industry – Bedouin Weaving records the textile crafts of a disappearing culture.

Transportability was always the main, and crucial, design criteria for Bedouin possessions, and cloth epitomized this. It was lightweight, flexible, compactable, and made with wool from the makers’ herds of camel, sheep, and goats. Woven products played a key role in every part of Bedouin life, and the two were inextricably linked. Through the process of weaving, this book touches on all aspects of Bedouin culture, including the disappearance of the nomadic way of life. Bearing in mind that pre-modern Bedouins depended on raiding for economic survival, and that plunder and war were considered noble activities, and given also the need for vast areas of land without boundaries across which to roam, nomadism in Arabia was inevitably doomed by the emergence of the nation-state: the beginning of the end came in 1932, when the new Kingdom of Saudi Arabia outlawed inter-tribal warfare. Sedentarisation was not only a consequence of coercion, however: as with all members of society, nomads cannot be frozen in time, and have a right to seek education and good health care, only truly achievable through more settled life-styles. As a result, the weavings of the Bedouin have become largely defunct because of their utilitarian nature, since woven camel harnesses and tent dividers are no longer required. Moreover, culturally the Bedouin attach little store to their possessions: of much more importance to them are family ties, the continuity of generations, hospitality, and generosity.

In addition to major social changes, the author also links the introduction of synthetic, pre-spun, and dyed yarns to the demise of Bedouin weaving. Tribes celebrated the women who produced the most imaginative, accurate, fine, and strong weaving; whether synthetic yarns and dyes were used was not an issue for them as it is for collectors and connoisseurs. In fact, many Bedouin enjoy the colours and stability of synthetic dyes – and these have, ultimately, been their choice. Weaving is, at the end of the day, a mechanized, manufacturing process that, as the author illustrates, borrows and evolves constantly. Looms are a machine, whether powered by people or engines, and Bedouin weaving continues to endure in isolated pockets, despite all adversity – floors-looms have been moved sand to fitted carpets, tensioned by door jams rather than tent poles; and weavers now produce for sale rather than personal use.

Totah Hilden’s book is as much about the remarkable Bedouin women who weave the textiles as the fabrics themselves, and the author has recorded in detail many individual weavers’ stories and techniques. There are surprising contradictions between the lifestyles and relative freedoms of the women still living a Bedouin existence compared to their settled counter-parts. As nomads, Bedouin women are allowed to drive cars and sell their weaving in markets. They are hugely depended upon for the majority of tasks – tent-making and building, owning and tending to the sheep and goats, cooking, and child-care. In contrast, although released from many of these arduous tasks, their settled counterparts have become increasingly confined and restricted.

It is a pity that the author’s research for Bedouin Weaving was actually carried out between 1982 and 1994, and that the book is analyzing material collected up to twenty-eight years ago. Although, at times it is clear that statistics have been updated at the point of publication – when discussing the decline of nomadic populations, for example – this is not always the case, and the reader is left to rely on the epilogue to bring the research up to date.

Bedouin Weaving is aimed at an extremely wide readership, and though concentrating on Saudi Arabian Bedouins, it also covers other Bedouin groups across the Middle East. As such, it cannot please everyone, and some readers will undoubtedly find it too general. In the forword, Saad A. Sowayan describes it as a work of reference and a coffee table book. There are some beautiful images (for example, camels on page 22 and the Bedouin woman on page 56), but a number of photographs lack clarity and technical finesse – compare them, for instance, to the photographs in Alan Keohane’s Bedouin (1994). From a completely practical point of view, this is a physically weighty volume, and I would have preferred footnotes rather than end-notes to save thumbing backwards and forwards. Similarly, the guide on constructing a simple floor-loom and weaving textiles would sit better in an appendix, for ease of access and reference.

The book’s conclusion is that the ultimate demise of Bedouin weaving is not due to the introduction of synthetic yarns and dyes, nor of new techniques – indeed diversification has often helped extend its life – but to the fact that nomadism has become a phenomenon of the past. Bedouin Bedouin weaving, which is an intrinsic part of this life-style, has ceased to be functional, and now survives only as a decorative art form, not least through the self-conscious efforts of governments. Few books, apart from Anne-Rhona Crichton’s 1989 volume Al Sadu: The Techniques of Bedouin Weaving, have been devoted purely to Bedouin weaving. Richly illustrated with photographs, diagrams, and technical appendices, all by the author, Totah Hilden’s book contributes an invaluable cecord of the physicality of Bedouin weaving and their material culture, setting down dye recipes, descriptions of individual techniques, patterns, and life-styles befoe they pass into history.

The author’s list of acknowledgements, as well as the map on page 7, are testament to her wide-ranging research and tenacity in undertaking it in a country where women are strongly discouraged from traveling alone, and it is illegal for them to drive. And yet, at the same time this has worked to Totah Hilden’s advantage, allowing her close contact with the makers of these stunning textiles, the women of the Bedouin.

Gulf Times, Book Review

Gulf Times, Oct. 25, 2010
Book Review by Fran Gillespie

Title: Bedouin Weaving of Saudi Arabia and its Neighbours
Author: Joy Totah Hilden
Publisher: Arabian Publishing Ltd
Language: English
Price: Amazon US$ 120.00

Joy Totah Hilden, the author of Bedouin Weaving of Saudi Arabia and its Neighbours, lived in Saudi Arabia from 1982 until 1994. While there she became fascinated by the traditional methods of weaving employed by tribal women, and she set out to learn as much as she could about this dying craft, amassing a vast knowledge en route and also a magnificent collection of textiles, many of which are illustrated in the book.

Born in 1935 to a Palestinian father and an American mother, she spent her early
years in Palestine where her own paternal grandfather had been a village weaver. Later, trained as an art teacher, she had some practical experience of the craft before she and her husband went to live in the Kingdom. In her explorations around this vast country she had the great advantage of speaking fluent Arabic.

Hilden travelled all over Arabia, visiting women's markets, making friends among the spinners and weavers and often being invited to visit them in their homes to watch them at work.

The author covers the historic background of the bedouin, a few of whom still pursued a semi-nomadic lifestyle at the time she was living in the Kingdom, and the various styles of weaving. There is a chapter on some of the weavers interviewed, and their families and communities. A chapter on the techniques of spinning, weaving and dyeing, with diagrams and instructions, is so detailed that theoretically it would be possible for someone to learn the craft simply from the instructions, from manufacturing natural dyes to constructing a loom.

Throughout the world, modernization, conflict and the ever-more rigid definition of political boundaries are threatening nomadic lifestyles. This beautiful book is a record, before it disappears forever, of a craft passed on from mothers to daughters for generations, employed to produce both useful and decorative artefacts which beautified their often harsh mode of existence, and served to ornament the rituals of family and tribe.

The book is lavishly illustrated, with hundreds of photographs in colour and clear diagrams of different types of looms and the knots and techniques employed in weaving.

As well as her travels within the kingdom, Hilden visited other Gulf countries to record the practices of bedouin weavers, the majority of whom were women. In 1990 she visited Qatar as a guest of the Red Crescent Society and observed women from the Al-Murrah family producing finely woven cushion covers and dividing curtains for use in tents.

In the 21st century, weavers who still practise this ancient tradition increasingly make use of commercial synthetic dyed yarns imported from India, Syria, Iraq and Pakistan, rather than yarn dyed with extracts from roots, fungi or pomegranate skins. Today's weavers have been encouraged to view an art which they once took for granted, as part of their everyday life, as a conscious effort to 'save part of the Arab cultural heritage'. Rather than producing useful and ornamental everyday articles as an integrated part of their lifestyle, they are becoming aware of the demand for their skills from ethnographical museums and from tourists and charge accordingly, producing small, portable items such as cushion covers and mats in place of the larger, woven panels crafted by their mothers and grandmothers.

A range of organisations in the different countries help to maintain traditional techniques and style of weaving, with little or no help from their governments. Sadly, the author concludes, ' Since the nomadic lifestyle is disappearing, and commercial products are available, more women are turning to these new ways of working. My personal preference is for weavings made with sheeps wool and goat hair and spun in the traditional ways. I prefer the look and feel of them, as well as the color quality. However, it is very hard work, and I can see why it might not fit into the modern, electronic age.'

Fran Gillespie