January 15, 2012

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.