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.