One of the most colourful and eye-catching places in Doha is the handmade textile display at the Corniche end of Souq Waqif. From the main open promenade between restaurants and shisha cafés, walk towards the Corniche, past the antique shops, and the rugs will appear as the courtyard opens on the right, opposite the spice souq. Countless bright weavings spill out from a set of arcaded shops, making a patchwork on the ground that draws tourists and local shoppers alike.
This part of the souq can be confusing at first, because the women who own the shops speak no English and are fully veiled. Their assistants interact with foreign customers, but language can still be a barrier, and one is left wondering where these rugs and weavings came from, who made them, and what have they got to do with Qatar?
While many of the textiles have been imported from Saudi Arabia, Iraq and Syria, the truth is that the women who own these little shops are Bedouin weavers, and some of the work shown in the souq is their own handicraft.
Traditional Bedouin weaving is called al sadu, and is done on a ground loom. In the desert, two end bars are held by stakes in the ground, with the warp yarns wound between them. The weaver works from a seated position on the ground, moving forward as the weaving progresses, and sitting directly on the woven portion as she moves forward. Nowadays, this kind of loom can be set up in the weaver’s house using doorframes to tension the warp, or on the rooftop using protruding poles of rebar. Traditional weavings are quite long, and for this reason it is rare to see a woman actually weaving in the souq, as there is not enough space in her shop.
Occasionally, the weavers will use a portable metal frame in lieu of the ground loom, but this strictly limits the length of their weaving to the size of the frame. The weavers come up with various ways of setting up their looms in different settings, but the essentials are end bars under tension, and props to elevate the heddle bar, where strings are wrapped to hold one half of the warp up.
In the desert these props may be tripods of wood, or metal oil cans, while in the city they may be cinderblocks or specialised crafted stands. To change the shed, the weaver punches the opposite yarns down behind the heddles, inserts a wooden sword beater, and turns the beater on its side to separate the warp yarns.
A special tool of the Bedouin is the gazelle horn, used to help tighten up the woven cloth after the weft has been passed. Women inherit these tools from mothers and grandmothers, and they can be quite old and smooth with use.
Traditionally, a Bedouin woman will weave all the fabric for the walls of the tent. The dividing curtain is the showpiece, a canvas upon which the weaver demonstrates her expertise with intricate patterns and techniques. The beautiful and impressive front side of the tent divider hangs toward the men’s side of the tent. These tent dividers are made of five woven strips, because ground-loom woven cloth is limited in its width to about 60 cm or less. From the lowest to the highest as the piece hangs, each strip is progressively more decorated. The strips are sewn together, and the upper edge will be bound and reinforced with decorative edge stitching.
Sadu weaving makes use of handspun wool, commercial wool blend yarn, and also commercial cotton yarn. The fabric is warp-faced, meaning only the warp yarns are visible, making a smooth, lengthwise set of stripes and designs. Traditional patterns include shajarah, or ‘tree’, a pattern usually done in black and white down the centre of a woven strip, which has improvised designs the weaver makes by choosing one colour or the other. She has to pick up each warp yarn individually within the shajarah pattern section, dropping the unused colour to the back. For this reason, shajarah patterns are unique to each weaving, and showcase the imagination and creativity of the weaver. Some shajarah designs are typical and traditional, passed down through generations and repeated in textiles from a wide range of locations, while others are invented on the spot, derived from everyday objects such as scissors or incense burners.
Another typical Sadu weaving pattern is al’ouerjan, which appears as a constellation of dots, made from pairs of warp yarns that alternate colours. This cheerful dotted pattern is a hallmark of Bedouin weaving, and usually takes the form of decorative strips of triangles, zigzags, or diamonds to the side of the central shajarah pattern.
Other patterns include drus al khair, ‘horse’s teeth’, and a simple alternation of stripes like a comb.
Colourful patterns may also appear in what looks like an additional layer on top, as if the weaving has been embroidered. This is weft twining, which means the weaver has wrapped yarn over and under small groups of warp yarns, moving from side to side and creating free-form designs that look a bit like tapestry weaving. The weft twining may include many colours, and often shows concentric diamond motifs or embedded triangles, harlequin‑style. An abundance of weft twining is a sure sign of many extra hours of effort, since this technique is more time-consuming than regular weaving.
The weft twining technique is one of the most fundamental textile techniques known to humans, and the Bedouin style of ground loom weaving represents one of the oldest forms of loom weaving in the world, dating back to Neolithic times, according to archaeologists. Thus, the modest women of the rug souq embody knowledge of an extremely ancient tradition, surprising to see among the rising skyscrapers of modern Doha.
Not only do the women weave, but they are also able to spin all their weaving yarn by hand on wooden spindles. These spindles are often displayed in baskets among the textiles in the souq, long wooden shafts with crossbar arms and a hook at the top. Raw, washed wool from local Qatari or Saudi sheep is wound onto a stick distaff and spun with these spindles in a time‑honoured Bedouin manner, while the woman sits, stands, or walks around. Although many contemporary textiles include commercial yarn, the women who learn weaving have also learned spinning from childhood, and in times past, only sheep’s wool, goat hair or camel hair would have been available for textile production.
Camel gear is another product in the weavers’ repertoire. Strong bands and ropes are essential to nomadic herding life, so a wide variety of braiding and twining techniques for making such items are well cultivated among the Bedouin. The women seem able to make any kind of strong rope from raw materials at a moment’s notice. There are countless straps and bridles, halters and lead ropes hanging in the arcade at Souq Waqif, and most of these are handwoven or braided and handsewn. Local camel owners shop here for various practical items, including weaning straps, wooden saddles, and saddle blankets. Tucked away in certain bundles, there are even fancy decorative camel trappings: handwoven cloth embellished with sequined fabric, metallic yarn and tinselled tassels, presumably for the most festive of camel events.
There is more than meets the eye in this corner of Souq Waqif, and it is well worth taking some time to poke around and explore the many layers of handicraft produced by the Qatari proprietors.
Distaff: a tool used in spinning to hold the unspun fibre
Heddle: strings that elevate alternate warp yarns to separate them from the opposite shed
Shed: the opening, created by moving some warp threads up and some down, through which the weft is passed
Sword beater: a flat piece of wood with bevelled edges, used to help the weaver open the shed
Warp: threads running the length of the fabric, held taut and parallel by the frame of the loom
Weft: threads woven through the warp across the width of the fabric
This article was written for Marhaba by Tracy Hudson. A native of Kansas City, Missouri, Tracy has been creating and collecting textiles for 20 years. She has lived in Doha for the last five years, where she pursues handspinning, knitting, and weaving, and continues with textile research and collection. If you would like to learn more about Bedouin weaving, look out for Bedouin Weaving in Saudi Arabia and its Neighbours, Joy Totah Hilden, Arabian Publishing, 2010.
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