Part 1: of a story about my recent trip to Ethiopia where I worked with the weavers, spinners and dyers of Sabahar in Addis Ababa. I did several posts about this trip on Facebook but I know there are a lot of you out there that don’t hang out on Facebook or other social media and you are important to me too… so here goes.
This story all begins with one amazing woman named Kathy Marshall from Beaver Lodge Alberta. Kathy has lived in Africa since 1994 working in the area of agriculture and development. Kathy’s desire to create a business that specialized and celebrated the rich textile traditions in Ethiopia began in 2004 with one weaver and several spinners working out of her home.
Fast forward 15 years and Sabahar now employs over 200 artisans. Weavers, spinners, dyers, silk farmers and finishers. It is an amazing success story that sits on top of a mountain of determination, dedication and above all, love.
There are so many parts to this story but it really should start with these lovely little critters… eri silk moths. By the way, Saba is the Amharic word for queen and Hari is the Amharic word for silk… a perfect name for Sabahar.
Sabahar is the pioneer of silk production in Ethiopia. Kathy brought her silk cocoons from Assam India where Eri silk originates. The name eri comes from the Assamese word “era”, meaning castor and that is exactly what these caterpillars eat. Ethiopia has an abundant supply of Castor trees which made it a perfect silk match for the country.
It takes five days for the eggs to hatch… they moult four times during their lifespan of approximately 45 days depending upon the temperature… this little guy on the left is almost full grown, the pair on the right are fully grown… when they get to this size and become pale in colour you hold them to your ear, rub their backs and if they sound hollow, they’re ready to spin… two caterpillars are placed in a paper cone, trays of cones sealed up ready to spin… it takes two days to spin and another seven days for the metamorphosis to occur…
I put two caterpillars in this glass mug and weighed down a piece of paper with my cell phone. It was amazing to watch them spin their cocoon. Their little heads circled round and round while they extruded the silk into the unique shape that Eri silk is spun into. They will fill any shape they are put into… the cocoons that come out of the paper cones are cone shaped. If they are put into a square container, the cocoon will be square… truly amazing.
Cotton spinning on drop spindles has a strong tradition in Ethiopia and Eri silk has similarities to cotton. The caterpillar spins a staple silk unlike other silk worms which spin a filament silk, like Bombyx and Tussah. Eri silk cannot be reeled making it the perfect fibre to give to traditional cotton spinners. The cocoons are first boiled and the spinners spin directly from these cocoon masses. Along with spinning Eri Silk, Sabahar employs dozens of cotton spinners who spin in their homes. Everyday spun cotton is collected and delivered to Sabahar for sorting and quality control.
Cocoons are boiled and spun directly from these cocoon masses… the silk is spun on wheels, while the cotton is spun on drop spindles… every day deliveries of cotton arrive and are sorted into different grades… the cobs are turned into skeins ready for dyeing.
Next blog post
The next blog post is about the dyers and the warpers of Sabahar.