Driving along busy roads, past shops made from tin sheets, and broken sidewalks – I see women in long flowing skirts, wrapped in white shawls. I see men wearing a fez, or a baseball cap. Scrawny, dusty dogs try to find food under carts piled high with oranges, tomatoes and bananas. Donkeys wait patiently with loads of cement bags and bricks.
Suddenly our driver turns onto a short, dirt road and honks at a gate. A wizened old man with hands like gnarled wood, opens the gate and we park in the shade in a little oasis.
Among the cobblestone paths and lush green vegetation are different stone buildings. We have come to Sabahar, a workshop of weavers and spinners that was initiated by a Canadian.
Inspired by ancient weaving traditions of Ethiopia, Sabahar creates exquisite scarves, table clothes, blankets and much more using locally produced silk and cotton. Ethiopian women have been spinning cotton on drop spindles for centuries while men have been weaving fabrics for their traditional clothing as well as the famous Ethiopian ‘gabi’ blankets. The company buys Eri silk cocoons from rural farmers, often women. The Eri silk worm eats castor plants, which are environmentally friendly plants that grow all over Ethiopia. The raising of silk worms is done to supplement income and primarily managed by women. The silk produced by the worms is then hand spun, a craft that has been passed down from mother to daughter for generations.
The silk thread is dyed in natural dyes, producing richly colored fabrics. The dyeing process, too, is ancient but often forgotten. Sabahar helps to preserve these traditional skills. They experiment with flowers, leaves, bark and roots to create gorgeous colours. They even use coffee, tea and flowers to dye the thread.
The thread is then woven on traditional looms, in an age-old technique passed down from father to son. I watched as the men skillfully slid the trundle and thread through the silk lines, creating patterns as they moved the loom. Smiles all around as they take pride in their skills and in the final products, that can be bought in a small shop.
Sabahar not only helps to preserve traditional skills, they enable artisans to work and receive fair wages. The company employs around fifty people at the workshop I visited but also employs another 100 or so artisans who spin and weave in their own homes or in cooperatives around Addis Ababa.
Sabahar emphasizes it philosophy respectful, ethical and sustainable work opportunities for artisans in Ethiopia.
If you visit their website you can see where you can buy their gorgeous woven scarves and more, in the US, Canada and in Europe, including a store in Victoria, BC. And, yes, I did buy some weavings!
Dinner Time in Ethiopia