Coiling from Sri Lanka and Senegal

My attempts at making coiled baskets last year weren’t entirely successful – more practice needed! But over the summer I came across a couple of different examples of coiling, which I thought I’d share.

In Sri Lanka I bought some very simple mats made from coiled and dyed strips of newspaper, presumably held together with glue. There were also some lovely bowls made using the same materials, but I thought these might not survive the flight back.

And in Brixton, a new shop – whose name I can’t remember – has just opened up in oh-so-trendy Brixton Village, selling items from West Africa, India and Latin America. They include some amazing coiled pots, made from bundles of grass held together with recycled plastic straps. Interestingly, they appear not to use the “double wrap” to hold the coils together, but to pass the plastic strap through a few of the strands of glass in the previous coil instead.

Dumbara weaving

One of the craftsmen I interviewed in Sri Lanka was a Dumbara weaver. Saman Yapage comes from a family of weavers, but he only took up weaving in 2004 after he lost a leg in the Sri Lankan army.

Dumbara weaving is named after its place of origin, near Kandy. Mats were traditionally made on home-made looms by musicians who wove when they were not required to play for state occasions.

As with any other weaving, the warp threads are arranged parallel to each other and held in tension, and the weft threads wind under and over the warp threads to create the fabric. The shuttle (nadava) carries the weft thread, and wooden heddles (aluva) separate the warp threads. The weft threads are pressed together with a quick, sharp action using a sleay.

In Dumbara weaving the distinctive motifs are achieved by inserting thin sticks to turn and twist the thread to the required design. It is a time-consuming process that needs a lot of patience and skill.

Traditionally, weavers used hana, a kind of hemp. The leaves were scraped against a log with a sharp implement to remove the fleshy part, leaving behind the fibre. The fibre was then dyed with natural dyes, as in the  photo above.

However, Saman uses cotton. He is also changing the patterns and colours to suit modern tastes, as in the cushion covers I bought below.

I also bought a throw (not made by Saman) that is a kind of sampler of many different Dumbara patterns.

Indikola weaving

You know those oriental goddesses, like Kali or Guanyin, that have several pairs of arms? I think I met a real-life incarnation in Sri Lanka.

Meet Soma Edirisinghe, who makes incredibly delicate purses, boxes and bags from indikola, a kind of palm. The tender leaves are picked, bleached or dyed, dried, and cut into thin strips. You can see her holding some in the photo above, along with some of her products (more close-up shots below).

She uses a long metal needle called a bodkin, pointed at one end and with a cutting edge at the other, to help manipulate these incredibly delicate strips – some no more than 1mm wide.

Soma could see I was fascinated by watching her work, so she gesticulated that she would show me how to make a simple box. (She spoke no English and, needless to say, my Sinhala was not up to this.) So with sign language only, we set to work.

Now, I did make a woven basket last term at Morley College. But it was made from cardboard, on a much larger scale, and I used clothes pegs and masking tape to help keep the strips in place. By contrast, Soma used just her hands and the bodkin to do everything. Which is why she seemed to have more than one pair of hands – when I was in the middle of making the box, I certainly felt as if I needed at least two more pairs!

First she takes a leaf of indikola and scrapes both sides along the length of the needle (a bit like using scissors to curl a strip of paper – only in this case it is to straighten the palm, not curl it). Because the leaf is thicker at one end (where it was attached to the stalk) and tapers to a point, it’s not of uniform width. So she cuts off the thick end, and uses the point of the bodkin to slice thin strips off each side of the leaf so that the width is more consistent. The art is to get all the strips the same width – which isn’t as easy as it sounds, as it’s quite tricky to get the leaf to split exactly where you want it!

While I was attempting to get 10 strips about 1cm wide, Soma was preparing five much narrower strips – about a third of this width. Then I lined up five wide strips vertically, alternating the thick and thin ends. Using just the weight of the needle to keep them in position (no masking tape here!), Soma then helped me weave five wide strips horizontally through the vertical strips, again alternating thick and thin ends. Then we added five narrow strips at the top.

Now the fun began. Faster than you can say “Where does that bit go?”, Soma had formed the corners and indicated that I should carry on weaving. This was really tricky, trying to keep the bits I had already woven in position just using my hands without the help of clothes pegs. As you can see, I did have some help!

When I had woven three vertical rows with the wider strips, Soma showed me how to weave in the narrow strips to form a decorative border. Then I was ready to finish off, weaving the ends in and cutting off the ends. Success!

Unfortunately, I didn’t have time to make the top of the box (you can see a complete one among the products in Soma’s photo), as I had to go off and interview some other craftworkers. But I had a great time, and I think Soma did too. Despite all the help she gave me she said I was a natural – so I had to confess that I had done something like this before, though not on such a small scale.

Soma has won Unesco and Presidential Awards for her skills – and justly so. I can only admire her skill and dexterity in handling these delicate strips of indikola – not to mention the beautiful designs and colours – she dyes the leaves herself.

Sri Lankan crafts

Just back from Sri Lanka after an 11.5 hour flight that left Colombo at 5am, only to find that there’s been a leak in the house while I’ve been away, with wallpaper peeling off the ceiling. 😦

Never mind – even that can’t take the gloss off the amazing craft experience I’ve had in Sri Lanka. The last hotel I stayed at was actually in the middle of setting up a craft centre, with weavers, basket makers, lace makers, woodcarvers and mask painters all giving demonstrations and even letting me have a go. As part of my assignment I interviewed a few of them and will post some of these later.

Also, shops like Barefoot have a fantastic selection of goods, from colourful handloom and embroidery work to contemporary batik designs, ceramics and carving. I came back with a bulging suitcase and had to buy another bag to hold everything!

I’ll post more details over the next week or so, but the photo above shows a few of the items: two cushion covers (one an example of Dumbara weaving, the other embroidered) and a couple of purses woven from indikola, a kind of palm.

Out of office

I’m off to Sri Lanka for three weeks on an assignment for my day job (tough work, I know, but someone has to do it!). The Heritance Kandalama (above) is one of the hotels I’ll be staying in.

I don’t know how much I’ll be able to blog while I’m away, but I have been promised some demonstrations of Dumbara weaving and local lace-making, so if I get the chance I’ll post about that.

Enjoy what’s left of the summer – see you in a few weeks!