Ethiopian Tabletwoven Curtains - Peter Collingwood

Today, 8th January 1998, I learnt for the first time that there is one, and maybe two, other tablet-woven textiles from Ethiopia of the amazing type already known from Gondar. Up till now, I only knew of the three-paneled piece in the Royal Ontario Museum (the 3 double-faced weave pieces sewn edge to edge to make a total size of 518 x 218 cm) and .two pieces in British Museum, one in double-faced weave, one in warp twining showing the typical geometric patterns produced by straight turning of the tablets.

It shows the gap between the academic and the crafts world that I only heard this today when it was in the 1960's that a Frenchman photographed such a textile hanging in the Monastery of Abba Garima, near Adowa (about 150 miles from Gondar), in Tigray Province, Ethiopia. Later this was "rediscovered" by a Mr Paul Henze in the spring of 1995. It had then been taken down from the church setting. I was sent a colour xerox of a slide this man took, and I can plainly see it is so similar to the Gondar church hangings as to make it almost certain that it was woven at a similar or maybe even the same workshop (but where was that?). It is just one panel and has some figures at one end but it is mainly in simple turning patterns.

One wonders what else remains to be discovered in this out-of-way region to surprise all tablet weavers.

Details of Gondar Curtains
"Four Eighteenth Century Monumental Ethiopian Tablet-Woven Silk Curtains" in Sacred & Ceremonial Textiles: Proceedings of the Fifth Biennial Symposium of the Textile Society of America, 1996.
"A Tablet-Woven Treasure: The Gondar Hanging Monumental Ethiopian tablet-woven silk curtains: a case for royal patronage", in Burlington Magazine 1996. Many illustrations, some in colour.
Another article from 2005 The tablet-woven hangings of Tigre, Ethiopia: from history to symmetry

Stop the Press! Stop the Press! Stop the Press! Stop the Press! Stop the Press!

Since the above was written, even more of these amazing large-scale tablet-woven church panels have been discovered by Martha and Paul Henze in their Ethiopian journeys in search of ecclesiastical art works.

In February 1998, another three were found in a church at Gabriel Wukien. They were all woven of fairly coarse cotton in brown and white. GW 1 and GW 2 each consisted of four panels sewn together and both showed areas of typical warp-twined patterns combined with areas of double-faced weave with figures and motifs. GW 3 was 3 panels wide and only had the warp-twined patterns. The latter panel was in a poor condition and Martha Henze was offered a small fragment which had become detached. She sent that to me to examine and there is no doubt the technique is tablet-weaving. It is interesting that this was an edge piece and shows there was an all- white border outside the two-coloured patterned area, a feature absent in the silk examples. See left-hand side of the photo.

The story does not end there. This year at Abba Yohanni, across the mountains from the above site, the Henzes found another two sets of tablet-woven cotton curtains. The cotton was finer than that used in the above, but the colours still brown and white. At another church further east called Koraro, a metre-long fragment of a two-panel tablet-woven curtain was found. Made of brown and white cotton, it showed figurative and geometric designs as in the others. When she asked if other "curtains exactly like this" (holding up the tablet woven piece) were known, Martha Henze was told that Koraro and two other churches acquired such curtains at the same time, making it extremely likely that there are two other examples yet to be examined.

So it looks as if this is definitely a continuing and exciting story of discovery. I believe Michael Gervers intends to collate all this information into a single publication, covering the technical, historical and all other aspects of these outstanding examples of work with little square tablets.

My study of the two British Museum silk panels is more or less complete and together with Mary Frame's study of the Royal Ontario Museum piece would form part of the technical side of this book.

Photo provided by Martha Henze.

END of Stop Press

There is a photo of the hanging in an article on how the Gondar Hanging was stabilized by conservators. It is quite interesting.

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Updated December 3, 2008
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