Wool spinning: A vanishing handcraft [Archives:2006/1006/Last Page]

December 11 2006

Saddam Al-Ashmori
“Having inherited the craft from our fathers, we're called 'handcrafters because we spinning wool into clothes, mattresses and shopping bags,” wool spinner Abdullah Ali Al-Jawfi says from his workshop in the Old City of Sana'a.

“Following the advent of modern textile and carpet factories, all but a few dispensed with our products. In the past, people ordered every type of wool clothing from us, but the situation now has changed and we've become street vendors selling our products on the streets,” he adds.


In ancient Yemen, the term “handcrafter” was given to those who collected wool, spun it and made things from it to sell to others. Thus, society treated them rather as low-class Yemenis, called “dawashin” (beggars) and “mazamerah” (musicians/drummers). “Nobody will allow his daughter to marry a handcrafter, nor will any man marry a handcrafter's daughter,” Al-Jawfi clarified.

Describing their work, he says, “We collect sheep's wool, purify it of stains and then spin it and transform it into clothing.” He further explained how wool is spun, saying that spinners first craft a 50 cm.-long stick with a noose on one end and a pin-shaped iron piece to wrap the wool during the spinning process.

“The iron piece is moved to the right as we continue spinning the wool strands by hand, transforming them into various-sized bundles. Afterward, we collect the wool and make dresses of various sizes and shapes,” Al-Jawfi continued.

“We produce sleeveless wool overcoats worn over thobes, fardahs (rough textured mats similar to blankets) to put on mattresses and shopping bags called 'shamlah',” he noted, “We also make 'gherara' (a large sack for grain and hay), in addition to other similar articles mostly favored by farmers and locals living in rural areas.”

Despite the fact that the craft is quite old, wool spinning is expected to vanish. Most people whose fathers were spinners now have stopped spinning for many reasons, one of which is low revenues. Spinners complain that they don't make enough money to purchase raw materials required or sustain their families.

“Many people gave up this handicraft and sought other work as the number of customers buying wool clothes decreased. Another reason is related to the advent of modern garment industries, which produce large quantities of clothes at little cost and energy,” Al-Jawfi concludes.

From sheep to sleep

“We raise and tame sheep and then shear their wool. Because they know we need wool, some people shear their sheep and give the wool to us,” says Ali Saleh Al-Miqyadhi, another wool spinner who has remained in the industry.

Craftsman Naser Sa'ad Al-Sane'e explains, “Some of us raise local sheep and shear their wool in the winter to spin and transform it into useful items, especially bedding mattresses. Due to the profession's deterioration, we have no benefactors to fund us. Meanwhile, the number of clients decreased because of the availability of alternative modern garments.

“No one comes to buy from us except a few elderly people living in rural areas because they're accustomed to wearing our traditional products,” he adds.

Regarding whether they receive any type of support, Al-Miqyadhi replied, “We receive no funds, which is why we still use our outdated wooden tools. This village is named Al-Miqyadha because all of its people are handcrafters. But for the time being, only a few of us still are pursuing the craft.”

According to Al-Miqyadhi, some items such as fardahs, yalaq (vest), ghirara (jacket), shamlah and za'al strands (used for mats) are priced at YR 3,000, 1,500, 2,000, 3,000 and 5,000 respectively.

He notes, “We have no regular clients. People only buy a little of what we produce to have them as antiquities on the walls of their homes.” Al-Miqyadhi adds that women help collect wool, as well as assist in spinning and weaving. “We face several difficulties due to wool shortage and very few clients, coupled with a lack of attention toward the handicraft,” he says.

Asked how many pursue the vocation, Al-Sane'e responded, “We were a family of craftsmen and each one of us learned how to exercise this handicraft. But now, only the elderly pursue the handicraft because they stay at home while we go out in search of other sources of income.”

Women spin too

According to Al-Sane'e, women also spin. He says women usually collect the wool, purify it of stains and transform it into string. However, he complained that they encounter difficulties finding sheep wool and that every single fardah costs them YR 3,000 to produce and requires an entire month to collect wool and transform it into a fardah.

Saleh Ali Hizam, the oldest among the spinners, indicates that women usually cut the wool, purify it from stains and spin it into strands during their leisure time.

“We collect wool from those with sheep. Sometimes, we also buy wool from butchers who slaughter sheep and then spin it into clothing. We receive no funds from other parties,” Hizam explains, “Many of us spin wool and transform it into clothing for themselves after the number of buyers decreased due to the spread of modern garments.

“Each spinner makes an average of YR 10,000 per month. Residents and farmers in rural areas buy some of our products, using them as bags for grain, crops and hay,” Hizam notes, “We face difficulties associated with wool shortage, as well as the spread of alternative garments, which draw customers' attention away from what we produce.”