Posted by R. John Howe on 01-26-2005 08:31 AM:

Split Warp Camel Girth from W. India

Dear folks -

Although I own a variety of pieces, I have been to date primarily a Turkmen collector, mostly of bags and other smaller formats.

But I have occasionally cited a novel by Evan Connell, Jr. in which he maps the collecting neurosis and seems to caution that the collector is likely not in full control of his/her collecting urges and that it may be difficult to predict both their strength and the direction in which they might move next.

I am not sure but something like that may be happening to me. It may be motivated in part by the fact that the Turkmen bag faces that really interest me now cost more than I am willing (and often able) to afford. But that does not fully explain the eclectic nature of my more recent purchases.

I'm not sure I put it up on Turkotek but I recently bought a plaited, and heavily textured African skirt. I did share with you a composed Coptic textile that I encountered. This trend seems to be continuing. I noticed while bargaining with a dealer about a "ru-korsi" type soufreh (think Persian stove cover) that this dealer was beginning to travel to Africa and to India.

Stephen Louw, whose work also occasionally takes him to India, had attracted my attention to a format that had not registered with me previously. These are camel girths made in Western India (likely also in Pakistan) that have an interesting, nearly unique structure in which the warps actually penetrate one another. Stephen, who owns several of these girths, gave me a Hali reference (117) in which Peter Collingwood, the English weaver, writes about them. Collingwood admits to having collected over 100 of these girths and his article is provides images of several of them and technically interesting commentary.

So I said to this dealer that if he ever ran into interesting split ply camel girths he should signal me. This is, of course, a dangerous thing to say, because in only a few months he provided me with the opportunity to purchase three interesting examples. They were similar and I controlled my urge by paying probably a bit too much for only one of them.

It needs washing and I am afraid to do so so far despite the liklihood that it may be made only from naturally colored brown and ivory goat hair. But I have photographed its entire length and am taxing you this morning with the resulting images. Here they are interspersed with additional comment.

Bands are difficult to display effectively. I have, excepting for this first instance, taken vertically oriented shots and turned them to the right, starting with the metal buckle and proceeding to the plaited tassles. It is 96 inches long, four inches wide and has a definite "thickness" measuring 1/4 inch.

I quite like the simplicity and shape of the buckle. Stephen and I have mused about how these are likely made. I don't think he's found a maker yet. Collingwood shows some more elaborate examples of such buckles but they all have this basic shape.

The technique of making such girths is actually a form of plaiting (rather than weaving). There is no loom. There are no wefts. Fibers all travel obliquely one penentrating another as it is encountered and taking up a new oblique direction after the penetration. A wooden needle is used to push one warp through another.

Collingwood distinguishes three different split ply structures used in in such girths. The one I have seems to be of a variety in which "two superimposed and unconnected layers of oblique interlacing, enclosing a pocket analgous to that found in a woven double cloth." This mode permits nearly any design and girths with this structure often have realistic drawing on them. Collingwood says that the "pocket" formed by the two levels (I have not found them in my piece) were sometimes used to hide gold coins from robbers of caravans.)

Making such girths is men's work from spinning to completion. Plaiters can be entirely mobile while working and various ingenious ways of carrying the materials and a partially completed girth, while working, have been developed.

Camel girth making has declined with the passing of riding camels. There are still some makers but the tradition is in danger of being at least interrupted.

The end tassles are done in a variety of other braids.

Collingwood says that the split ply structure was only recognized as distinctive in the 1980s. Before that it was often discussed as a variety of "tablet weaving" which it resembles. He says split ply braiding has to date been found only in India, Columbia and Israel. An instance has been found in a fortress in Israel overrun by the Romans in 73 AD. So it is a very old technique indeed.

Stephen may not have ready access to images of his pieces, at the moment, but may have some additional things to say about split ply camel girths, the most recent tangent in my collecting migrations.


R. John Howe

Posted by Filiberto Boncompagni on 01-26-2005 11:58 AM:

Hi John,

I copy here what Stephen posted last summer:

Camel girths (Tangs) from the Thar desert
My interest in camel girths was prompted by an article on ply-split weaving by Peter Collingwood ("Split the Difference: Ply-Split Braiding in Northwest India", HALI 117, 2001). In addition to their unique structure, the tangs satisfied most of my collecting interests: they are beautiful functional objects.

Since then, I have managed to acquire four examples. The first two of which were previously part of the Broadbent collection of animal regalia. These are dated (by Broadbent, presumably on the basis of acquisition) to the middle third of the twentieth century. In both cases, there is little sign of wear and tear.

Tang 1 is woven with cotton in a single course oblique twining (SCOT) technique (see Hali 117, fig-11 for discussion of an almost identical example).

At least five colours are employed in the design.

Tang 2 is woven with what appears to be goat hair in a mixture of the SCOT and plain oblique twining (POT) technique.

The goat's hair is undyed, either in dark brown/black or white.

I bought the third and fourth examples in Khuri, a small Rajasthani desert village near Jaisalmer. Woven more coarsely than the previous examples, these show signs of considerable use – I bought one literally off the back of a camel – and are decorated with an interesting array of geometric symbols and realistic motifs. I am told that many of the motifs are specific to a particular village, and that they are meant to symbolise a variety of experiences associated with the rituals of life and death. One tang, which I was not able to purchase, even included a depiction of a crematorium!

Tang 3 and tang 4 are woven in a two-layered oblique interlacing (TLOI) technique, allowing the weaver to decorate each side separately; typically using the same motif but reversing the colours. Both appear to be woven with goat's hair.

This is clearly visible in tang three.

The last tang, my favourite, includes an interesting mix of geometric and realistic motifs.

As before, the pattern is reversed on either of the two layers.

I hope that my structural analysis is correct.



Posted by R. John Howe on 01-26-2005 01:13 PM:

Hi Filiberto -

Thanks for that retrieval. I had not remembered how detailed and useful Stephen's indications were.

The zigzag pattern seems to be the most frequent and is associated with a particular structure different from the one in mine.

Here is what Peter Collingwood said in an email that came to me directly:
If you wanted to delve deeper into the technique and its use in India, there is my "Techniques of Ply-Split Braiding". I have copies.. as also has Unicorn Books, Petulima, CA, USA.

I am amused that you carefully say you bought your "first one" as if knowing that this was going to become a habit! I know... as I have over a hundred collected in India.

Beautiful ones are now coming out of Pakistan, a country I could not get into from the Indian side of the border.

Best wishes,

Peter Collingwood


R. John Howe

Posted by James Blanchard on 01-26-2005 02:40 PM:

Hi all,

It's nice to see some interest in other weavings and textiles, especially from south Asia. I live and work in India, and we have several field offices in the western state of Rajasthan, including at Pushkar which hosts what is probably the world's largest "camel fair" each Fall. I've seen a lot of camels in Rajasthan, but haven't looked closely at trappings, etc. The Rajasthanis are well-known for their various weavings and textiles, and one can still find some wonderful stuff though the large increase in tourism in the past 10-20 years has resulted in a rapid commercialization (and price escalation) of "tribal art". Next time I am in Rajasthan, I'll see if I can take some snapshots of camel girths and other paraphernalia in situ.

I get to Pakistan 2-3 times a year and I find that the quality and appeal of the textiles which interest me tends to be quite good there. Maybe the lack of a strong tourist market explains that in part.

Cheers, James.

Posted by Stephen Louw on 01-26-2005 04:45 PM:

James --

I was looking for an opportunity to post an image of a camel girth in situ. Taken in Khuri, an unfortunately overly touristy part of Rajasthan, known for its dune rides and camel safari’s.

I can't see clearly, but I suspect that both of the girths on the camels around me were made of leather, rather than woven. This was the case with most of the 50-odd camels in the village. All but one of the woven girths was plain brown, with no patterns at all.

I was fortunate enough to buy the one that was nicely decorated, as well as fragments of a girth that was no longer in use. These are illustrated in the post which Filiberto the detective has retrieved and reposted above.

Would love to be in Pushkar for the camel festival.


Stephen Louw

Posted by James Blanchard on 01-26-2005 10:11 PM:

Dear Stephen,

All's that's missing from the shot are the guys with the soft drinks and the Rajasthani dancing girls who seem to appear out of nowhere from behind the dunes around Jaisalmer...

Although I have been to Pushkar a number of times (we have a field office there), I haven't been during the camel fair. Maybe this year. I expect there will be some camel girths and other interesting trappings around at that time. I found a few pics on the web that look promising....

We also have field offices in the Shekhawati region in northern Rajasthan (towards Bikaner). Lots of camels there too, but not so many tourists. Maybe I can check it out.


Posted by R. John Howe on 01-29-2005 09:07 PM:

Dear folks -

I have been collecting some of the rather small literature that bears on split-ply braiding the technique used in these camel girths.

In case anyone is interested it might be useful to know that The Textile Museum is currently selling Peter Collingwood's book "The Techniques of Ply-split Braiding, 1998 at a bargain price. This is a book Collingwood wrote over a 10 year period during which he made repeated trips to India to collect and study these girths and the techniques employed in making them. This is very much a "craftsperson's" book mostly devoted to show one how to make ply-sprit braids of various sorts. But is also has its ethnographic sections. Unfortunately, most of the photos are black and white. But it sold orginally for $60 and is now available at the TM for $36.

Ply-split braiding seems at first glance a rather primitive technique but Collingwood admired very much the skills displayed by the makers. Here is one passage from his Hali article on these girths in which he admires these craftsmen:

"...By using an exceedingly ingenious manoeuvre, called twined linking (fig. 1c) cords can be diverted from their original straight selvedge to selvedge course and the colour sequence thus altered at will. Obviously this depends on the new sequence containing same number of the two colours as were originally present. Analyzing these changes has increased my already high respect for the makers. A twined linking has only to be placed one splitting to the right or left for the whole manoeuvre to fail in purpose..."

One last word about Collingwood himself. In the issue of Hali that just arrived here (138) there is a five page feature that traces his weaving career. Collingwood seems a remarkable person and has certainly made his mark on weaving. One of the pieces shown is a Macrogauze (a structure of his own creation) installation that he did for a Japanese client that uses stainless steel thread each containing 3,800 microfilaments of steel.


R. John Howe

Posted by Stephen Louw on 01-30-2005 06:13 AM:

Thanks John, I have being trying to find copies of Collingwood's book for a while.

Another useful reference, although not specifically concerned with ply-split weaving, is the catalogue from Moira Broadbent's "Animal Regalia" (Whitechurch 1985) exhibition.

Stephen Louw